A tapestry depicting Opus Dei founder Msgr. Josemaria Escriva hangs from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica during his canonization Mass in October 2002. (CNS photo from Reuters)
John Coverdale is
a law professor at Seton Hall University Law School in New Jersey and has been
an Opus Dei numerary (celibate member) for more than 50 years. He worked for
Opus Dei in Rome from 1960-1968 and had regular contact with St. Josemaria
Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei.
Coverdale wrote Uncommon Faith: the Early Years of Opus Dei,
and is considered the leading American expert on Escriva’s life and work. He
was contacted for input for the 2011 film There
Be Dragons, which he said offered a “quite accurate” depiction of Escriva.
May 17 will mark
the 20th anniversary of Escriva’s beatification, and the 10th anniversary of
his canonization is this coming October. In light of these coming events, Coverdale
reflected on his time as a member of Opus Dei, and shared stories of its
CWR: How did you get involved with
John Coverdale: I lived in Milwaukee in the mid-1950s,
at the time when Opus Dei was first getting started there. At the invitation of
a friend, I began attending Opus Dei activities. Although the events were held
in modest homes in not-particularly-nice neighborhoods, the priests and people
I met had an attractive faith, which I found appealing.
Catholic organizations, Opus Dei had a world headquarters in Rome. I studied…there,
and earned a degree in philosophy from the Pontifical Lateran University. After
I completed my studies, I was asked to work in our public relations office, and
CWR: How did you get to know St.
Josemaria, and what was he like?
Coverdale: I saw him at the public relations
office daily. I found him to be a man of great faith, who loved God, loved Our
Lady and those around him. He had a great personal concern for each person with
whom he interacted, which surprised me, considering that we were a large
He was also quite
funny. It wasn’t so much that he told jokes, but had that particular turn of
phrase or lifting of the shoulders and eyebrows that could get the room
laughing. If you watch old movies of him talking to groups, you’ll notice that
people laugh a lot.
CWR: And didn’t he remain cheery
despite having some significant health problems?
Coverdale: Yes. He had severe diabetes for 15
years, which gave him terrible headaches, and made him thirsty and weak. It
culminated in one instance when the doctors changed the insulin he was
receiving. After receiving an injection, he went down to join his community for
dinner, but was physically overcome. During his attack, he saw Msgr. Alvaro del
Portilloor “Don Alvaro,” the man who would become his successorand cried out
thought he was dying and was requesting absolution. As Don Alvaro gave it to
him, St. Josemaria fell to the floor and lost consciousness for 15 minutes. When
he woke up, he didn’t have diabetes anymore. The doctors were amazed.
CWR: Was it a miraculous cure?
Coverdale: St. Josemaria never used the word
miraculous. But his doctors said such a cure was unheard of. Josemaria wasn’t
one for talking about miracles, despite the fact that there were many special
interventions of God in his life. In fact, when Pope John Paul II canonized him
10 years ago, he referred to him as “the saint of ordinary life.”
What were some of the unique
challenges St. Josemaria had to overcome in his life?
Coverdale: The first was overcoming hostility to
his basic message, the universal call to sanctity. Today, it’s enshrined in the
documents of the Second Vatican Council and considered to be a standard part of
Church teaching. But in the early days of Opus Dei, many people did not accept
this idea. Some thought it heretical. One convent in Barcelona burned his book,
The Way. People thought if you really
took your religion seriously and wanted to be close to God, you had to become a
priest or religious.
bishop in Madrid, however, defended Opus Dei. Josemaria warned him that his
support for Opus Dei would cost him a promotion, becoming archbishop of Toledo
and Primate of Spain. The bishop replied, “Josemaria, what I risk losing is my
soul. I will not cease defending you.” He never received the promotion.
rejected Josemaria’s ideas altogether, others found The Way too challenging, and would leave. Josemaria would say,
“They slip through my fingers like eels in the water.”
And the Spanish
Civil War (1936-39) came along, and the few people he had were dispersed. Some
After the war
ended, Josemaria again faced severe criticism and even calumny. People went to
the families of Opus Dei members and warned them that their child who was a
member was going to lose his soul.
He had no money. There
was a struggle to find a place for Opus Dei in the Church’s legislation. There
wasn’t a provision for those who dedicated their lives to God, sought sanctity,
and received special formation, but [were not] priests or religious. He never
found a satisfactory solution during his lifetime.
CWR: And the establishment of Opus Dei
as a personal prelature 30 years ago was the solution?
Coverdale: Yes. It fits what we are. But at that time, personal prelatures
legislative solutions that Josemaria had to accept were more suitable to
organizations such as the Holy Name Society or Knights of Columbus. These are
good groups, but don’t require a vocation or special formation. They can’t have
priests of their own.
categorized us legislatively close to religious orders. While we have great
love and respect for religious orders and their members, that’s not our
vocation. Our vocation is to sanctify the world from within, not to renounce
prelature represents a grouping within the Church of people who are priests and
laymen, but not called to be religious. We’re currently the only one. We would
be delighted if there would be other personal prelatures, because what St.
Josemaria wanted was to fit into the normal life of the Church and not be an
CWR: What did St. Josemaria do during
the Spanish Civil War?
Coverdale: Seven thousand priests and religious, most of whom were living in
and around Madrid, Barcelona, and Aragon, were killed during the war. Many of
Josemaria’s friends were among those who died. So, he went into hiding.
However, after a
time, he felt compelled to reemerge into the world and exercise his ministry as
a priest. He fled the Republican areas of Spain, crossed the Pyrenees mountains
into France, then returned to the Nationalist areas of Spain under control of
General Franco. There you were allowed to practice your religion.
CWR: Was he friends with Franco?
Coverdale: He was concerned about the souls of all, whether it be Franco or a
street-sweeper. He was not close with Franco, but did meet with him on several
occasions. Josemaria was careful to keep politics out of Opus Dei. I recall,
for example, an incident when I was living in Rome. Juan Carlos, the man who is
the King of Spain today, came with his father to visit Josemaria. Josemaria had
a reception for the future king, and about 10 of us Opus Dei members
participated. But Josemaria deliberately excluded any Spanish Opus Dei members
from the gathering, as he didn’t want to be seen as trying to influence the political
views of its members.
CWR: But there was much anti-Catholic
violence during the Spanish Civil War.
Coverdale: Yes. The Republican or anti-Franco side was made up of different
contingents. Some were classic liberals in the English sense, some socialists,
some communists, and some anarchists. They all had in common an anti-Catholic,
anti-clerical bent. Even before the war broke out, there had been violence
toward the Church.
CWR: The 1960s brought much turbulence
to the Church. Did Josemaria always remain faithful to Church leadership? How
did he react to Vatican II?
Coverdale: He was absolutely loyal to the pope and his bishop, and insisted
Opus Dei members be, too.
He did have some
trouble adjusting to the changes in liturgy that came after Vatican II. Things
were removed in the new rite which, for him, expressed piety and love of God. But
for him, the Mass was terribly important. He put his heart and soul into it,
and had been using a particular form for 40 years. He also sought out the best
he could in terms of chalices and sacred vessels. He said, “Men give diamonds
and pearls to the women they love, I will give my God the best I can.”
didn’t ask for it, permission was given for him to celebrate the Tridentine
Mass for the rest of his life.
CWR: Have you been pleased with Opus
Dei’s growth during your lifetime?
Coverdale: Yes. Would I have liked it to have been a lot faster? Of course. Would
I like there to be many more members? Yes. But we have to go at God’s pace, not
I’m pleased to
have seen it grow and expand in my lifetime to many new countries, including
some of which, like Kazakhstan, that I’d never heard of. The story was that the
bishop of Kazakhstan was making his ad
limina visit with Pope John Paul II. The bishop was down about all the
problems he was having, and the Holy Father said, “You should have Opus Dei in
admitted he didn’t know what Opus Dei was. At the Pope’s suggestion, he visited
our headquarters and spoke to the man who was our prelate at the time, Msgr. Alvaro
del Portillo. The bishop of Kazakhstan told Don Alvaro about his discussion
with the Holy Father, and Don Alvaro said, “We’re going.”
Kazakhstan wasn’t on anybody’s list of countries
to which we wanted to go. But if the Pope wanted it, that was good enough for