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St Josemaria’s death as related by Alvaro del Portillo

Bishop Alvaro del Portillo

Tags: Abandonment to God, Alvaro del Portillo, Heaven, Church, June 26, Pope Paul VI, Josemaria Escriva
St Josemaria with Alvaro del Portillo and Javier Echevarría
St Josemaria with Alvaro del Portillo and Javier Echevarría
On June 26, 1975, the last day of his earthly life, the Father arose at his usual hour. Assisted by Fr. Javier Echevarría, he celebrated holy Mass, a votive Mass in honor of our Lady, shortly before 8:00, in the oratory of the Most Holy Trinity. I celebrated Mass at the same time, in the main sacristy, because that morning our founder wanted to go with Fr. Javier and me to Castel Gandolfo, to take leave of his daughters at Villa Delle Rose – we were getting ready to leave Rome [for the summer]. He seemed to be in as good health as usual; there was no sign at all of what was about to happen.


About 9:35 the Father left by car for Castel Gandolfo, accompanied by Fr. Javier Echevarría, Javier Cotelo (who was driving), and myself. As soon as we were out of the garage, we began to say the rosary, the joyful mysteries. We finished before we got to the beltway, and then just carried on a regular conversation. The Father said, among other things, that that afternoon we could go to Cavabianca, the new location of our international center of formation; he wanted to check on some details concerning the oratory of Our Lady of the Angels – details which he himself had suggested in order to make the décor more balanced and the general atmosphere more conducive to recollection and devotion.

The trip lasted longer than usual, because of a traffic jam on the beltway. It was very hot. Javier Cotelo spoke to our Father about some of his nephews, who had been in Rome some time before, and about other things related to his family. The Father listened attentively and took an affectionate interest in all these things.

At Villa Delle Rose

At about 10:30 we arrived at Villa delle Rose. Some of his daughters were waiting for us in the garage. As usual, he brought them some gifts: this time, a box of candy and a duck carved out of crystal. (The Father had the habit of distributing to others the gifts that he received.)

While we walked down the corridor he remarked that these were his last hours before leaving Rome, and that although officially he was not available for anyone, he was available for his daughters. He went to greet our Lord, remained on his knees before the tabernacle for a few moments, and then, after kissing a wooden cross, went to the “Room of the Fans” (a room decorated with fans from around the world), where the gathering was to be held.

Upon entering, he turned his glance toward a very special picture in that room. This is an oil painting in which the child Jesus appears very well combed, and very charming. He has plump, rosy cheeks, and has his arms around his mother’s neck, while she is offering him a rose. This painting came from the Escrivá household, and had been in the room of the Diego de León Street center where the founder’s mother died. Divine Providence willed that this same Virgen del Niño Peinadico (“Our Lady with the well-combed Child”) should also receive one of the founder’s last glances.
Last picture of St Josemaria. Villa delle Rose, June 26,  1975
Last picture of St Josemaria. Villa delle Rose, June 26, 1975

His daughters responded with lilting voices to the Father’s greeting, telling him how happy they were to see him. He commented with a smile, “What fine voices you have!” Then he sat down, but leaving for me the armchair they had brought in for him. He said again that he was about to leave Rome, and then he said, “I very much wanted to come here. We’ve got to use our last hours of being in Rome to take care of some unfinished business, so as far as everybody else is concerned, I’m already gone; I’m just here for you.”

The get-together was short; it lasted less than twenty minutes, because our Father began to feel tired. But before he finished, he did renew the act of love for the Church, and for the Pope in particular, which he had made on so may occasions. A few minutes later he began to feel worse. Fr. Javier and I accompanied him to the priest’s room, where he rested for a while. Together with the directors of the center, we encouraged him to rest a little linger, but he turned down the offer, perhaps to remind us one more time that the priests of the Work are to spend no more time in the women’s centers than is necessary for carrying out their priestly ministry (and so avoid even the impression of attempting to interfere with the way they run their activities). As soon as he seemed to have recovered a bit, we left for Rome, by car. On our way out, we passed by the oratory, where he stopped in again for a few moments to say good-bye to our Lord. As we walked to the garage, he listened with interest to the daughters he met on the way, and he jokingly said to them, cheerful as always, “Please excuse me, my daughters, for the trouble I’ve caused you.” And then he said, “Pax, my daughters.” Finally, from the car, he bade an affectionate farewell to the ones who opened the garage door for us: “Good-bye, my daughters.” It was about 11.20 by then.


Back to Rome by the shortest route

When the Father left Villa delle Rose, he was tired, certainly, but also happy and serene. Attributing his indisposition to the heat, he asked Javier Cotelo to take him to Rome by the shortest route. In the meantime, he went on talking with the three of us, but it was a somewhat disconnected conversation, to tell the truth, because we were impatient to get to Villa Tevere, to have him get some more rest. Javier drove quickly, but also very carefully, so that the Father wouldn’t get carsick. We got home in just a little over half an hour.

It was almost noon when we drove into the garage of Villa Tevere. A member of the Work was waiting for us at the door. The Father stepped quickly from the car, with a cheerful expression on his face; he moved with agility, turning back to close the car door himself. He thanked his son who had given him a hand, and then he went into the house.

He greeted our Lord in the oratory of the Most Holy Trinity, making (as he always did) a slow, devout genuflection accompanied by an act of love. We then went up to my office – that’s where he liked to do most of his work – and a few seconds after crossing the threshold, he exclaimed, “Javi!” Fr. Javier had stayed behind to close the door of the elevator. Our founder repeated more loudly, “Javi!” Then, in a weaker voice, “I don’t feel well.” At that point he suddenly fell on the floor.

Alvaro del Portillo prays at the mortal remains of St. Josemaria in the chapel of Our Lady of Peace
Alvaro del Portillo prays at the mortal remains of St. Josemaria in the chapel of Our Lady of Peace
He offered his life for the Church and the Pope

We did everything we could to help him, both spiritually and physically. As soon as I realized the seriousness of the situation, I gave him absolution and the Anointing of the Sick, which he had so ardently desired to receive. (He was still breathing.) Many times he had begged us earnestly not to deprive him of that great gift.

Then came an hour and half of struggle, full of filial devotion – the giving of artificial respiration, oxygen, injections, cardiac massage. Meanwhile I repeated the words of absolution several times. Under the medical direction of Fr. José Luis Soria, Fr. Javier and I took turns with other members of the General Council – Fr. Dan Cummings, Fernando Valenciano, Umberto Farri, Giuseppe Molteni, and Dr. Juan Manuel Verdaguer – in helping him. We could not believe that the hour of our greatest sorrow had arrived.

We went on hoping against all hope. I telephoned the head of the Central Advisory and asked her to get all the women who were living in Villa Sacchetti to assemble in the chapels, and to have them pray for at least ten minutes, with great intensity, for a very urgent intention. In the meantime we kept on trying to do the impossible; we just could not believe that he had died. Nevertheless, despite all our efforts, the Father was not to recover from his heart failure. We resigned ourselves to this when we saw that the electrocardiogram was flat.

At 1:30 I left the room and invited the other members of the General Council, who were waiting in the old meeting room, quietly praying and weeping, to come and pray beside the remains of our beloved founder.

For us, of course, it was an unexpected death. For our founder, however, it was something that had been maturing, I would dare to say, more in his soul than in his body, because each day he was more frequently offering his life for the Church and in particular for the Pope.

I’m convinced that the Father had a premonition of his death. In his last few years, he often remarked that his presence on earth was superfluous, and that he could be much more helpful to us from heaven. It really grieved us to hear him speak that way, in that tone of voice of his that was so strong and sincere and humble, for while he considered himself a burden, for us he was an irreplaceable treasure.

He never worried about his own health, even when, in the last few years, his kidney and heart troubles increased. We knew very well that he was not afraid of death, and that he was not attached to life. Assiduous meditation on the Last Things had, since his youth, prepared his heart a little more every day for the loving contemplation of the Blessed Trinity.

For many years he had been offering his life to God, and would have offered “a thousand lives, if I had them,” for the Church and in particular the Pope. This was an intention of every Mass he celebrated, and his Mass of June 26, 1975, was no exception; on that day, however, the Lord definitively accepted his offering.

Our founder had confided to us, several times, that he was asking our Lord for the grace to die without being a nuisance to anyone. Out of love for his children, he wanted to spare them the troubles of a long illness. God granted this request. Our Father died, in accord with the spirit which he had been encouraging in his preaching since 1928, working for the Lord “ut iumentum” (“as a beast of burden”).

At 3:00 that same day, I telephoned the Cardinal Secretary of State (at the Vatican) to inform him of the death of our Founder. Cardinal Villot was very moved. With great affection he gave me his condolences and assured me that he would immediately tell the Pope, who was at that time resting. This was the first official announcement of the founder’s death; from that moment on it was public news, and spread quickly in Rome and throughout the world.

