June 26 is the Feast of St. Josemaría Escrivá. In his own life this saint was admired by Popes Pius XII, St. John XXIII, and Blessed Paul VI. Since his death, he has been admired by Popes John Paul I, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, as well as our current Holy Father, Pope Francis, who beatified St. Josemaría’s first successor Blessed Alvaro del Portillo. St. Josemaría was also admired by Blessed Oscar Romero, who petitioned for his canonization. Prior to the canonization of John Paul II, Escrivá was the canonized saint most available to view on video, and many short video clips are available online of his many get togethers. Numerous favors—most very ordinary, but many quite extraordinary—have been answered in all corners of the globe through praying the famous prayer card to St. Josemaría, or through going to his intercession with more spontaneous prayers. Just who was this saint?
Born in Barbastro, Spain in 1902, Josemaría Escrivá was raised in a Catholic home that was filled with a living faith and joy. Like many a young teenager, Josemaría planned on a future life that involved getting married and raising a family of his own. He had no interest whatsoever in becoming a priest, but was rather intent on a career as an architect. When he was sixteen, God used a very simple event to call Josemaría to give himself completely to God. Josemaría saw in the cold snow the footprints of a barefoot Carmelite. This caused him to question what God might be calling him to do. He very quickly realized that whatever God was calling him to, it was not religious life. He soon decided that he needed to become a secular priest in order to have the availability to do whatever it was God was asking of him. He was ordained a priest of the diocese of Zaragoza in 1925. Throughout this time, God was granting Escrivá a number of special graces, including specific insights into the special task God was calling him to accomplish.
On October 2, 1928, the Feast of the Guardian Angels, Opus Dei (“The Work of God”) was founded. It’s not entirely clear what happened on that day, but St. Josemaría consistently related that while he was on retreat prayerfully organizing his notes he “saw” Opus Dei, the entirety of the Work, as Opus Dei is affectionately called. What would happen over the next several years would be the unfolding of the details of that vision. He eventually understood that Opus Dei would be composed of men and women, married and celibate, priests and laity, all with the same spirit and complete dedication to Opus Dei, by living the spirit of the Work in all of the concrete circumstances of their ordinary lives. The mission of Opus Dei was to be a great catechesis, a means of formation. Opus Dei existed to help everyone recognize that God is calling all of us to become saints. The spirit of Opus Dei is founded on the joyful sense that we are all children of God. Those who have a vocation to Opus Dei are committed to spread this message by faithfully living out the spirit of Opus Dei in their lives. For members of Opus Dei, this involves a specific spiritual plan of life that is meant to facilitate their immersion in God as they are immersed in the world. These spiritual norms include a yearly retreat, a monthly day of recollection, a weekly class on doctrinal, ascetical, or apostolic formation, weekly confession, daily Mass, time each day dedicated to mental prayer, daily rosary, daily spiritual reading, daily visit to the blessed Sacrament, examination of conscience at night, etc.
Less than a decade after the foundation of the Work, after Fr. Escrivá finally realized God’s plan for his life, the Spanish Civil War erupted, engulfing Spain in violence. Escrivá and the very few members of Opus Dei that existed at that point were caught in the middle of the turmoil. Before the war began, anti-Catholic violence had already been on the rise, and there were attempts on Escrivá’s life. Eventually, after much prayer and time in hiding, Fr. Escrivá and a few of his companions risked their lives in a harrowing trek across the Pyrenees in order to be able to perform his priestly ministry more publically. After the war, Escrivá and the members that remained continued to live out the spirit of Opus Dei, and the Work began to grow. In 1941, the Archbishop of Madrid made Opus Dei a “Pious Union.”
In 1943, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, which forms a part of Opus Dei, was erected, which provided the means for Opus Dei to have its own priests called from among its celibate laymen, who would already be formed in the spirit of the Work. The Priestly Society of the Holy Cross was also a means by which diocesan priests could become members of Opus Dei. In 1947 Opus Dei received Pontifical approval, and in 1948 Escrivá was able to allow married men and women to join Opus Dei. In 1950, Pius XII created secular institutes, and he made Opus Dei the first secular institute, although that category was never a good fit for Opus Dei. Vatican II would pave the way for a canonical category that fit Opus Dei’s spirit, the personal prelature, but Opus Dei would not find its canonical home as a personal prelature until after Escrivá’s death, when St. John Paul II made Opus Dei the first personal prelature in the Catholic Church in 1982.
St. Josemaría moved to Rome in 1946, where he lived for the remainder of his life. He was there for the entirety of the Second Vatican Council, of which Pope Francis has remarked he was a “precursor,” and at which his closest collaborator Blessed Alvaro del Portillo would play an important role. Indeed, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, with its chapter on the universal call to holiness, would in many ways be a vindication of the message St. Josemaría was given and had preached since 1928. He was not the only precursor to Vatican II, by any means, but he was certainly among them. And this is perhaps why he is such an important saint for our times. St. Josemaría’s message is not unique to Opus Dei, and is for ordinary Catholics. To get a sense of his message we can do no better than turn to his famous homily, “Passionately Loving the World,” where he explained:
[E]veryday life is the true setting for your lives as Christians. Your ordinary contact with God takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. There you have your daily encounter with Christ. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind…. God is calling you to serve Him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us every day, in the laboratory, in the operating theatre, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.
St. Josemaría’s message for us is that God wants all of us to become saints, and for most Catholics this will not involve leaving one’s state in life; it will not involve leaving the world. Spouses and professional occupations are not obstacles to sanctity, but become the very means, the hinge of sanctification. It will be precisely by learning to find God through our spouses, in family life, and in our daily work, that we can become saints. Moreover, these ordinary aspects of daily life become the occasions of apostolate, of helping those we encounter day in and day out draw closer to God. We won’t be able to do this, however, without frequent recourse to Jesus in the Eucharist, in Confession, and in set times of prayer. The practices of prayer and our reception of the Eucharist, that St. Josemaría recommended, are means of helping facilitate an ongoing dialogue with God in the midst of the most mundane human activities. St. Josemaría saw the call of ordinary Christians as a call to become contemplatives in the middle of the world, in the street.
On June 26, 1975, after glancing at an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in his office where he worked, St. Josemaría collapsed to the floor and died of cardiac arrest. His earthly life ended, his message would continue. He was, in the words of John Paul II, the “Saint of ordinary life.” Thus, he can be a powerful model and intercessor for all of us striving for holiness in our busy ordinary lives.