Today, March 11, 2014, marks the centenary of the birth of Alvaro del Portillo (1914-1994), bishop and first successor of St. Josemaría Escriva, founder of Opus Dei. Later this year, on September 27, he will be beatified in Madrid, the city where he was born, the third of eight children born to Ramon del Portillo and his wife Clementina Diez de Sollano, devout Catholic parents.
The early years and ordination
Alvaro, as a young boy, was studious and pious; to his classmates he was cheerful and kind. It seemed natural for him as a university student to join the St. Vincent de Paul Society in order to help the poor. It was during this time, while teaching catechism in a poor neighborhood, that he and his companions were attacked by a mob of men. Alvaro, although receiving a deep gash on his forehead, managed to escape. He tried unsuccessfully to hide the incident from his family, but nevertheless returned to visit the same poor neighborhoods.
When Alvaro was 19 a friend introduced him to Father Josemaría Escriva. That introduction made a very positive and deep impression on him. After a second meeting with Father Josemaría, Alvaro agreed to postpone a family vacation in order to attend a monthly retreat day. On that very same day, Alvaro asked to join Opus Dei, which, in 1935, was a very small group of men and women seeking to live holiness in everyday life. Subsequently, Alvaro obtained a degree in construction management, followed by a degree in civil engineering.
From the moment he discovered his vocation as a celibate layman, Alvaro began to work with Father Josemaría to spread the message of Opus Dei throughout Spain. This often meant traveling to other cities on the weekends, returning on rickety old trains at daybreak on Monday just in time for work. Soon afterwards, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)—a dangerous time of persecution for many priests and practicing Catholics—caused Alvaro to spend a few months in hiding with Father Josemaría in Madrid. Later, Alvaro was able to rejoin Father Josemaría, who had earlier escaped over the Pyrenees Mountains into France and traveled to Burgos on the National Side of Spain.
In 1944, he obtained a doctorate in the School of Philosophy and Letters of the University of Madrid after presenting a doctoral dissertation on the first Spanish explorations of California. That same year he was ordained a priest for Opus Dei along with José Luis Múzquiz and Jose María HernÁndez de Garnica. Father José Luis, who went by the name of Father Joseph in the United States, began Opus Dei in Chicago only five years later. In 1948, Alvaro, who had moved to Rome with Father Josemaría, completed a doctorate in canon law at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas.
Everything surrendered to God
God chose Alvaro to be very close to Father Josemaría and to assist him in the government and expansion of Opus Dei, first in Spain and soon after in other countries. From 1935 until 1975, except for short periods during the Civil War, he remained at the side of the founder of Opus Dei. He was his closest collaborator and his most faithful spiritual son. All the time he worked in the background without drawing attention to himself, but ready to answer questions or carry out tasks for Father Josemaría. Bishop Javier Echeverria, the current head of Opus Dei, explains what Alvaro had told the bishop of Madrid prior to his ordination in 1944: “He had already surrendered everything to God—human prestige, professional plans and possibilities—from the moment he had answered the invitation from heaven to seek sanctity in Opus Dei. He wasn’t concerned about the opinion of men, but only with the desire to love God and fulfill his will. He wanted to hide and disappear, like St. Josemaría, in order to be a useful instrument in the service of the Church.”
Alvaro’s desire to serve God by supporting the founder of Opus Dei as well as his love for Father Josemaría is well illustrated in this story. In 1950 after undergoing surgery for appendicitis, Alvaro did not recover soon from the anesthesia. The surgeon called his name—“Father Alvaro! Father Alvaro!”—but he did not react. Then Father Josemaría, from the foot of the bed, said in a lower tone of voice: “Alvaro, my son!” And Alvaro opened his eyes. Some day after the surgery Father Josemaría visited Alvaro in the hospital along with a young member of Opus Dei. The latter recounted that Alvaro, who was still drowsy and confused, kept repeating out loud: “I wish to work next to the Father with all my strength until the end of my life.” This is precisely what Father Alvaro did, and after St. Josemaría’s death he remained faithful to the teachings and spiritual customs that God conveyed to St. Josemaría.
One of the outstanding features of the life of Alvaro del Portillo was his generous and selfless service to the Holy See for several decades. From 1947 on Alvaro worked on different assignments for the Holy See, and in 1959 he began to work on various commissions in preparation for Vatican II. During the council he worked extensively as the secretary for the commission that prepared the decree on the priesthood, Presbyterorum Ordinis.
The contrasting views and number of bishops and theologians drafting the decree made it a difficult task. Cardinal Pietro Ciriaci, president of the commission, praised the dedication with which Alvaro coordinated this effort and his faithfulness to the doctrine of the Church. In light of the council decrees and the teaching of St. Josemaría on the universal call to holiness, Father Alvaro wrote two books, Faithful and Laity in the Church (1969) and On Priesthood (1970), soon to be re-printed by Scepter Press. After the council, in addition to his work as secretary general of Opus Dei, he worked on various congregations of the Holy See and the revision of the Code of Canon Law, which was promulgated in 1983.
In 1975, after the death of St. Josemaría, Alvaro del Portillo was elected prelate of Opus Dei, an office that he held for nearly 19 years, until his own death. During this time he served the Church by overseeing the apostolates of Opus Dei, which he did following very closely the spirit and the rules established by its founder. He led the expansion of Opus Dei to 20 new countries, including the Holy Land and India, and more than 900 priests were ordained for the prelature.
Despite his increasing age and general poor health, he visited the faithful of Opus Dei in trips to five continents. In 1988 he made a two-month visit to the cities in the United States and Canada where Opus Dei had centers. At the Texas Medical Center in Houston he spoke to a gathering of families about their Christian commitment, saying that “we cannot be part-time Christian; we must be full-time Christians. We cannot be Christians on the weekend like those who dedicate half an hour for Saturday afternoon or Sunday Mass and do nothing else. We must fulfill that precept, but God is asking much more from us. God—Our Creator, Lord, and Love—has the right to expect from us a greater self-giving.”
Opus Dei and John Paul II
Alvaro del Portillo was a man of prayer and strong faith. He had learned from St. Josemaría to look at everyday work and life events with a supernatural outlook, with eyes of faith. He lived in an exemplary way the Christians virtues. His charity was evident in his dealing with people and especially with those who tried to do harm to Opus Dei. He forgave them and prayed for them. He was affable and kind with everyone, making people feel loved and understood.
I was fortunate to meet him while studying theology in Rome. One afternoon while I was doing a small job at the central house of Opus Dei, I opened the garage door for him. Since I was concerned about someone in my family, I asked to speak with him. Although he was busy, he stopped and spent a few minutes listening to me. Then he told me that he would pray for my family member. He was a true spiritual father, and from heaven he continues to care for those who ask for his fatherly help.
Because of his work at the Holy See, Alvaro del Portillo knew many bishops and priests. Over the years he developed lasting friendships with them, and many of them sought him out for his advice and assistance. One of his friends, Archbishop Andrzej Maria Deskur, a classmate of Karol Wojtyla, left the following testimony of the relationship between Alvaro and St. Josemaría: “Although their characters were quite different, Alvaro was like a copy of the Founder, not an inert copy but a living and faithful image…his soul had assimilated his example to the point that you could not distinguish what was his and what came from his contact with the Father.”
When Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope, Archbishop Deskur was ill and hospitalized at the Gemelli Hospital in Rome. On the day following the election Alvaro went to visit his friend at the hospital. To his surprise he met the Pope, who was also visiting his friend. The Pope gave Alvaro a big embrace. The friendship and affection between Venerable Alvaro and Blessed John Paul II quickly grew. The Pope often asked Bishop Alvaro for prayers and help of various sorts. In 1982, for instance, John Paul II asked Alvaro to help in the re-evangelization of the countries of northern Europe. Bishop del Portillo immediately changed plans for the growth of activities of spiritual and doctrinal formation in Asia to begin apostolic work in various countries of northern Europe. This readiness to serve the Church, working with the pope and the bishops, was what he had learned from St. Josemaría. Men like Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Deskur appreciated this loyal service to the Church and his genuine friendship.
In December 1990, Pope John Paul II nominated him a bishop, and on January 6, 1991, he received episcopal ordination in St. Peter’s Basilica. Bishop del Portillo had a magnanimous spirit that was manifested in numerous undertakings in the service of the Church and society. In Rome he started the Ateneo of the Holy Cross, now the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, a long-time dream of St. Josemaría. Throughout the world Bishop del Portillo inspired and guided the foundation of close to a dozen universities at which numerous professionals have been educated with a spirit of service and honesty. In addition to these universities and many high schools, moved by Christian charity, he encouraged the faithful of Opus Dei in many countries to begin a wide range of institutions serving the social needs of people in poverty, such as the Monkole Hospital in Kinshasa (Congo), the Niger Foundation Hospital in Enugu (Nigeria), and the Center for Industrial Technology and Enterprise in Cebu (Philippines).
The final years
There were two great joys towards the end of his life: the final juridical configuration of Opus Dei as Personal Prelature (1982)—for which he worked extensively, with great faith and patience, since the early 1940s—and the beatification of Josemaría EscrivÁ in 1992. Both events occurred at the hands of Blessed John Paul II. He prepared for these events and lived them with a genuine spirit of humility and gratitude to God, moved by the sole desire for Opus Dei to give glory to God and serve the Church. In the same year as the beatification of St. Josemaría, the book Immersed in God was published, a collection of interviews by Italian journalist Cesare Cavalleri with Bishop del Portillo regarding St. Josemaría.
After a long and faithful service to the Church, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo died in Rome in the early hours of March 23, 1994. He had just returned from a pilgrimage to Holy Land, where the day before he had celebrated his last Mass in the Church of the Cenacle in Jerusalem. Upon learning of his death Blessed John Paul II sent a telegram to the faithful of Opus Dei expressing his sorrow and recalling “with gratitude to God the deceased’s life, filled with the zeal of a priest and bishop, his constant example of strength and trust in Divine Providence, as well as his fidelity to the See of Peter and his generous service to the Church as the closest co-worker and well-deserving successor of…Josemaría Escriva.” The next day the Pope went to pray before his remains.
The centenary of the birth of Venerable Alvaro will be celebrated by countless people with joyful thanksgiving to God. Many will attend his beatification in Madrid this coming September. In choosing to beatify him the Church puts him forth as a sure example of a holy priest and bishop: a spiritual father. He was a faithful steward who in complete faithfulness to God’s will helped St. Josemaría to establish Opus Dei, and to lead it along the right path after his death. Bishop Alvaro del Portillo’s practice of charity and loyalty in his life of humility will inspire many to grow in the daily practice of these virtues.