Josemaría Escrivá, Saint of the Ordinary

Forty-five years after his death, the founder of Opus Dei, whose lay-oriented personal prelature anticipated the work of Vatican II, remains a very timely model of holiness for all generations.

Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer on September 23, 1966.
Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer on September 23, 1966. (photo: Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0).)

“Take no notice. Madness has always been the term that 'prudent' people apply to God's works. Forward! Without fear!” (The Way, No. 479)

This thought by Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, expressed in one of his major works, accurately illustrates the zeal with which he lived his life at the service of God, and above all, the fire he lighted in the heart of so many faithful through his revolutionary and universal appeal to holiness.

Born in 1902 in Barbastro (Spain), he decided to dedicate his life to God at the age of 15 and was ordained a priest in 1925.

In 1928, while on retreat, a young Josemaría received the divine inspiration that would shape his apostolate, a call that will give rise to the foundation of Opus Dei (“Work of God” — also commonly referred to as the “Work”), a personal prelature of the Catholic Church, with the aim to evangelize the world by inducing all Christians to seek holiness within the framework of their everyday life — especially through their family and professional life.  

He explained later that the “Work” was born “to help those Christians, who through their family, their friendships, their ordinary work, their aspirations, form part of the very texture of civil society, to understand that their life, just as it is, can be an opportunity for meeting Christ.”

This prophetic intuition, which gave the lay an unprecedented space within the Church, was also central to the discussions and work of Vatican II.

St. Josemaria died on June 26, 1975, but the Work, as it is known to Opus Dei adherents, continues to this day – according to the communication office of Opus Dei – with 90,000 faithful worldwide, including 1,900 priests. The lay, who represent about 98% of the membership, are mostly supernumeraries — that is, married men or women from all backgrounds seeking holiness through their family and professional duties — or numeraries, celibate members who devote their lives exclusively to the prelature’s mission.

Today, too, his spirituality continues to touch countless souls through his numerous writings translated into dozens of languages and through schools founded by Opus Dei worldwide, especially the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, founded in Rome in his name by his first successor, blessed Álvaro del Portillo, in 1990. 


The Golden Touch

“What he understood when receiving his specific mission on October 2, 1928, a mission that he pursued all of his life, is that one can find God in any situation, that the world is not independent from God and that there shouldn’t be any separation between spiritual life and the everyday life,” Msgr. Lluís Clavell Ortiz-Repiso, the former rector of the University of the Holy Cross and former president of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, told the Register. “He taught people how to seek God everywhere with their own limits but constantly, while working, eating, praying, sleeping, always staying in close contact with him.”

Indeed, exalting God in the simplicity and concreteness of life amounts to acknowledge his invisible presence “in the most visible and material things,” as St. Josemaría once said.

Such a call to holiness in the middle of the world gives great dimension and value to everyday life. It is in this sense that St. Josemaría urged the Catholic faithful not to “let their life be sterile,” but to “be useful” and “blaze a trail.”

By seeking holiness and loving our neighbors, even through very simple actions, we are able to rise and get to what he called the third dimension of life, that which gives “height, perspective, weight and volume” to any existence, even the most down to earth.

“In his view, a Christian doesn’t fulfill his vocation more by taking commitments within the Church, becoming a priest for instance, than by his ordinary activities,” Msgr. Antoine de Rochebrune, new Vicar of Opus Dei in Canada, and former Vicar for France from 2010 to May 2020, told the Register, adding that it is not necessary to stop being what we are to become a saint, and that any person wherever he is and whatever he does is called to give up his life to God.

“In doing so,” he added, “the Christian faithful must be aware of the spiritual treasure he has in his hands, and understand that just like king Midas, they must turn everything they touch into gold.”

Such a conception of Christian life led Pope John Paul II, who canonized him in 2002, to call Josemaría Escrivá “the Saint of the ordinary”.

It is precisely this image of holiness next door, also found in Pope Francis’ Gaudete et Exsultate, that attracted Kathryn Plazek, a 31-year-old American numerary from Pittsburgh, to Opus Dei, when she first heard about St. Josemaría in high school. Now based in Rome, Plazek is responsible for Opus Dei’s formational activities for young people offered worldwide.

“I was 13 when I saw a video of him, and he was saying that ‘Holiness is for everyone, everyone, everyone’, and that ‘everyone’ struck me, because if it was for everyone, then it was for me, too!” Plazek told the Register. “He highlighted that a saint is not perfect, nor a person that never falls, and [in saying that, he] gives a lot a peace and hope.”

While mentioning sanctification of work as the core of St. Josemaría’s spirituality, Plazek recalled that Jesus Christ himself worked as a carpenter for 20-30 years of life, redeeming the world from his carpenter shop before his few years of public life. “That is the normality of the Christian life, we can imitate him by working well and let God’s love shape all of our actions, while seeking excellence.” 


Promoting Feminine Genius

Today, women in Opus Dei make more than half of the membership, a fact all the more interesting since St. Josemaría did not originally intend to include women in the prelature. However, he realized his mistake just two years after its creation. Right at the end of celebrating Mass, on Feb. 14, 1930,, St. Josemaría received the divine intuition that Opus Dei’s mission was for women as much as for men.

