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Escobar - no, Escriva!

Emanuele Cazzolla

Tags: Opus Dei, Our Lady of Peace, Josemaria Escriva
The Italian writer Emanuele Cazzolla describes his visit to the church of Church of Our Lady of Peace in Rome, which houses the mortal remains of St Josemaria. The description comes in his book Il vecchio devoto o altri 11 racconti brevi.

It was the first time Kristina was coming to stay with us for Christmas. In later years, she would come for a month at Christmas and two months in the summer, between June and August. And every time she came, she renewed in us the satisfaction of making us feel like parents, while at the same time she received the gift of feeling like a daughter.

In that first year, a few days before the children arrived from Belarus, the Modugno Association, which was responsible for their residence permit in Italy and had made it possible for us to host Kristina, told us that they had organized a trip to Rome to see the Pope. It was on a Wednesday, the day of the Papal Audience, which was held in the Sala Nervi, which is where the Holy Father receives pilgrims when the weather is not mild enough for the audience to be held in the open air in St Peter’s Square.

At the end of the audience with the Pope, the small children and those from abroad were naturally a little tired, and we had two hours free before meeting in the coach-park for the journey home. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for.

Shortly before that I had read a book about Opus Dei and a biography of their Founder, St Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, a twentieth-century saint. I was curious to see the Opus Dei headquarters, Villa Tevere in Viale Bruno Buozzi, Rome, even for just a short visit.

I asked if I could leave the group, left Kristina with my wife, decided I could do without lunch, and went off to find a taxi, the best way to go, given the short time at my disposal.

“Where to?” asked the taxi-driver with a strong Roman accent.

“Villa Tevere, Via Bruno Buozzi, on the corner of Via di Villa Sacchetti. Thanks!”

“That’s the – what’s it called, the Lopusday place.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

The taxi-driver was the talkative type, and as he drove along he said, “I’d quite like to go in there with you, because I’ve heard that there’s a saint buried there, what was his name, Escobar or something.”

All the saints are important. St Josemaria said that every single person, once they have become a child of God through Baptism, can sanctify themselves without doing anything special.
“Escriva,” I said, “Saint Josemaria Escriva, that’s right. He was the founder of Opus Dei.” I didn’t include “de Balaguer”, wanting to keep it simple.

“So why’s he so important? What did he do that was so special?”

“All the saints are important. What he said was that every single person, once they have become a child of God through Baptism, can sanctify themselves without doing anything special at all – but just by doing ordinary things especially well. For example, you’re a taxi-driver, and you can do your job in two ways – just ordinarily, even perhaps a bit carelessly, or else actually glorifying God through that work, doing it so well that you become holy by doing it. Let’s put it this way: to be holy, you don’t have to be a monk or a hermit or a martyr, as people used to think.”

“Well, some time ago I promised myself I’d ask someone to take me on a quick tour of this place,” the taxi-driver said as he searched in vain for somewhere to park the taxi.
Crypt of the church of Our Lady of Peace
Crypt of the church of Our Lady of Peace

“... So here we are, and ... d’you mind if I come with you?” He had managed to park the taxi with two wheels on the narrow sidewalk of Via di Villa Sacchetti.

“Of course you can, delighted!” I replied, though I was a bit worried that this would mean a delay in my visit when I was already quite short of time for it.

It was an afternoon in early winter. I rang the door-bell and we were given a friendly welcome, although the building was already closed at that time. As we went in a tall young priest came up, wearing a cassock and looking elegant. He asked us, in a Spanish accent, if we needed anything, and invited us to follow a young man in a jacket and tie.

Burial place of St Josemaria in the church of Our Lady of Peace
Burial place of St Josemaria in the church of Our Lady of Peace
We went down a beautiful stairway and went past a gleaming white marble bust of St Josemaria into a small room like a chapel with a black marble slab set into the floor. An inscription in gold letters said “The Father”. Beneath it was the seal of Opus Dei, a cross within a circle, expressing the mission of placing Christ at the heart of the world, or the “universal call to holiness”. Below that were two dates, those of his birth and death: 9.1.1902 and 26.6.1975.

Our guide moved aside into a corner and knelt down, deep in prayer. I stood there a little awkwardly, impressed by the solemnity around me, and began saying the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, followed by a prayer for the Holy Souls, in a low voice. I saw that the taxi-driver, who had been following close behind me,was kneeling down, gazing at the tomb.

After a few minutes we looked at our guide, and went out. He explained to us that in fact the Founder, the Father, had originally been buried there, but later his body had been moved to the church on the floor above, under the altar. Now the person buried in the crypt was his first successor, the Bishop and Servant of God Alvaro del Portillo, who died in 1994.

Then we went up to the church, which was simply beautiful. Everything was good to look at, and it was pervaded by the presence of Our Lady of Peace, a painting that presides over it all. Kneeling in prayer in one of the benches was the priest who had met us as we came in. He looked up for a moment and smiled. I’m sure he was praying for us.

We went up to the altar. Before us was the silver-covered casket holding St Josemaria’s mortal remains. On it was a plaque with the inscription “St Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer”, and again the dates of his birth and death, 9.1.1902 and 26.6.1975. On either side of the inscription were two bronze medallions with his profile. Our guide bent down and kissed one of them. I crossed myself. Behind me I glimpsed the taxi-driver – who hadn’t uttered a single word since we came in – with his hands joined, and I realized he was praying.

A few minutes later, I reluctantly told our guide that I had to go. I told him briefly why I’d come, and that I had to rejoin my group, with my wife and the little girl, at St Peter’s.

The visit was over very quickly, so that I had enough time to go back by bus. They told me where the bus-stop was, and I thanked them for looking after us so kindly. Our young guide said goodbye and told us he’d pray for us.

Outside, the taxi-driver thanked me, and told me that he wouldn’t forget our visit, and that from then on he was going to start praying again. “What did you say the saint’s name was? Oh, yes, Escriva. Bye!”

And he got into his taxi where it stood with two wheels on the sidewalk.