Pope Francis has announced the beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, St Josemaría’s closest collaborator and Opus Dei’s first prelate.
Don Alvaro will be beatified in Madrid on Saturday 27 September. Maybe I will go. Who knows? My first trip to Europe was in 2002, to attend the canonisation of St Josemaría. I wasn’t in Opus Dei back then, but I owed a lot to Josemaría, and I was happy to celebrate his canonisation! My other trip to Europe was the 2011 World Youth Day, in Madrid. Can you see a Spanish theme emerging?
On the other hand, I intend to go to Rome next January for the CCC’s international clergy conference. Diocesan priests don’t take a vow of poverty, but we do try to foster simplicity. An advisable model is the father of a large family, scraping to get by. In other words, I imagine my own Dad’s spending habits back when I was in primary school. I remember it being a big deal when he bought a new suit. I don’t recall him jetting off to Europe twice in three months!
Whatever of that, here’s a few interesting anecdotes about Don Alvaro, taken from Alvaro Del Portillo, by Salvador Bernal:
On the Spanish Civil War
Don Alvaro spoke about that period of his life only on rare occasions. One such occasion took place in the Filipino city of Cebu, at the end of January 1987. He was trying to get across how necessary it is to love and to foster peace, and this brought to his mind the persecution against the Church which had been unleashed in Spain during the civil war.
“I had never been involved in any political activity,” he said, “and I was not a priest, or a religious, or even a seminarian; I was just an engineering student. I got thrown in jail just because I came from a Catholic family. By then I was already wearing glasses, and one day one of the guards came up to me—his name was Petrof, it’s a Russian name—and he put a pistol to my temple and said, ‘You’re wearing glasses—you must be a priest.’ He could have killed me at any moment. I think the only reason he didn’t was because God thought I still had a lot of fighting to do against the devil, or because I was not worthy of heaven. It was terrifying.”
On hearing his first confession (I can relate to this one!)
After his ordination, Don Alvaro became an even firmer support, so to speak, for the founder of Opus Dei. The overwhelming avalanche of supernatural gifts which God was pouring out on Father Josemaría made it necessary for him to have at his side an intelligent and humble priest who was truly close to him. The founder had a responsibility to discern and to get confirmation of the paths which the Holy Spirit was opening in his ardent and vibrant soul, and to distinguish, when necessary, between what had to do with his interior life and what had to do with the foundation. And the reality is that he only went ahead with complete peace of mind when he began to open his heart and soul to Don Alvaro not only as his closest associate, but as his confessor as well.
Despite the openness and ease that characterized their relationship, that first confession was one of the few times in his whole life when Don Alvaro became noticeably nervous. The confession took place on June 26, 1944—the very day after Don Alvaro’s ordination. The two of them were at the Villanueva Street center, in Madrid. Father Josemaría asked Don Alvaro if he’d heard any confessions yet, and when he said no, the founder said that he would like to make a general confession to him.
The confession had hardly started when Don Alvaro began to worry that he might forget the words of absolution. He knew the prayer by heart, but, as he himself had just said, he had not as yet given anybody sacramental absolution. This was so much on his mind that as soon as Father Josemaría got finished confessing his sins, Don Alvaro started saying the prayer of absolution. The founder had to interrupt him. “My son,” he said, “I can understand it if you don’t want to give me any advice, but you do need to at least give me a penance!” So Don Alvaro gave him one, but then when he started the prayer of absolution again, he forgot how it went. He had to repeat it after the founder!
On another occasion, a German fellow named Mathias, who belonged to some evangelical denomination, addressed Don Alvaro publicly, not long after the death of Mgr Escriva. “How can I find out the will of God for my life? How can I know what direction I should take?”
Don Alvaro spoke to him about the Gospel, about freedom of conscience, and about the one Church founded by Jesus Christ: the Catholic Church. “In the sixteenth century,” he said, “pieces were chipped off of that great Church of Christ, but those pieces still have something of that divine richness. Pope Pius XI used to say that it was like splinters from a gold-bearing rock—even the tiniest piece has a few grains of gold. You have a lot of gold in your faith. You believe in the Father, in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. You believe in so many things… But I would be a hypocrite if I were not to tell you that you’re still missing something of the true faith, the faith that your ancestors had before they separated themselves from the one Church of Jesus Christ. The only thing I can do is ask you for permission to pray for you, that the Holy Spirit will give you the fullness of faith . . . In return, I ask of you one thing: that you pray for me. Let’s make between us a kind of pact—you pray that I be a worthy successor of a saint, because I am a poor man, a poor priest of Jesus Christ.”
Death took him by surprise in March 1994, just after his return from the Holy Land. On March 23, 1994, Don Javier Echevarría made this announcement: “Last night a heart attack ended the life of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, Prelate of Opus Dei. A little before four in the morning, he called me to tell me he was feeling bad. While the doctor was tending to him, I myself gave him the last sacraments, in accord with his explicitly and often stated wish.”
