Spain has been fertile ground for saintly founders. In the 13th century, St. Dominic founded the Order of Preachers, known as the Dominicans, and his successor St. Raymond of Penyafort gave them their definitive constitutions. In the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross jointly undertook a great reformation of the Carmelites. At the same time, St. Ignatius Loyola and his lieutenant St. Francis Xavier were launching the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits.

Perhaps the 20th century will be remembered for the foundation of Opus Dei (Latin for the Work of God) or as its members prefer to call it, “the Work.”

Blessed Josemaría Escrivà was born in Barbastro, Spain, on Jan. 9, 1902. The family was pious and refined, and Josemaría sensed as an adolescent that God wanted something special of him. He entered the seminary in order to make himself more available to that call. Ordained a priest in 1925, he was a hardworking young priest, zealous in his pastoral care of students, women religious, the poor and the sick. In 1928, while making a retreat, he received a supernatural vision or illumination, in which he reported that he “saw” Opus Dei.

Father Escrivá immediately began to gather young men around him (Opus Dei would begin work among women two years later) to preach his new message of lay holiness. He called his followers to live a life of intense prayer, mortification and apostolic work, while remaining employed in their normal secular occupations. In a favorite phrase, he asked his disciples to become “contemplatives in the middle of the world.”

Opus Dei is not a religious order like the others. It is a something entirely new in the Church, a personal prelature (which has a nonterritorial status akin to a diocese) consisting mostly of lay people who freely incorporate themselves into it. This new structure, foreseen by the Second Vatican Council, was established in 1982, and Opus Dei now has nearly 80,000 members across the globe, overwhelmingly lay, with both married and permanently celibate members. It also has its own priests who look after the spiritual formation of the lay members.

Opus Dei's extraordinary growth and the rapid beatification of its founder, only 17 years after his death in 1975, have established it as a major new influence in the Church. Its mission also marks a distinctive aspect of the Church in the 20th century, namely a renewed focus on lay holiness.

“As old as the Gospel, as new as the Gospel,” Msgr. Escrivá was fond of saying about Opus Dei. What was new was the structure of Opus Dei, which provided for, especially in the case of the celibate members, a highly educated, well-formed lay apostolate that would reach as far into society as the occupations of its members would take it.

The insistence of Msgr. Escrivá and others that every person was called to holiness, exactly in the place where he was, won vindication at Vatican II, which taught that “everyone is called to holiness” (Lumen Gentium, No. 39), including lay people, who “in their daily work, should climb to the heights of holiness and apostolic activity” (No. 41).

While the vocation to holiness of every baptized person was taught by St. Paul — For this is the will of God, your sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3) — and explicated by such distinguished spiritual writers as St. Francis de Sales, the 20th century needed a strong reminder that it was the role of the laity to transform the world, through their work in the world, and their witness in the world as saints.

As the Church marks the feast of All Saints, Nov. 1, to celebrate the millions of ordinary men and women who are in heaven without formal canonization, the preaching of Msgr. Escrivá is particularly apt.

Josemaría Escrivá, paradoxically, lived quite an extraordinary life. Like most founders, he encountered opposition to his innovations, and exercised patience in waiting for ecclesiastical approval, while insisting upon the specific mission that he believed was entrusted to him.

He endured the anti-clerical persecutions of the Spanish Civil War, living clandestinely in Madrid as a priest, taking refuge in the Honduran Consulate, and finally escaping — in harrowing and dramatic fashion — over the Pyrenees on foot.

From his youth, he knew well the turmoils that were rocking Spain; the prelate who admitted Josemaría to minor orders in 1922, Cardinal Giovanni Soldevila, the archbishop of Saragossa, was assassinated by anarchists the next year. Finally, he has suffered from attacks on his reputation even after death.

He endured all this, and his heavy responsibilities as a founder, with remarkable devotion to prayer, severe corporal mortifications, and an untiring devotion to his priestly ministry. By all accounts, his was a winning personality that drew others with refinement and good humor. Even when calumniated by his opponents, he maintained a charitable disposition toward all.

“For me, I only want to hide and disappear, so that Jesus alone is in the limelight,” said Msgr. Escrivá. According to his own public statements, he would eschew anything that would indicate a cult of personality. In time, as Opus Dei matures, it is to be expected that the holiness of its founder's life will speak for itself, and will be freed from either partisan attacks or hagiography.

“The crisis of the world,” Msgr. Escrivá said, “is a crisis of saints.” His life was one answer to the crisis of the 20th century, and he devoted himself to exhorting others — all others — to resolve the crisis of the world in similar fashion, i.e., by becoming saints.

Raymond de Souza writes from Rome.