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In the Media "St Josemaría Escrivá and social conscience"

February 4, 2006

Tags: Solidarity, Malta
An article by J.H. Sciriha, published by The Times of Malta.

The life and spirituality of St Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, have left their indelible mark on thousands of men and women who try to sanctify their work and find God in their everyday activity, even the most tedious.

Josemaría was born in Barbastro, Spain, on January 9, 1902. Three of his five siblings died when they were young. His parents, José Escrivá and Dolores Albas, gave their children a sound Christian education. In 1915, José Escrivá's business collapsed through no fault of his. As a consequence, he had to find employment in another town, Logroño, where he moved with his family. The humiliation and poverty José Escrivá suffered as a result were shared by his family who struggled to make ends meet.


St Josemaría Escrivá with Mexican campesinos
St Josemaría Escrivá with Mexican campesinos
It was as a teenager in Logroño that Josemaría for the first time sensed his vocation. Moved by the sight of footprints left in the snow by a barefoot friar, he was sure that God was asking something of him, though he did not know exactly what it was. Considering that becoming a priest would help him discover and fulfil this calling from God, he began to prepare for the priesthood first in Logroño and later in Saragossa.

In 1924, a few months before his ordination to the priesthood, Josemaría's father died leaving him to see to the material needs of his mother, his sister Carmen and his five-year-old brother Santiago. Following his ordination in March 1925, he began his ministry in a rural parish, and subsequently continued it in Saragossa.

Beginnings of Opus Dei
On October 2, 1928, during a spiritual retreat in Madrid, Fr Josemaría saw what it was that God was asking of him. He was to found what was later to become known as Opus Dei, a way that helps Christians live united with God in the midst of the world in any situation, each one struggling to be better with the help of grace and to make Jesus known with the testimony of one's own life.

From then on Fr Josemaría did his utmost to carry out this task while continuing his priestly ministry in Madrid, a city he criss-crossed mostly on foot in his zeal to be near the poor and the incurably sick who packed the dreadful hospitals of the time.

He was also pursuing his studies at the University of Madrid for a doctorate in law, and teaching Roman Law in a private school in order to support his family. During this period he wrote a small book which he later developed into the well-known The Way, a book with almost a thousand short but very powerful spiritual thoughts that have helped countless persons in their daily meditation. Among these was the saintly Pope Paul VI.

It was at this early stage that Fr Josemaría met once again a friend from his school days in Logroño, Isidoro Zorzano, an industrial engineer working with Andalusian Railways of southern Spain who became one of the first members of Opus Dei. Isidoro died with a reputation for holiness in 1943 after a long and painful illness. The cause of his beatification is in progress.

When the Civil War broke out in July 1936, religious persecution forced Fr Josemaría to exercise his priestly ministry clandestinely in Madrid, moving from place to place seeking refuge. Eventually, he was able to leave the Spanish capital and, after a harrowing escape across the Pyrenees, took up residence in Burgos. When the war came to an end in 1939, he returned to Madrid and finally obtained his doctorate in law. In the years that followed, he gave countless retreats to the laity, priests and religious, and continued working assiduously to develop Opus Dei.

Convinced that Opus Dei was much more than a Spanish phenomenon, Fr Josemaría took up residence in Rome in 1946. To help in its growth, he travelled extensively in Europe and beyond, and he met large groups in various get-togethers with people of all social extraction including students, manual workers, peasants and professionals. He spoke to them in the most simple yet effective way about their Christian vocation to holiness.

By the time of his death in 1975, Opus Dei had been firmly established in many countries in the five continents with a membership of about 60,000, mostly married persons, including many co-operators.

More than a third of the world's bishops (including Archbishop Oscar Romero) sent letters to Rome asking the then Pope Paul VI to open the cause for his beatification and canonisation. Yet, this was not limited to members of the hierarchy. Thousands of persons wrote to the Pope, including Indro Montanelli, a highly-respected but agnostic Italian journalist who on May 22, 1978, wrote to the Pontiff: "I believe that it would be in the interest of the Catholic Church and of society at large, both in need of models of exemplary life, that the cause for the beatification of Mgr Escrivá de Balaguer be opened. I have known and hold in high esteem Opus Dei which he founded, and I consider that the fame of holiness surrounding his person justifies my request."

