Alvaro Del Portillo died in his sleep on March 23, 1994.
He would have preferred it that way: unnoticed, without fuss, and as ordinary an end to any man’s life as is possible.
It was a fitting conclusion to one who had spent all his life as an apostle of the sanctity of ordinariness, now giving witness to this even in the manner of his death. This was not the whole story, though, for only hours later the then reigning Supreme Pontiff, Pope John Paul II, knelt by the side of the dead prelate, not only to offer prayers for this departed soul, but, also, in testimony to the life of his friend. In these few hours we glimpse something of the paradox of the ordinary and the extraordinary summed up in this man soon to be pronounced blessed.
He was born in Madrid on March 11, 1914, the third of eight children to a lawyer father and his Mexican-born wife. They were as devout as they were happy, and it was in this atmosphere of security and faith that the young Alvaro grew. Family prayer and the sacramental life of the Church providing the natural flow to the childhood that was to follow. In fact, this naturalness was to become a defining characteristic of the boy, and later the man, something remarked upon till the day he died.
His choice of career was engineering. This required long years of study to which he applied himself fully, in the process becoming a model student, and yet largely remembered by contemporaries for being friendly and cheerful. With nothing in his personality or character to suggest otherwise, Del Portillo appeared destined for a “normal life” of professional and family responsibilities. Aged just 21, however, all of this was to change through an unexpected meeting.
The “meeting” had in a spiritual sense happened years previously. A young priest, then a chaplain to a Madrid hospital, had heard of the student from Del Portillo’s aunt. The priest had begun praying for him many years before they were to meet in the spring of 1935. The priest in question was Josemaria Escriva. Several years earlier in 1928, he had experienced a vision: it was of a vast number of people sanctifying themselves and the world in and through the ordinariness of their everyday lives, what would later come to be known as Opus Dei. And, it was this that the priest now communicated to the young engineering student. It was to be the most important encounter of Del Portillo’s life, changing it forever.
Soon after, Del Portillo had asked to join something that was still in practical terms embryonic, hardly visible. It was the personality of Escriva that was then the only clue to what Opus Dei was, and what for others it could be. It was not just a matter of personality, though, for what had been evident to the student from that first meeting was the personal holiness of this young priest. And, it was within this still forming spiritual entity, and the challenges that lay ahead for its founder, that Del Portillo saw his vocation almost immediately. From that moment, his life was to know only a burning desire to spread that call to the four corners of the globe.
One might expect that, from then on, the young Del Portillo’s life was to be one of retirement from the world, dealing with spiritual matters, a scholarly, even clerical existence. Far from it, for within months Spain was plunged headlong into what was to become a concerted attack on its ancient faith, before, partly in reaction, an equally vicious civil war broke out. Three years of fighting were to follow, during which Del Portillo was to become a fugitive in hiding, before eventually enlisting with the Republican Army and then crossing over at the Front to join with Nationalist forces. Thereafter, for a time, he worked with the engineering corps. Having only just escaped death’s grasp, he was barely 25 years when it ended, and, yet, had experienced more than many do in a lifetime. He had also seen, in all sorts of ways—none of which were good—how men were reduced by war. While convents burned and churches were desecrated, and frightened prisoners were shot to the sound of screaming planes descending to drop their deadly payloads upon fleeing civilians, the young Del Portillo, somehow, stayed faithful to his “cause,” that of the faith he professed and a vocation that had been revealed.
The paradox of war is that it can produce heroism as much as it does barbarism. The Spanish Civil War was to be no different. It was in this crucible that Opus Dei—barely a handful of men—was to be tested and made stronger. By the end of the war, with fresh impetus, he and Escriva, along with the others, were spreading their novel message of personal holiness throughout the, by now, neutral and isolated Spain. At the end of each working week, through cities and towns, Del Portillo was to travel, often at night on dilapidated trains, before meeting people he barely knew, to speak of something he was still coming to understand, and with a message more revolutionary than the slogans that had torn his country apart.
