Opus Dei’s First Prelate Beatified in Madrid

An estimated 250,000 pilgrims attended the beatification of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo, who led Opus Dei for nearly two decades until his death in 1994.

Pilgrims attend the beatification Mass of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo in Madrid.
Pilgrims attend the beatification Mass of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo in Madrid. (photo: Opus Dei Information Office)

MADRID — A vast crowd of pilgrims, many of them families, started arriving in the Valdebebas fields on the outskirts of Madrid Saturday morning for the beatification of Bishop Álvaro del Portillo (1914-1994).

Soon after noon, the immediate successor to Opus Dei’s founder, St. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, was declared "Blessed" in a solemn yet festive ceremony. An estimated 250,000 pilgrims from all over the world — so many that they stretched almost a mile back from the specially constructed ­altar — attended the beatification Mass.

Blessed Álvaro is the first member of Opus Dei to be raised to the altars since St. Josemaría was canonized in 2002, making the event highly significant for the personal prelature and for the Church as a whole.

A large number of clergy, comprising 150 bishops and 1,200 priests from around the world, were present to witness the beatification. Eighteen cardinals also made the pilgrimage to Madrid, including several from the Curia, such as Cardinal George Pell, prefect of the Secretariat for the Economy.

President Juan Carlos Varela of Panama was among the dignitaries, as were more than 200 people with disabilities and representatives from the many social initiatives that Blessed Álvaro promoted, particularly in Africa and Latin America.


‘Simple, Beautiful and Solemn’

“The ceremony was simple, beautiful and solemn,” said Opus Dei Father Robert Gahl, who teaches moral philosophy at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome — a university that the newly blessed helped to set up. “It was low key, and, at once, it was festive with a simple sobriety — just what Don Alvaro would have wanted.”

Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, presided over the ceremony, which began with Father Fernando Ocariz, the vicar general of Opus Dei, reading a message sent by Pope Francis.

The Holy Father, who became close to Opus Dei in Argentina in the 1970s, expressed his “special joy” at learning of the newly beatified bishop’s “life of humble service to others,” which “began to take shape in the simplicity of family life, through friendship and service to others.”

Blessed Álvaro, he noted, “is also teaching us that in the simplicity and ordinariness of our daily lives we can find a sure path to holiness.” His example provides a lesson for us “not to be afraid to go against the current and suffer for announcing the Gospel.”

Álvaro del Portillo, he added, served the Church “with a heart devoid of worldly self-interest, far from discord, welcoming towards everyone and always seeking in others what was positive.” He knew of our need for God’s mercy, the Holy Father added, and even in especially difficult times, “he never spoke a word of complaint or criticism.” On the contrary, “as he had learned from St. Josemaría, he always responded with prayer, forgiveness, understanding and sincere charity.”


Extraordinary Humility

In his homily, Cardinal Amato, speaking in front of an image of Our Lady of Almudena in Almudena Cathedral, where Blessed Álvaro used to often pray, stressed the bishop’s humility, which he practiced in an “extraordinary way.” Cardinal Amato said Blessed Álvaro was “infected” by the behavior of the Lord and that, like St. Augustine, for him, “humility was the dwelling place of charity” and the key to holiness.

“For Don Álvaro, humility was ‘the key that opens the door to enter into the house of holiness,’” Cardinal Amato said, quoting the newly blessed. While pride was the “greatest obstacle” to seeing and loving God, “humility strips away from us the ridiculous cardboard mask that presumptuous, self-satisfied people wear.”

“The Church and the world need the great spectacle of holiness so that its pleasing fragrance can purify the noxious fumes of the many vices which are being praised so arrogantly and insistently,” Cardinal Amato said. “Now, more than ever, we need an ecology of holiness, to counteract the pollution of immorality and corruption.”

Prominent throughout the ceremony, above the altar, were the words of Blessed Álvaro’s episcopal motto: Regnare Christum Volumus (We Want Christ to Reign). His relics were brought to the altar by the Ureta Wilsom family, whose son Jose Ignacio was miraculously cured thanks to the intercession of the new blessed.


Centenary of His Birth

The year of his beatification is significant: It happened to take place on the centenary of Álvaro del Portillo’s birth, to a Mexican mother and Spanish father, on March 11, 1914. It also came 70 years since his ordination in 1944 and 20 years since his death on March 23, 1994.

A trained engineer, Alvaro del Portillo joined Opus Dei, which was founded in 1928, in 1935 and moved to Rome in 1946, where he helped St. Josemaría lay the foundations for the movement that would later become a personal prelature. He played an active role in the Second Vatican Council; and in the years that followed — especially after the death of St. Josemaría in 1975 — he became instrumental in expanding Opus Dei across the world.

He died in 1994, just hours after returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he had celebrated his last Mass at the Cenacle, the place of the Last Supper, in Jerusalem. Testimonies to his personal kindness, humility, supernatural courage and personal holiness soon began spreading after his death.

In his homily during a thanksgiving Mass the following day, the current prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodríguez, highlighted Blessed Álvaro’s concern for the poor and abandoned and how, through his solidarity with them, he revealed God’s mercy. He also noted the many families present and said their large presence was a testimony to the fruitfulness of Blessed Álvaro’s life.

“It was a wonderful ceremony,” said Steve Rosallo, who had made the pilgrimage from Toronto with his wife and 12 children. “My parents had known Opus Dei for a long time, and they have been a great help for our family.”

Many noted the ordinariness of the event, which reflected Opus Dei’s dedication to fostering holiness in everyday life.

“There were so many families praying in a natural fashion, and that was very moving for me,” said Augusto Silberstein from Brazil. “There weren’t any groups: Each one went with friends, family — everyone in their ordinary life, with their family friends, coming to pay tribute to Don Álvaro and to worship God.”


Reinforcements for Confession

Also significant were the large numbers of faithful going to confession during both the beatification and the thanksgiving Mass the following day — so many that non-local priests who were attending the ceremony were asked to help. One was Father Scott Hastings from the Archdiocese of Omaha, Neb., who is studying canon law in Rome.

“It was the best part for me, hearing confessions with 100 other priests in all kinds of languages,” he told the Register..

Father Gahl, who was ordained a deacon by Blessed Álvaro, said the beatification was “confirmation” of St. Josemaría’s message and charism: that ordinary people can find God and holiness in their ordinary lives. He recalled how Blessed Álvaro liked “to do ordinary things and enjoyed ordinary things.”

At the end of the celebration, Bishop Echevarría thanked those present who had made the ceremony possible.

“The raising of Álvaro del Portillo to the altars reminds us anew of the universal call to holiness, proclaimed with great fervor by the Second Vatican Council,” he said.

And he asked those present to pray in a special way “for our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution for their faith, including martyrdom in different parts of the world.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.