Devotion to the Founder of Opus Dei

St Josemaria's  devotion began in the moment of his death
St Josemaria's devotion began in the moment of his death
Beginning in the evening of June 26, people from all walks of life came to express their sorrow and to pray. We collected moving testimonies of their profound love for our founder, and statements showing a unanimous certainty that they were in the presence of the body of saint. Great personalities of the Church and of civil life, office workers, blue-collar workers, young people and old, mothers with babies in their arms – they all wanted to “see the Father”.

The chapel of Our Lady of Peace was filled with an atmosphere of intense prayer and of serene sorrow, that is difficult to render into words. Even very small children, holding their parents’ hands, looked at the Father’s peaceful face without the slightest fear.

While the Masses went on, a steady stream of visitors flowed through the place of mourning. Among the first was Archbishop Benelli, undersecretary of the Vatican Secretariat of State, representing the Pope. He remained a long time, recollected in prayer, kneeling in front of the body of our founder. Cardinals also arrived, and bishops and priests, ambassadors, persons of high social status and ordinary folk, and innumerable members, cooperators, and friends of the Work. Many of them showed their own sorrow and affection by spending long periods in prayer before the remains of the founder.

In those moments I was greatly consoled by the affectionate response of the Holy Father, Pope Paul VI, to the news I had sent him in my capacity as secretary general of the Work. Through Archbishop Benelli, the Holy Father expressed the sorrow he felt, and said that he too was praying, in spirit, beside the body of so faithful a son of Holy Mother Church and of the Vicar of Christ. Before the public Requiem Mass, a telegram arrived at Villa Tevere from the Holy See. In it Pope Paul expressed again his own grief, assured us that he would be offering up prayers for the soul of the founder, and reiterated his own view that the founder was a soul chosen and favored by God; he concluded with an apostolic blessing for the whole Work. As is customary, the telegram bore the signature of the Cardinal Secretary of State: he said he united himself wholeheartedly, on his own behalf, with our sorrow and with the sentiments of Pope Paul, who wanted this message to reach us as soon as possible.

A little later we received another proof of affection on the part of the Holy Father: a letter which showed even more fully the intensity of his sorrow and of his affection for our founder and for Opus Dei. The Cardinal Secretary of State wrote to say that His Holiness had celebrated Mass on June 27 for the Father, and that the passing of the days had not diminished the intensity of his prayer, nor that of his sorrow over the loss suffered by the Church with our founder’s departure for heaven. He would, he assured us, continue to pray that the Lord would give us the grace to remain faithful to the spirit which the founder, by God’s will, had transmitted to us.

Thousands of telegrams and letters began arriving at our headquarters from all over the world. They all expressed, along with deeply felt grief, the conviction that this person who had died was a saint, that he was one of the great founders raised up in the Church by the Holy Spirit.

The Father

The founder was buried in the crypt of the chapel of Our Lady of Peace on June 27, 1975, the day after his death. On October 4, 1957, he had given to Jesús Alvarez Gazapo the words he wanted inscribed on his tomb – though he did say afterwards that this was only a suggestion, and that we were free to decide otherwise. This was what he wanted:
IOSEPHMARIA ESCRIVA DE BALAGUER Y ALBAS
PECCATOR
ORATE PRO EO
---------------
GENUIT FILIOS ET FILIAS
Regarding that last phrase, he said, with a smile, “You can add that, if you like.”

I decided, in the presence of God, that we could not go along with the first part – especially since our founder had left the decision up to us. For a long time he had liked to sign his name as “Josemaría, Pecador” or “El pecador Josemaría”. He had defined himself as “a sinner who loves Jesus Christ.” That was truly a great lesson in humility for us all; but it seemed to me that we would not be good sons and daughters if we inscribed on his tomb an expression of that kind.

In accordance with the desires of all, I decided that on the marble covering of his tomb there should be written, in letters of gilded bronze, just these words: EL PADRE. Above them would be the seal of the Work (a circle with a cross in it), and below them, the dates of his birth and death.

There then began a continuous pilgrimage to the tomb of the founder, to whom Catholics of every nationality and state of life have entrusted their prayers and their resolutions of spiritual renewal.

Extracts from: Immersed in God: Blessed Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, as seen by his successor Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, by Cesare Cavalleri, Scepter/Sinag Tala, 1996, pp. 194-212.