St. Josemaría Escrivá
Born: 9 January 1902
Ordained: 28 March 1925
Died: 26 June 1975
Canonized 6 October 2002
Founder of the Personal Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei
Since the day it was formed, Opus Dei has faced relentless attacks from every side. Yet, with 90,000 members around the world and a canonized founder and beatified successor to the founder, could it really be that bad?
As somebody who has been profoundly affected – positively – by Opus Dei, I’m always watching for stories that tell this truth to others. Recently, my hopes were raised when I found an article about Opus Dei in a widely-read Catholic publication. The author is a popular commentator on all things Catholic, and he began by observing that, “it is difficult to find balanced reporting on Opus Dei.” He undertook to offer such balanced reporting.
At least, that’s what I thought he was trying to do. Imagine my surprise when, in a several thousand word essay, he went on to highlight every possible negative thing he could find about Opus Dei. St. Josemaría Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, would say, “No! It’s not bad at all! It is the Work of God.” (‘Work of God’ is the Latin meaning of ‘Opus Dei.’)
The life of Escrivá is one of austere beauty seeking constantly to grow in holiness. He described himself as nothing more than a sinner madly in love with Jesus Christ.
An identity like that demands closer attention to his example and work.
Josemaría Julián Mariano Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás (what a name!) was born on 9 January 1902 in Spain. His parents, Don José Escrivá and Doña Dolores Albas, came from large and faithful families and it was their intention to have a large family of their own. When Josemaría was born, he already had an elder sister, Carmen. Soon after Josemaría’s birth, he gained three younger sisters. Unimaginably, the Escrivá family buried each of these girls. While child mortality was far more common in those days than today, the deaths of these young girls in the span of only three years rocked the family.
Soon afterwards, Don José’s business failed. In financial ruin, the family was forced to move for Don José to work. The ever virtuous Escrivá parents refused to show disdain for their situation. Instead, they modeled the values of honest work, discipline and generosity in sacrifice.
An example of virtue came on a snowy winter day, when Josemaría was a teenager. While walking home, he noticed a set of footprints in the snow. Unlike the other booted footprints, these footprints were being left by bare feet. He eventually saw their source: a discalced Carmelite friar who, in a true spirit of penitence, was walking barefoot in the snow. This encounter was a life-changer for the adolescent Josemaría. He sensed that God wanted similar sacrifice from him, even if he didn’t have a sense of what that sacrifice would be.
Those footprints in the snow had left a deep imprint on Josemaría’s soul. Borrowing the words of the blind man from the gospel, Josemaría began frequently to pray, Domine, ut videam, Lord, that I may see! He already knew he wanted to serve God, but how? As the conviction grew stronger that God had prepared a special task for him, it seemed that the best way he could serve God was to become a priest. He told his father of the decision to complete his primary studies by entering the seminary.
Josemaría recounts that it was the only time in his life that he saw his father cry. And remember, his father had buried three daughters! His father’s response was swift. “My son, think it over carefully. A priest has to be a saint… It is very hard not to have a home, a love on earth. Think about it a bit more, but I will not oppose your decision.”
Josemaría thought about it more than a bit. He determined that the seminary was the next step in discerning God’s will. By 1922 he entered the clerical state and was rapidly excelling in every dimension of his seminary formation. In addition to his theological studies, he began a concurrent degree in civil law at the secular university.
On 28 March 1925 he was ordained to the Holy Priesthood. From that day, Fr. Josemaría’s life was changed by the graven duty and unspeakable joy of offering the Eucharist. He would later say, “Keep struggling, so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar really becomes the center and the root of your interior life, and so your whole day will turn into an act of worship — an extension of the Mass you have attended and a preparation for the next” (The Forge, 69).
After two years of ministry within his diocese, Josemaría received permission to move to the Archdiocese of Madrid to pursue doctoral studies in civil law and teach in universities. All this was in addition to his busy schedule attending to souls through various apostolates.
Among these apostolates were his favored work of celebrating the sacraments for religious sisters and his ministry in Madrid’s shanty towns. Josemaría kept an exhausting pace but it never deprived him of his gaudium cum pace– joy with peace- that came from doing God’s work.
Plus, Fr. Josemaría was still waiting for God to reveal the special work that awaited.
Josemaría’s life took a dramatic turn while making a personal retreat on the 2 October 1928. After the Holy Mass, he received an interior vision wherein he saw Opus Dei. God showed him a new path in the Church which was to be for all peoples; a path of holiness down which many would follow. What exactly did he ‘see’?
In an ineffable way, he saw people of every nation and race, of every age and culture, seeking and finding God right in the middle of their ordinary life, their work, their family, their friendships. People who looked for Jesus in order to love him and to live his holy life until they were completely transformed and made into saints. Saints in the world…It was an overwhelming vision, a vision of the baptismal vocation lived to the full. Ordinary Christians, the laity, becoming apostles, who speak of God with naturalness, who raise Christ to the peak of every human activity. Everyday people who assume in all its depth a participation in the priesthood of Christ by offering the sanctifying sacrifice of their entire lives every day.
At that moment, the bells of the church across the street began to ring out. Fr. Josemaría’s prayer of many years, Lord, that I may see, had been answered. The answer was Opus Dei– the Work of God.
He didn’t waste any time. Upon completing his retreat, he immediately undertook intensive work with every young person he could find. Everything began small, with what he would call the apostolate of friendship. Josemaría would encourage the young men to love God and to please Him through dedication to daily prayer and excellence in their studies and work.
One day, during the celebration of Holy Mass, Josemaría was overjoyed to see that Opus Dei would not belong exclusively to men. No, this apostolate was universal in scope and there would need to be room for women. On 14 February 1930, the women’s branch of Opus Dei was established.