He got little thanks for it. Del Portillo and Escriva, and those associated with them, were called “heretics” and worse. Shunned by many good people and denounced by others, the fledgling Work of God continued in the few faithful lives of those who clung to what they saw as its Divine origin, even if so many of those around them thought otherwise. During this time a priest visited Del Portillo’s mother to berate her for having allowed her son to become embroiled in such a venture. She looked at the priest and then remembered the calm joy of her son. Needless to say, she trusted her son, but still felt the pain of the uncertainty that hung around the endeavor upon which he had embarked. Throughout his childhood, adolescence, and later studies, having been such a steady presence, he now appeared to have taken a step as reckless as it appeared lacking in resources. She was right, of course, it was all that, but, like her son, she too had begun to understand what he had grasped so quickly: namely, that what this “adventure” lacked in worldly terms seemed to be more than compensated for in the supernatural riches it possessed and now wished to share.
Ordained in 1944, one of the first members of Opus Dei to become a priest, Del Portillo was to follow Escriva to Rome two years later. It was there, close to the Pope, that The Work, as it was to be known, was now to center itself geographically and spiritually, beginning the long process of winning the approval of Church authorities whilst spreading its message of holiness to the world. In the years that quickly followed, cities in Italy and France, then England, Ireland and the United States, were all to have a Spanish priest or layman arriving with little more than a suitcase and the possibility of employment, but also, and more significantly, with an all-important message to transmit.
It is difficult today in the world of lay initiatives and such like to imagine how new the words of Escriva and his followers must have sounded. Of course, to the discerning, they were just another aspect of light thrown from the prism of the Christian Gospel, one ever ancient, ever new; but, initially, few saw it that way. Nevertheless, now from Rome, The Work was to spread relentlessly ever outwards: a flame had been lit and the whole world was to be set alight by, and through, it. And yet, the power behind this was the ordinariness of the life of its Founder, and men like Del Portillo. On the latter’s part, this was to be one of prayer and mortification, lived out in the simple rhythms of ordinary life. The prayer was that of a priest, as well as mental prayer, spiritual reading, the Angelus, the Rosary—very much the customs and practices of the then Catholic world, not just priests. His mortification was like the rest of the world too: dealing with illness and misunderstandings, a crushing schedule of work and constantly trying to find money to pay bills, whilst all the time trusting in Divine Providence for his needs and the needs of that to which he had given his life.
Alongside him, throughout it all, was Escriva whose sanctity appeared to deepen with each passing year. And, from the start, it was this that Del Portillo was to study intently, both the man and his methods, like some spiritual Dr. Watson studying the ways of a saintly Sherlock Holmes, only these observations dealt not in the science of deduction but that of holiness. What Del Portillo had realized early on was that Josemaria Escriva was not just a remarkable individual, and more than likely a saint. He came to believe that through the man something profound had been given to the Church and the world, Opus Dei.
Many years later, on various trips abroad, Escriva was to give talks to large assembled groups. Many of these were filmed, with Del Portillo a silent presence, but one whose eyes unwaveringly follow his fellow priest as he walked and talked of what had begun at Madrid in 1928 and which was still as fresh, and as urgent, in the 1970s as it had been then. Seeing these “get togethers” now, Escriva remains a dynamic “screen presence,” perhaps, something to be expected given this is a man, decades later, the Church would declare a saint; but there is evidence of another type of sanctity present. In the shadows, throughout it all, sat quietly observing everything, and representing all those who would come after, is to be found Del Portillo.
A faithful pupil, he looks and learns, and using his prodigious memory, he misses nothing. This had been his modus operandi from that fateful meeting in 1935. In time, he was to become the ‘memory’ for those early days of The Work, and then, when Escriva died in 1975, the bridge to its future: one of Papal approval and global expansion, before its establishment as a personal prelature for tens of thousands of souls. Eventually, he would stand in St. Peter’s Square as the man whom he had met almost 60 years previously was raised to the Altars of the Church. With that came a vindication of Del Portillo’s fidelity to the path he had chosen in spite of all that ranged against it.
And so, in a circular movement, something one suspects the young engineer would have appreciated, this weekend in Madrid, where it all started for Opus Dei, and for Del Portillo, he too will be raised to the Altars of the Church, on this occasion as a Blessed. For a man once described as Escriva’s “shadow,” one can’t help feeling that now, at last, in the bright light of a Spanish sun, this self-effacing man will emerge from the shadows once and for all. By so doing, he will in turn become a guiding light to those still on the way of holiness, a way that, with unfailing fidelity and trust, he walked to its endpoint—heaven itself.