A dear friend of mine, and colleague at Seton Hall University, John Coverdale, has just published a wonderful book on the life of Alvaro del Portillo, who will be beatified this September, 2014. Coverdale got to know del Portillo while they were both living in Rome just before, during, and just after, the Second Vatican Council, in the 1960s. A historian of Spain in the early part of the 20th century, and a biographer of St. Josemaria and also of Fr. Joseph Muzquiz (who was ordained a priest alongside del Portillo), Coverdale (now a law professor) is well placed to write this inspiring biography.
A consummate historian (Coverdale earned his Ph.D. in history from the U. of Wisconsin
and taught Spanish history at both Princeton and Northwestern) and lucid writer, Coverdale shows how del Portillo’s story is that of a great saint of our times. Del Portillo lived the virtues quietly, but heroically, with peace and joy, amidst the turbulent storms that assailed him. Coverdale’s compelling narrative walks through del Portillo’s life revealing the details of a rich and fruitful friendship with God. His intimacy with God overflowed to many others, drawing them closer to God. The picture of del Portillo that shines forth is one of fidelity. His wide-ranging friends included a construction worker, a gardener, as well as popes like St. John Paul II. As a husband and father, I was inspired and challenged by del Portillo’s clear message that I can and must find God in the most ordinary events of my daily family and work life. Unlike so many other biographies, Coverdale’s is one I know I will be returning to again and again.
In light of this new book, Saxum: The Life of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, which you can purchase here, and which you can read portions of for free and find more about here, and his impending beatification, the amazing and powerful miracle of which you can hear about here, I think it is appropriate to share a little bit about his life.
Del Portillo was a young engineering student in Spain just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil war. He met a young priest, Fr. Josemaria Escriva (canonized by Pope St. John Paul II as St. Josemaria Escriva, the “Saint of ordinary life”), who had founded Opus Dei a few years before in 1928, when God made him “see” Opus Dei, what God was calling St.
Josemaria to do, to spread the universal call to holiness, and find others who God called to do the same. Grounded in the traditional Catholic notion that God makes us His sons and daughters, the message of St. Josemaria and of Opus Dei is that our union to Christ enables us to turn all the ordinary events of our lives (work, family life, relaxation, etc.) into something holy, into prayer. We can thus transform our work into prayer, sanctifying it, and thereby sanctify ourselves in our work, and sanctify others through our work. Scott Hahn explains the vision St. Josemaria had thus:
“Opus Dei was founded in 1928 by a young Spanish priest, St. Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer. For years before, he had received presentiments, indications in prayer, that God wanted something from him, but he had no idea what it would be. Then, rather suddenly one October day, as he was sitting down to read over some notes in his journal, he saw it. God showed St. Josemaria what He wanted him to do…. he always used the verb ‘to see,’ and he made it clear that he saw Opus Dei in its entirety, as it would unfold through the years. As one Vatican document put it: ‘It was not a pastoral project which took shape slowly, but rather a call which suddenly burst into the soul of the young priest.’ What did he see? Perhaps his sketchy private notes give us a glimpse of the vision: ‘Ordinary Christians. A fermenting mass. Ours is the ordinary, with naturalness. The means: professional work. All saints!’ When only three young men showed up for his first formal activities, he gave them benediction with the Blessed Sacrament: ‘When I blessed those three…I saw three hundred, three hundred thousand, thirty million, three billion…white, black, yellow, of all the colors, all the combinations that human love can produce.’ St. Josemaria saw that Jesus wants everyone to be a saint–everyone, without exception.”1
Del Portillo was captivated by St. Josemaria’s message and vision, and felt called to join him in the work of Opus Dei. From that time forward, Don Alvaro (as he is affectionately called) became St. Josemaria’s closest collaborator. He suffered much when the Spanish Civil War broke out, and was separated from the young Fr. Josemaria for a while. Anti-Catholic soldiers arrested del Portillo and he was given a very rough time in prison, where their food was mixed with human excrement.
After being released from prison, he joined Fr. Josemaria and other members of Opus Dei who had taken up refuge in the Honduran consulate. Their living conditions there were beyond spartan. Eventually, Escriva and other members of the Work (as Opus Dei is popularly called) fled to the Nationalist zone where Escriva could
resume his priestly ministry in relative safety. He continued to serve as a priest in Madrid, but it was increasingly difficult as all the priests were being rounded up and executed. Del Portillo eventually joined him in the Nationalist zone, and they returned to Madrid after the war ended.
As a young engineer, del Portillo helped St. Josemaria expand Opus Dei throughout Spain. Eventually, in 1944, Alvaro, along with two others, became the first priests ordained for Opus Dei. As a layman during World War II, del Portillo had already gone
to Rome to explain to the Vatican what Opus Dei was about (in 1943), and there befriended Msgr. Giovanni Montini (the future Pope Paul VI, whose beatification is also upcoming). Paul VI became a friend of Don Alvaro’s for the remainder of his life, and used St. Josemaria’s spiritual text, The Way, in his own daily prayers. After his ordination, del Portillo returned to Rome to seek Vatican approval of the Work, where he met with Venerable Pope Pius XII. Initially, Opus Dei had been approved as a local pius union by the Archbishop of Madrid. But Escriva’s vision was universal in scope, not just for the Spain of his day, but for all countries and all times. Pius XII granted Opus Dei the decree of praise in 1947. In light of del Portillo’s and St. Josemaria’s work, Pius XII created a new form in Church
life called a secular institute, that same year. In 1950, Pius XII definitively approved Opus Dei as a secular institute, a canonical mold that never fit it very well, and even less so as the notion of secular institutes expanded. Opus Dei would not find its final canonical form, that of a personal prelature, until such a path opened up at Vatican II, and the Work was not to be established as a personal prelature until Pope St. John Paul II did so, in 1982, after St. Josemaria had already died and was succeeded by del Portillo.
St. Josemaria moved to Rome with del Portillo, and began numerous building projects with
no money at all at his disposal (as it always had been). The stories of how del Portillo would get money to pay the laborers (even when he was very ill) are absolutely amazing, and show his immense faith. After Pius XII’s death, St. Josemaria and Don Alvaro got to know Pope St. John XXIII, and warmly greeted the Second Vatican Council. John XXIII appointed del Portillo as a consultor for the Sacred Congregation of the Council. John XXIII also made del Portillo the President of the preparatory commission on the laity. He also served as a member of the commission on modern methods of apostolate, and he became a Council peritus (theological expert), in which capacity he served on three different conciliar commissions. When the Council began, del Portillo was appointed as the secretary for the Commission on the Discipline of the Clergy and the Christian People, which eventually was responsible for Vatican II’s document, Presbyterorum Ordinis, on the priesthood, the final form of which he was in large part responsible as secretary.
Later, after the Council, he continued to serve in various capacities on numerous Vatican
related committees, all the while serving first as St. Josemaria’s custodian and chief helper, and eventual his successor as Prelate of Opus Dei. After St. Josemaria’s death, and then the death of Paul VI, Don Alvaro got to know the Cardinals who became Popes John Paul I and John Paul II. He became a close friend of Pope St. John Paul II, and Coverdale’s work has some very moving anecdotes, making that chapter probably my favorite chapter in the whole volume. John Paul eventually ordained del Portillo a bishop.
There is so much more (challenges, sufferings, and trials he had to overcome, etc.), but you’ll have to read the book.
- Scott Hahn, Ordinary Work, Extraordinary Grace: My Spiritual Journey in Opus Dei (New York: Doubleday, 2006), 6 [↩]