The modern world is full of larger-than-life personalities and outsized egos. People everywhere seem far more preoccupied with “self-realization” and achieving their earthly ambitions than anything else. In fact, at times, the ideas of service and self-sacrifice seem as antiquated as the concept of noblesse oblige.
This should not daunt us. And it is precisely why it is important to look to appropriate models of good behavior and sound ethical judgment, people who can show us how to embrace and live the Christian faith. By emulating such persons, we can be reminded of forgotten virtues like gentleness, compassion, and humility.
Bishop Álvaro del Portillo (1914-1994), the first prelate of Opus Dei, was just such a person. And at a beatification ceremony in Madrid on Saturday, September 27, people from around the world publicly recognized the immense graces that God bestowed upon him. In the words of Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, “the great spectacle of holiness” that was Blessed Álvaro’s life is a model for us.
An early start
Born in Madrid, Blessed Álvaro trained as a civil engineer, worked briefly with the Bureau of Highways and Bridges, and then joined Opus Dei. He earned a doctorate in philosophy and letters—in the same year that he gave up his secular career and became a priest. This was just one of many acts of “unquestioning generosity,” says John F. Coverdale, a law professor at Seton Hall University who attended the beatification ceremony. “He didn’t hesitate to make whatever sacrifices it took to respond to God’s call in the concrete circumstances of each day.”
Blessed Álvaro later earned a doctorate in canon law as well, with which he continued to serve the Church and educate the faithful. He lived a commendable life full of sacrifice, devotion, and charity. And he served God by giving himself completely to Opus Dei—and by faithfully serving its founder, Saint Josemaría Escriva.
The beatification ceremony and open-air Mass commemorated these aspects of Blessed Álvaro’s saintly life. Held in a northeastern suburb of Madrid, the event was attended by more than 300,000 people from more than 80 different countries, according to local news reports. Spanish author and journalist José Miguel Cejas called the event a splendid “ecclesial act which showed the vitality and universality of the Church.”
Individuals, couples, and groups of students travelled from as far away as Australia, Kenya, Peru, and the Philippines to take part in the ceremony. From the moment they arrived in Madrid’s Barajas airport, they were greeted by volunteers at a stand with a large black-and-white image of a smiling Blessed Álvaro.
From Plaza Mayor to the Parque del Buen Retiro, small groups of flag-bearing students from Brazil, Chile, and Venezuela—as well as more reserved teenagers from Austria, England, and Germany—could be seen, often with a priest in tow. They exemplified the catholicity of Opus Dei. And in the days leading up to the ceremony, many visited landmarks that figured prominently in the lives of both Saint Josemaría and Blessed Álvaro.
“The sheer scale of the organization for the event was impressive,” observed Father Christoph Tölg, a German priest working in Austria. In fact, preparations for the beatification began many months ago. A sleek website had been set up for the registration of groups and individuals. And information kits and detailed maps, as well as beautifully-produced booklets—missals, really—were sent out well in advance to help people prepare.
On the day of the beatification Mass, people took public transportation to one of four different stations where chartered buses left every three minutes, taking them to an area known as Valdebebas. The ceremony would take place there, along the 12-lane Fuerzas Armada Avenue.
The avenue had been organized into ten zones, each with its own set of television screens so that the crowds could watch the ceremony up close. As people arrived, thousands of volunteers guided them to their assigned zones.
On one side of the avenue, a long row of futuristic-looking confessionals had been set up with 100 priests ready to hear confessions. And at the far eastern end, under a sleek, modern structure, an open-air altar had been set up. Its backdrop was a bright image of Our Lady of the Almudena, patroness of Madrid.
A papal letter
The beatification ceremony began with the reading of a special letter sent by His Holiness, Pope Francis to the current prelate of Opus Dei, Javier Echevarria. The letter spoke of the joyfulness of the event and focused on Blessed Álvaro’s life, which was seen as “an existence forged in the simplicity of family life, in the friendship and service of others.” But it was his meeting with Saint Josemaría “that sealed definitively the direction of his life.”
The Pope highlighted a short prayer that Blessed Álvaro used to often repeat: “Thank you. Sorry. Help me more.” Such a simple prayer but full of substance. “Thank you,” explained the Pope, is “the immediate and spontaneous reaction that the soul feels before God’s goodness.” “Sorry” is not only “the admission of human poverty” but also the “confident abandonment in God.” And “help me more” represents our understanding that “with his help we can take his name to the whole world.” “Expressed in these words is the tension of an existence centered on God,” Pope Francis said.
In closing, the Holy Father said: “Blessed Álvaro del Portillo sends us a very clear message: He tells us to trust in the Lord…encourages us not to be afraid to go against the current…[and] teaches us that in the simplicity and ordinariness of our life we can find a sure path to holiness.”
Cejas notes that these words put into clear focus the life of Blessed Álvaro, which “emphasizes what God’s grace is capable of doing in a soul, in a life, when you surrender to the will of God, without hindrance, with full and surrendered humility and docility.”
The beatification Mass
Joined by choirs from Chile and elsewhere, people actively participated in the beatification Mass, following along with their missals—or with a specially-designed smartphone app called “Don Álvaro”—and kneeling on the asphalt during the Consecration. Then 1,200 priests went out along the pathways to each section to distribute Holy Communion.
The homily, which was delivered by Cardinal Amato, touchingly eulogized Blessed Álvaro. He spoke about the Servant of God’s life as one of the first members of Opus Dei, and emphasized the value of the sacrifice he had made when he gave his entire life—all his desires, wants, and dreams—to God through Opus Dei.
Cardinal Amato also spoke of Blessed Álvaro’s qualities of saintliness and the virtuous habits that he practiced “in the light of the beatitudes of meekness, mercy, and purity of heart.” But “there is one virtue,” he noted, “which Bishop Álvaro practiced in an especially extraordinary way, considering it as indispensable for holiness and apostolate: the virtue of humility, which is an imitation of and an identification with Christ.”
At the end of the beatification Mass, the cardinal archbishop of Madrid, Antonio María Rouco Varela, and Bishop Echevarria offered concluding remarks about the importance of the event to the life of the Church’s faithful. They affectionately thanked everyone for the extensive preparations made for the ceremony and for generously contributing to the palpable unity of the gathering.
One big family
Indeed, the atmosphere of the event was warm, friendly, and familial. Despite the enormous crowds, and even though most spectators were only able to see the events on television screens, the event was by all accounts moving and uplifting. “It was a great experience to see how such diverse people—and without any apparent common points—could share the same vision of what is holiness,” said Paloma Cantero Gómez, a Spanish lawyer who traveled from Brussels for the beatification. “I felt I was among family. Through the eyes of these people, it was easy to think of the world as a desirable place.” This is not commonplace today, as she herself noted: “That kind of positivity—rooted in reality without any kind of sentimentalism—is scarce today.”
Austrian couple Markus and Alexandra Schwarz agreed that there were powerfully moving aspects to the celebration: “It was amazing to meet people from all over the world with a feeling of being a big family with the same goals in life. Also, the atmosphere was very cheerful and respectful towards one another.” They added that “it was very moving to attend the beatification of someone you actually met in your lifetime and who is a motivating example for your own life.” Also, they noted that as they had prepared to travel to the beatification, “we discovered a lot of very touching incidents in the life of [Blessed Álvaro], which are now real life examples for our own endeavor towards holiness.”
A Hungarian lawyer who attended with his wife also pointed out that “events like this are a great reminder of the universality of the Church and of the call to holiness. It really does feel like being part of the same large family.”
The spirit of the work
Valdebebas was an ideal place to hold the beatification ceremony. Located near the new sports complex of Real Madrid Football Club, the area—formerly a rather depressed one—is now essentially a construction site with modest housing developments. The location underscored the fact that Opus Dei itself was born in in the poor areas of Madrid in the 1920s, with Saint Josemaría visiting different homes, teaching at student centers, comforting those in hospitals, and delivering Holy Communion.
His, too, was a life of service. For more than 80 years, through his homilies and writings, Saint Josemaría preached a message of self-sacrifice, fidelity to the Church, and the divine value of hard work to thousands of people—in Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia. And during that time, Blessed Álvaro worked closely with him, helping to carry forward these messages—and teach others about the universal call to holiness.
Upon Saint Josemaría’s death in 1975, Blessed Álvaro became his first successor. But it was only in 1982 that Pope John Paul II elevated Opus Dei to the rank of “personal prelature,” giving it a unique juridical status within the Church and among other religious organizations.
Explaining Blessed Álvaro’s role in finding a place for Opus Dei in the Church’s structure, Austin Ruse, president of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute in the US, recalls the difficulty that Opus Dei initially faced, since it “was not a religious order because no one took vows…[and it] included not just men and women but married and single, … priests and those who made promises of apostolic celibacy.” But Blessed Álvaro was able to find a place for it within the Church, even influencing the Second Vatican Council to create a new category for it: the personal prelature. In this long process, Blessed Álvaro played a critical role. “He worked on this for decades…[and] never gave up,” says Ruse. “That is why he is the patron saint of persistence.”
A model life
For some, Blessed Álvaro’s life symbolized not only hope in the face of challenges and firmness in the face of obstacles. He was also an “astonishing example of loyalty towards the Church and Opus Dei,” says Markus Schwarz. For others, he embodied compassion and kindness towards all kinds of people. His life taught us that “[e]very human being has something from which you can learn,” says Cantero Gómez, and that “[t]hose who live their lives with human and supernatural excellence should of course serve as models.”
Those who had the privilege of knowing him personally—like Cejas or Coverdale—speak of Blessed Álvaro’s sense of humor and, above all, his deep humility. “He is an example of how to work very hard without giving yourself importance,” says Coverdale. And now he is “an intercessor to whom we can turn in our needs and as a model of how to love and serve God and others in daily life,” he adds.
Juan Antonio Cébrian de Miguel, a research scientist in Madrid, says that Blessed Álvaro’s example teaches us “that people can fulfill the will of God naturally, without making a fuss.” Another participant observes: “This was the celebration of an ordinary person who lived his life in our time and in our world, and with God’s grace ‘made it’—and is now just one step away from formally recognized sainthood. The message is simple: We can do it, too.”
In short, as Cantero Gómez notes, “his beatification is the ratification of a great work.” And his life is a powerful example of submission to the divine will. “The fruits of the fidelity of his life were evident…[and] had one orientation: the will of God,” notes Cejas. “What’s unique about him,” he adds, “is that he lived that message in many different circumstances—as a student, as an engineer, as a priest, as a bishop—corroborating his teachings: that in any job, any occupation, you can find and serve God.”
Blessed Álvaro spread this precise message to thousands of people around the world. And now, through his successor Bishop Echevarria, Opus Dei continues to teach this to people, showing that, in the words of Ruse, “the layman has his own dignity, his own vocation that is equal in worth to the ordained and that we find this sanctification exactly where we are—within our families and within our work no matter where that may be.”
The ceremony brought people together at a time when so many other people in parts of the world are divided by difference. It demonstrated the strength of the faith and the unity of the Church’s community. But perhaps most importantly, the event diffused a message of love, humility, and fidelity to the Magisterium as demonstrated in the life of Blessed Álvaro, and reminded people that, as CebriÁn de Miguel says, “you can be holy in the midst of the world without being worldly.” Hopefully this message will continue to be shared around the world—and understood by more and more people.