“He didn’t think it was for women originally, and then the Lord told him that he actually forgot about 50% of the planet…so he realized he had half of the picture missing,” Plazek said. Today, the General Council of Opus Dei is ruled by two independent sections enjoying the same authority, one for men and the other for women.

While St. Josemaría had always been willing to see feminine genius develop in all its harmony within society, this divine intuition induced him to actively promote their presence within the whole civil society and the Christian world, especially by helping them pursue higher education at a time where only a small portion of Spanish women could go to university and get a job.

“God made him understand that women would be brought to evolve little by little within the society and to sanctify themselves in all professional fields without any exclusion and without losing their specific genius, which was totally revolutionary for the time,” Msgr. De Rochebrune told the Register.

While claiming that the Work allowed her to fully live and express her femininity in her life of faith and professional life, Plazek highlighted the fact that Opus Dei’s core message is the same for men and women—as is their basic role within the prelature.

“We are all called to seek holiness,” she said, “by striving for professional excellence, trying to make our mark in the world, serve others and the Church through our profession; even those who are seemingly living unspectacular lives, but who are salt, light, leaven of the world by carrying their ordinary duties for the love of God and neighbor.”


The “Last of the Romantics”

Another fundamental aspect of St. Josemaría’s thought and apostolate is his deep attachment to freedom, which flows naturally from love and charity. Far from any relativism or self-determining vision of freedom, the founder of Opus Dei valued human freedom through knowledge of and love for Christ as a prerequisite for any personal quest for holiness.

To this extent, he was fully continuing the tradition of the 19th-century Christian Romanticism, as Msgr. Mariano Fazio, auxiliary vicar of the prelature — showed in his recent book The Last of the Romantics, whose title is inspired by a nickname St. Josemaría gave himself. In his presentation of the book, the current Prelate of Opus Dei, Msgr. Fernando Ocáriz, defined Christian Romanticism by quoting the saint’s own words: “to truly love the freedom of others, with transport.”

Such a perspective on human freedom shaped the way he conceived evangelization, the life of the city and the realm of the laity in general – politics.

According to his numerous writings, St. Josemaría saw in friendship the best context of freedom to spread the Gospel without any manipulation of conscience. “He truly encouraged sanctification of friendship because it favors mutual respect, dialogue and support in order to become better Christians, so he definitely encouraged love of friendship as a vector of evangelization rather than mere proselytism,” Msgr. De Rochebrune said.

It is the same attachment to personal freedom that led him not to take sides during the Spanish Civil war, and to enable the members of Opus Dei to freely get involved in the political cause that better represented their views. “There has never been any ideological homogeneity within the Work, whose members were split between monarchists, democrats or republicans at that time,” Rochebrune said, adding that while some members supported General Franco’s regime, others were exiled in France as political opponents.


No God Without Joy

“You are unhappy? — Think: there must be an obstacle between God and me. You will seldom be wrong.” (The Way, No. 662). With such a phrase, St. Josemaría intended to highlight how much joy is consubstantial to a true relationship with God, and thus to any path of holiness.

Indeed, the awareness that Christ defeated sin and death in all eternity should make Christians tackle life with joy, confidence and a healthy detachment.

“St. Josemaría taught us not to take ourselves too seriously, not to give too much importance to our falls and failures, but to have a sense of humor and take God’s hand to get back on our feet,” Plazek said. “This message appeals to young people in our society, which is [otherwise] very competitive, perfectionistic and success-oriented: we must understand that God loves us as we are and calls us from where we are.”

And the Spanish saint never failed to apply his maxims to his own life, as demonstrated by the videos of him that immortalized the image of a beaming man full of gentleness and cheerfulness. “He was always inhabited by a deep natural joy, without ever hiding pain; he could cry for the Church and his brothers in Christ but he exalted life in every circumstance,” Msgr. Clavell, who lived with him for a few years in Rome, told the Register.

One of the most significant memories that Msgr. Clavell has of St. Josemaría is the fact that he liked to always carry a small crucifix with him in his daily tasks, one that he would regularly kiss during the day, offering all of his actions to Christ. St. Josemaría would place this same crucifix on his desk while working and under his pillow while sleeping, in order not to ever lose contact with the Trinity.

This inner joy rooted by God’s love also gave the saint great humility, which would manifest itself in various contexts. “He never hesitated to ask forgiveness, even to the young boys of his house, when he thought that he somehow did something wrong, even when the mistakes were not his!” Msgr. Clavell said. “It requires such a freedom of heart to be able to ask forgiveness even when one knows inside that one hasn’t done anything wrong.”

Another key ingredient of his joy was the deep devotion he had for the Virgin Mary. “He loved his Mother in Heaven immensely and when he entered his office, the first thing he used to do was to look at her portrait, and he would do the same when leaving,” Msgr. Clavell told the Register. “I remember the way he maintained a permanent connection with her and this is such a sweet memory to me.”

Solène Tadié is the Europe correspondent for the Register. She writes from Rome.