At 6pm that evening, Pope John Paul II went in person to pray in the funeral chapel, accompanied by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican Secretary of State. And before and after that extraordinary visit, many cardinals and prelates of the Roman Curia and superiors of religious orders went to pay their last respects.
John Paul was especially touched by the fact that the Lord had called Don Alvaro home upon his return from the Holy Land. He put a lot of emphasis on this in the audience that he gave to the participants of the 1994 UNIV Congress, which, as usual, took place in Holy Week. “At this time,” he said, “the thought of the Holy Land is for you very tied in with the person of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Just before calling him to himself, God allowed him to make a pilgrimage to those places where Jesus spent his life on earth. Those were days of intense prayer which united him very closely to Christ and, in fact, prepared him for his final meeting with the Blessed Trinity.”
When you follow the link to www.miracolieucaristici.org, you may well be seeing the first website developed by a saint.
Miracoli Eucaristici documents eucharistic miracles which have occurred all over the world. I’m not fluent in Italian, so I can’t comment on the content, but I do know web design, and this is very good web design. All the more so, considering it is nearly ten years old, but still “feels modern.” (Most websites don’t age so well!)
The website was created by Carlo Acutis, who died of leukemia in 2006 at the age of 15. And now, according to Rome Reports, his cause for canonisation is under consideration:
Even if Carlo doesn’t pass the rigorous standards exacted by the Church’s canonisation process, his life and legacy remind us that we’re all called to be saints, and that sanctity is attainable. It can be and should be our daily goal — remembering that holiness is achieved in the little things of today, not in the great maybes of tomorrow.
(Another lesson: somewhere on the web, there is a website that has been developed by someone who will one day be canonised. Hopefully there are many such websites, and many canonisable saints in our midst!)
Today is the feast of St Teresa of Ávila, one of the Church’s greatest theologians and greatest mystics.
Teresa is also unusual, I think, for her eminent common sense, which really isn’t common at all. I quote her often in the confessional and in spiritual direction, and occasionally in my preaching too. I think her insights might be helpful to others only because I find them so helpful myself.
For example, when Teresa was afflicted with one too many crosses, she lamented to God:
“If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”
This demonstrates not only a supernatural attitude to suffering, but also a good sense of humour, and an easy familiarity with God. That’s three characteristics, right there, that I aspire to in my own spiritual life.
On another occasion, Teresa was very impressed by one of her sisters’ heroic penances, and wished to do something similar. Her spiritual director, however, forbade her from doing so. Teresa complained to the Lord, and apologised. His reply, which she not only recorded but also interiorised, is one worth remembering and repeating:
“I prefer your obedience to her penances.
Teresa was a great ascetic, but she was also a person of attractive and contagious joy. So she also showed in deed what she expresses here in words:
“God save us from gloomy saints!”
(This is the sort of thing I can easily imagine Pope Francis saying.)
Long before I was in the seminary, but perhaps when I was discerning my vocation (I forget the precise context), my spiritual director, whose patience was probably tested, exclaimed:
“The closer you get to God, the simpler you become.”
I remembered this and prayed on it often. (I still do.) Much later I learnt that it came from St Teresa.
I’ll finish with one of my all-time favourite quotes, which speaks for itself:
“Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
Today is the feast of St Thérèse. What a great saint! What a powerful intercessor!
Apparently, Pope Francis employs Fr Putigan’s Novena to St Thérèse. On the one hand, this doesn’t surprise me, since Fr Putigan was a Jesuit priest, and it’s easy to imagine his novena is popular within the Society of Jesus. On the other hand, I am surprised that Francis would pray 24 Glorias every day for nine days. Bear in mind, he’s not a fan of numerical pedantry:
There are some restorationist groups. I know some, it fell upon me to receive them in Buenos Aires. And one feels as if one goes back 60 years! Before the Council… One feels in 1940… An anecdote, just to illustrate this, it is not to laugh at it, I took it with respect, but it concerns me. When I was elected, I received a letter from one of these groups, and they said: “Your Holiness, we offer you this spiritual treasure: 3,525 rosaries.” Why don’t they say, ‘we pray for you, we ask…’, but this thing of counting…
Still, it is evident that the Holy Father certainly does call on St Thérèse for favours, and even dares to ask for the sign of a white rose.
Apart from her intercessory apostolate, St Thérèse is also a great spiritual master. A Doctor of the Church, no less. If you aren’t a student of hers already, it’s time to become one!
I have helped a friend of mine develop a website relating her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. The site is a veritable goldmine of open domain texts about spiritual childhood and “the little things.”