Pope John Paul II canonised Fr Josemaría Escrivá on October 6, 2002, on St Peter's Square before a multitude of people from over 80 countries, including Malta. In his speech, the Holy Father said that "St Josemaría was chosen by the Lord to proclaim the universal call to holiness, and to show that everyday life and its normal activities are a path towards holiness. It could be said that he was the saint of the ordinary."


The Mass was concelebrated at Mdina Cathedral
The Mass was concelebrated at Mdina Cathedral
Social conscience
An aspect of the life of St Josemaría Escrivá that is not well-know is his commitment to alleviate suffering and combat injustice. His life was a continuous effort to do so. In a homily he preached on June 17, 1966, he emphasised that "a man or a society that does not react to suffering and injustice and makes no effort to alleviate them is still distant from the love of Christ's heart." (Christ is Passing By, 167).

It is no wonder that in a homily he gave on Christmas Eve 1963 he said, "I have often gone to look for a definition or a biography of Jesus in Scripture. And I have found it written by the Holy Spirit: "He went about doing good" (Acts 10:38). Every single day of Jesus Christ's life on earth, from his birth until his death, can be summed up like that: he filled them all doing good." (Christ is Passing By, 16).

The founder of Opus Dei encouraged his spiritual sons and daughters to take an active part in projects of a social nature. The Centro ELIS, opened way back in the early Sixties by Pope Paul VI, is a remarkable example of what this means. ELIS, the acronym for Educazione Lavoro Istruzione Sport, is designed to help young men from the depressed Tiburtina area of Rome to learn a trade while giving them an opportunity to take part in sports. It also has a hostel for many of the students. The centre is very innovative in its vision and approach and most of its students find good jobs after they finish their training.

Health and education
To mark the centenary of the founder's birth and to show their thanksgiving to God for his canonisation, many members and co-operators of Opus Dei have embarked on several projects in the Third World including the setting up of medical clinics, social centres, vocational centres and schools.

One of the most recent is the Moluka Medical and Social Clinic on the outskirts of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The clinic, which is affiliated to Monkole Hospital, has among others a team of doctors and nurses who offer to about 30,000 impoverished inhabitants, mostly displaced on account of civil strife, an array of medical services including child care.

The centre, which was opened in November 2002, helps to improve literacy, introduce new methods in the development of local resources and set up productive enterprises. There are various programmes for the advancement of women and the general improvement in family living conditions.

A Protestant community donated to Monkole Hospital the land on which the new clinic is built. Dr Leon Tshilolo, director of the centre, who has been a supernumerary of Opus Dei since 1990 and is a father of six, says that the health and education activities of the new centre have brought these services to people who would otherwise have been almost completely marginalised.

Another project has recently been realised in Nigeria's capital, unfortunately plagued by staggering unemployment. Opus Dei has opened an Institute of Industrial Technology aimed at helping unemployed young men and adults become electricians and mechanics.

The institute, which is open to anyone, whatever their religion, race or tribe, aims at being an agent for the relief of poverty by providing all the technical training that is necessary to help its students find a decent job. The institute started with 75 students and plans to increase its intake from year to year.

Given some help, the poor themselves can take initiatives for their own advancement. This is shown by what Isabel Charun, an indigenous rural worker in Cañete Peru and a supernumerary of Opus Dei, did at the Condoray rural training centre for women. This institution is promoted by members of Opus Dei some 90 miles from Lima, where more than 20,000 rural women in one of the poorest regions of Peru have been trained.

In this area the vast majority of women over 19 years old are illiterate, while most of the families are so poor that they cannot provide what is absolutely essential for a decent living. The teachings of St Josemaría have moved persons like Isabel Charun to take action so that their children might have a better life, and therefore many of these women want to help in the development of their own villages. Charun, who learned to read at Condoray, today is one of the leaders of this training centre.

Six other projects triggered off by the centennial celebrations of the birth of St Josemaría are the Guatanfur Farm School in Colombia, the non-governmental organisation Raval Solidari in Barcelona, whose purpose is the social integration of immigrants, the walk-in medical clinic at Ciudad de los Niños in Monterrey, Mexico, the Dworek Centre for the Advancement of Rural Women in Poland, the Los Pinos Educational Centre in Montevideo Uruguay, and a walk-in medical clinic in Venezuela's capital, Caracas.

The spirituality of Opus Dei is based on prayer in action. The many projects its members and co-operators have undertaken in recent years for the human advancement of the disadvantaged are tangible examples.

To mark St Josemaria's birthday, a Mass was concelebrated yesterday evening at Mdina Cathedral.

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