Bishop Alvaro del Portillo
Writing about Don Alvaro
The Catholic Truth Society is a London-based publisher whose booklets can be found in the back of virtually every Catholic church in the UK. Ethel Tolansky and I have published several little biographies with them, going back to 1999.
When we heard that Don Alvaro was going to be beatified we realised, of course, that very few people in the UK had ever heard of him unless they were already in touch with Opus Dei. So we suggested to the CTS that we could write another booklet, this time about Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Of course the people at the CTS hadn’t heard of him either, but they very kindly agreed to consider publishing the booklet. And when they read what he was really like, they were definitely keen to help make him better known. They added some really great photos of him to illustrate it – they’ve made a lovely job of the booklet.
Don Alvaro was a very warm man, with a lovely smile. He simply radiated serenity – if you say he never got excited, it sounds rather dull, but he was so intensely aware of God’s presence all the time, that he just referred everything straight to God instead of getting cross, upset, worried, or anything. He cared passionately about people, starting with those closest to him, his sons and daughters in Opus Dei. Plus wherever he went he was intensely conscious of the needs of the people there. He inspired the setting up of lots of projects around the world to help people who were disadvantaged or had nothing at all: hospitals, training schools, all sorts. All of these aspects of his character are things that will appeal especially, I think, to British Catholics: his love of God took very practical forms.
Don Alvaro was gifted with a quite remarkable intelligence, but he was tremendously humble at the same time, not the kind who feels superior or likes to make others feel inferior. The booklet’s subtitle, “the power of humility”, was chosen by the CTS. We had suggested “in the service of the Church”, but they pointed out, quite rightly, that every saint (and let’s hope that Don Alvaro may be canonized in due course!) works in the service of the Church, and they wanted to highlight something distinctive about him. And “the power of humility” really does hit the nail on the head. He avoided the limelight, and adopted St Josemaria’s motto, “my job is to hide and disappear, so that only Jesus may shine out.” For all the forty years he lived and worked with St Josemaria, Don Alvaro consistently took second place, kept in the background as much as he could, and dedicated himself one hundred per cent to supporting St Josemaria and spreading the message of Opus Dei. Don Alvaro was very highly regarded by all those who knew him, especially the people he worked with in the Vatican, but he avoided being given any distinctions or honorary titles.
With Blessed John Paul II in the Vatican.
What the Holy Father is saying at present, perhaps especially in Evangelii Gaudium, reminds me very strongly of Don Alvaro talking specifically to us in England when he came here, which he did three times. He encouraged us to have greater hope in our Lord and to launch out into a more daring and thorough evangelisation. He really helped us to see the good in people, to see how much they need to be told the news of salvation, and especially to be shown how to find God in and through their ordinary work. He stimulated us to raise our sights and think of generous projects in the service of the Church.
Perhaps one of the lasting impressions that people took from an encounter with Bishop Alvaro was that he was very much a father. I’ve heard stories of journalists who went to interview him and ended up wanting him to hear their confession. He had a big heart and showed it. He always used to say he owed everything to St Josemaria, and talked about how much he had learned from St Josemaria’s fatherly and motherly heart.
Writing about Don Alvaro was very enjoyable, though it was hard to compress everything we wanted to say into a booklet. There is already one book-length biography of him available in English – Alvaro del Portillo, Bishop Prelate of Opus Dei by Salvador Bernal – and I hope there will be more soon!