In addition to texts from and about St Thérèse, the site draws from St Josemaría Escriva, Fr Joseph Kentenich, and several others. Check it out and bookmark it. It certainly deserves more than one visit!
Studying the saints is a good thing. Read their biographies. Read their writings. Be inspired to imitate them.
But the best thing about the saints is that we can foster relationships with them. Talk to them. Ask them for favours. We can approach them the way a small child approaches a favourite aunt or uncle: boldly and sincerely.
Pope Francis gives us a good example of this. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio made no secret of his devotion to St Thérèse — perhaps the greatest of our modern saints; certainly the most popular!
From “El Jesuita” (“The Jesuit”), a book interview written by Sergio Rubin and Francesca Ambrogetti:
We pause before a vase full of white roses standing on a shelf in the library. In front of it is a photograph of Saint Thérèse.
“Whenever I have a problem,” Bergoglio explained, “I ask the saint not to solve it, but to take it into her hands and to help me accept it and I almost always receive a white rose as a sign.”
On Sunday 8 September, the day after the long prayer vigil for peace in Syria – when some passages from texts written by Saint Thérèse of Lisieux were read out – Pope Francis received a white rose as a surprise.
The Archbishop of Ancona and Osimo, Edoardo Menichelli broke the news, with Francis’ authorisation.
“The Pope told me he received the freshly-picked white rose out of the blue from a gardener as he was taking a stroll in the Vatican Gardens on Sunday 8 September,” Mgr. Menichelli said.
Today is the feast of St Pius X, with whom Pope Francis invites many comparisons.
For example, both popes were “unexpected.” I don’t need to revisit this year’s conclave. The 1903 election of Cardinal Sarto was no less dramatic and surprising. The Secretary of State, Cardinal Rampolla, was the favourite to succeed Pope Leo XIII. But part-way through the conclave, one of the cardinals communicated the Austrian Emperor’s royal veto, which disqualified Rampolla. Cardinal Sarto was duly elected, and one of his first acts as Pope Pius X was the abolition of conclave vetoes.
Pope Pius and Pope France are both seen as ‘pastor popes,’ modelled on the parish priest. Pope Francis has been christened “the world’s parish priest:”
After Mass, Francis stood outside the church and greeted people as they left, patting kids on the head and kissing them, shaking hands and exchanging hugs, with a quick word and a smile for everybody. It’s a scene that plays out every Sunday at Catholic parishes across the world, but one rarely sees a pope doing it. Italian papers immediately dubbed him “the world’s parish priest.”
Pius X was cut from the same cloth. Sarto was not an academic; he was a pastor. He was “promoted” to the episcopate, and then to the cardinalate, and ultimately to the papacy, not because of his learning or administration, but because of his prayerfulness and zeal for souls.
Pius is the only pope of the modern era who delivered a Sunday homily each week. He reformed the Divine Office so that it better accorded with the daily demands placed on the parish priest. He encouraged frequent communion and lowered the age for First Holy Communion.
Pope Francis and Pope Pius are also similar in their governance. Both popes worked with a “parallel curia,” bypassing and often confounding the established curial offices. Sandro Magister elaborates:
In the little office of pope Bergoglio on the second floor of the Casa di Santa Marta, where he has chosen to reside, many things are decided and done that never even pass through the majestic curial offices of the first and third loggia of the Apostolic Palace, a few steps away from the now-deserted pontifical apartment.
The secretariat of state continues its routine work, but much more at work is another secretariat, miniscule but highly active, which in direct service to the pope attends to the matters that he wants to resolve himself, without any interference whatsoever.
A century ago, under the reign of Pius X, it was called the segretariola. Pope Giuseppe Sarto had come to a very negative judgment about the curia at the time, but even after he had reorganized it he was very careful to protect the little personal secretariat with which he had surrounded himself immediately after his election in 1903.
Pius and Francis both exemplify “holy intransigence” — that is, they are decisive leaders, and uncompromising. Insofar as Pope Pius X can be criticised, it is for his efforts to combat modernist heresy. “They want to be treated with oil, soap and caresses,” he is famously quoted. “But they should be beaten with fists. In a duel, you don’t count or measure the blows, you strike as you can.”
Pope Pius was apparently successful in suppressing heresy and dissent. But the madness of the post-conciliar years shows that the Church was not rid of modernism, it was merely driven underground.
These errors notwithstanding, Pius was a good pope, and a holy one. In his own lifetime, many people attributed healings and miracles to his intercession. He always denied involvement. “Mi chiamo Sarto non Santo,” he insisted. “My name is Sarto, not Santo [Saint].”
In his last will and testament, Pius declared, “I was born in poverty, I lived in poverty, I wish to die in poverty.” This, too, finds an echo in Pope Francis: “How I would like a church of the poor for the poor.”
St Pius, pray for us.