These early days of apostolate with young men and women bore much fruit for the recipients, but none expressed interest in actually ‘joining’ Opus Dei. It wasn’t until two years later that the first person stepped forward, and things began moving from there.
As momentum was building, the Spanish civil war broke out. This caused indescribable adversities to everyone in Spain, and in a unique way to the members of Opus Dei and Josemaría. With separations, unjust arrests, hiding in embassies and a treacherous escape through the Pyrenees mountains, the first decade of the Work went through a lot.
By God’s grace, they weathered those storms. Opus Dei could now really start to flourish, which it did. Josemaría knew that in order to continue being a legitimate path within the Church, it would require ecclesiastical approval. This came first on the local level but was quite restrictive. Fr. Escrivá knew that for the mission of the Work to be properly fulfilled, more would be required.
In 1943, he received yet another insight as to how priests could also be incorporated into the Work, and founded the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. This society would offer the same spiritual support to diocesan priests that was already being offered exclusively to the laity.
Through this society, secular priests could be ordained for total service to the apostolates of Opus Dei. In 1944 the first three male members of the Work were ordained as priests. Up to this point, Josemaría had been providing pastoral care for the rapidly growing number of members of the Work. With these priests, a great deal of this responsibility was eased off of the Josemaría’s shoulders.
This merely afforded Josemaría the availability to take things to the next level. It was time to bring Opus Dei to Rome; to the Holy See; to the Holy Father.
Fr. Josemaría knew that without official declarations from the Holy See, the universal mandate of Opus Dei could not be properly carried out. In 1946, Josemaría and his right hand man, Fr. Álvaro del Portillo, went to live in the Eternal City. The time in Rome was marked by relentless hardships. They were painfully broke, Josemaría had recently been diagnosed with severe diabetes, and discussions with the Holy See were stunted by misunderstandings and sometimes outright hostility. The Work was perceived by some as a “progressive and dangerous” blurring of the lines between the clergy and the laity. And, of course, the typical pace of Vatican bureaucracy didn’t help matters.
All the while, Josemaría never lost his peace. He looked upon every hardship as nothing more than an opportunity to be united to our Lord’s Cross. Such difficulties inspired an aspiration which he repeated innumerable times throughout the day. In laetitia, nulla dies sine Cruce. In joy, not a day without the Cross.
Josemaría began gaining audiences with the Holy Father, Pope Pius XII. His Holiness only spoke positively and with great hope about Opus Dei. In 1947, the pope granted provisional approval of Opus Dei. Three years later, Pius XII granted final approval to the Work, giving it the total support of the Holy See.
By the 1960s, now Monsignor Escrivá was widely known and well regarded by many. His detractors continued to abound but he never let that trouble him. The new pope, John XXIII, and various commissions buttressed Josemaría’s credibility with ecclesiastical appointments for him and other members of the Work. This was in the midst of what would prove to be the most influential experience in the life of the modern Church.
Pope John XXIII catalysed that influential moment when he announced his plan to convene what would be called the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.
A better understanding of the laity in the Church was among the themes to be discussed. Naturally, the Holy Father turned to Msgr. Escrivá. Josemaría was leading the Church in an appreciation for how the laity were meant to fully live their baptismal vocation, leading to discussion of one of the most influential topics of the Council: the universal call to holiness, that all are able to become canonizeable saints in their individual states of life. Josemaría had been preaching on the universal call to holiness for nearly forty years before the council was even announced. It was the example and teaching of Msgr. Escrivá that really helped this notion along in the life of the Church.
Death & Heaven
After the council, Josemaría eagerly spent the next decade trying to bring the hopes of the Holy Fathers to fruition. This involved extensive travel and tireless hours of writing, preaching and teaching. Everyone near to him was convinced that he would simply die of exhaustion.
The morning of 26 June 1975 began like any other: rising early, personal prayer, Holy Mass, and breakfast. Then, a planned trip to the Roman countryside to visit one of the Opus Dei women’s centres. Just before lunch, the Father – as he was simply and affectionately known to many – noted that he wasn’t feeling well. He thought they should return home early.
As he was entering his apartment, Josemaría called out to one of his assistant priests and suddenly collapsed. Medical personnel spent the better part of the next hour trying to revive him but it was to no avail. Josemaría Escrivá had left this life.
His cause for beatification was presented as soon as the mandatory waiting period had passed. The tens of thousands of members of the Work, now on every continent, fervently prayed for the glorification of their Father. Even in death, Josemaría faced opposition and detraction. However, time showed the will of God.
On 17 May 1992, Pope John Paul II beatified Josemaría Escrivá, making him the most contemporary Blessed of his time. Ten years later, the same pope would canonize him in front of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter’s square. At the time of his canonization, St. Josemaría was the most modernly living saint, and he remained as such until the recent canonization of St. John Paul II in 2014. Happily, in September of 2014, the long-time friend and sidekick of St. Josemaría, Don Álvaro del Portillo, was also beatified. What a testament to the way of holiness which St. Josemaría set out for all of his spiritual children.
To capture Josemaría’s spirit, it is fitting to close with this quote from one of his most famous sermons, “I assure you, my sons and daughters, that when a Christian carries out with love the most insignificant everyday action, that action overflows with the transcendence of God… the Christian vocation consists of making heroic verse out of the prose of each day. Heaven and earth seem to merge, my sons and daughters, on the horizon. But where they really meet is in your hearts, when you sanctify your everyday lives.”
Many of the above biographical details were taken from the following resources:
Every written work of St. Josemaría is available for free on online: