Editor's note: On Register Radio July 19, Jeanette De Melo interviewed Father C. John McCloskey about the upcoming beatification of Venerable Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Listen online here.
WASHINGTON — Pope Francis approved the beatification of Venerable Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, the second leader of Opus Dei, after signing a July 5 decree recognizing a miracle granted through the intercession of the Spanish-born bishop.
Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey, a Church historian and research fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington, welcomed the news as a “great good for the Church.” He recalled the striking virtues and accomplishments of the beloved Opus Dei leader, as well as his close friendship with Blessed John Paul II, during a July 10 interview with the Register.
Father McCloskey first encountered the man Opus Dei members called “Don Alvaro” while studying for the priesthood in Rome in 1978-1980. “I was one of 60-70 seminarians; I am happy to say he called me to the priesthood,” noted Father McCloskey.
The late 1970s were a time of great ferment in the Church and in Opus Dei. The founder, Josemaría Escrivá, had died in 1975, and Pope John Paul II was elected pope in 1978.
The Polish pope was a good friend to Opus Dei and, in particular, Don Alvaro — a close bond had developed between the two men while working together during the Second Vatican Council and in Vatican congregations. Opus Dei seminarians were able to meet with Don Alvaro, who succeeded St. Josemaría Escrivá as head of Opus Dei, during regular gatherings for Rome-based members.
“He was called ‘Don Alvaro,’ because priests are called ‘Don’ in Spanish countries,” said Father McCloskey.
“Without exaggerating, he was always smiling. He was a happy, serene person. He was humble. Anyone who spoke with him felt his sense of peace.”
This quiet serenity was something of a contrast with Opus Dei’s saintly founder. “St. Josemaría Escrivá was at times tempestuous — and an artist and writer. He had to be tough to found Opus Dei. Don Alvaro was low-key and serene. He was a man of few words, a listener,” said Father McCloskey. “For 30 years, he had assisted St. Josemaría Escrivá, always in the background. Look on YouTube; you will see St. Josemaría Escrivá with Don Alvaro in the background.”
The two men met in Spain in 1935 and worked closely together after that time, through the turmoil and religious persecution of the Spanish Civil War. Ordained in 1944, Alvaro del Portillo was among the first group of Opus Dei priests.
“He called Don Alvaro ‘My most faithful son,’” Father McCloskey said. “Don Alvaro was very capable, but what was most important was that he was called to the side of the founder. For him, it was the privilege of living with a great saint and being faithful to the end.”
After the death of the founder, Don Alvaro was unanimously elected as his successor. Opus Dei’s records offer a portrait of his characteristic humility. His self-effacement, noted Father McCloskey, was all the more remarkable because Don Alvaro was very intelligent and had earned no less than three doctorates in canon law, engineering and history, with advanced studies in theology as well.
He offered his wisdom and experience for the service of Opus Dei, as well as during the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council and to assist the Roman Curia, where he was a consultor for several Vatican congregations. During the Second Vatican Council, said Father McCloskey, St. Josemaría and Don Alvaro sought to address “the laity’s role of sanctifying work and evangelizing the culture.”
Don Alvaro headed the Commission on the Laity and served as the secretary to the Commission on the Discipline of the Clergy. Two books, Faithful and Laity in the Church (1969) and On the Priesthood (1970) reflected the spiritual and intellectual fruits of his work during the Council’s deliberations.
In the early years of Pope John Paul II’s pontificate, he was a member of the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law. In 1985, he founded the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.
Yet despite the many demands on his time, he found time for his “sons and daughters” in Opus Dei. During his seminary days, Father McCloskey remembered his experiences of Don Alvaro’s spiritual paternity firsthand.
“If you wanted to be a priest, you would catch him for a moment and talk to him alone. It was nothing official. I was on the way to the priesthood, and I had not talked to him,” recalled Father McCloskey.
“One day, I saw him walking down the stairs. I was in my mid-20s, but I had the temerity to say, ‘Can I talk with you for a moment?’ I was impressed that he stopped and looked at me.
“Then he said, ‘Sure, let’s talk.’ We took a little walk in the building, and he acted as if there was nothing in the world more important than me.
“Afterward, he went downstairs and went off to the Vatican. To him, his sons and daughters in Opus Dei were more important. He put them first.”
When Don Alvaro first went to Rome, his mission was to secure approval of Opus Dei as a Catholic institution. Forty years would pass before he attained his ultimate goal and Opus Dei became the first personal prelature in the Church.
“St. Josemaría Escrivá wanted to have an institution made up of the laity and priests. He said, ‘If you want to understand Opus Dei, you need to look at the lives of the early Christians, when priests and laypeople worked together on evangelization, Christianizing the world from within,” explained Father McCloskey.
“When St. Josemaría first came to Rome, one Curial official told him, ‘It’s a very nice thing you have here, but you have come 100 years too early.’”
“I was present and heard Pope John Paul II at Castel Gandolfo say that Josemaría had foreseen the role of the laity 40 years before the Second Vatican Council,” said Father McCloskey.
In 1982, Opus Dei was established as a personal prelature. Pope John Paul II named Don Alvaro the prelate of Opus Dei and later ordained him as a bishop in 1991. Under his leadership, the prelature established roots in 20 new countries.
Father McCloskey noted that members of Opus Dei were deeply moved by the events leading up to the death of Bishop del Portillo in 1994. “He had only just returned from the Holy Land, where he had celebrated his last Mass in the Church of the Cenacle in Jerusalem,” said Father McCloskey.
He noted that Pope John Paul went to Opus Dei’s headquarters in Rome and prayed before Bishop del Portillo’s remains.
Almost two decades later, on July 5, 2013, Pope Francis signed a decree recognizing the miracle obtained through the intercession of Venerable Bishop del Portillo that revived a Chilean newborn, Jose Ignacio Ureta Wilson, who had experienced cardiac arrest and hemorrhage.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.