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 ecumenism

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.”

His death

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.”