Saint of the Day – 26 June – Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer y Albás – (9 January 1902 at Barbastro, Spain Died– 26 June 1975 of natural causes in his office in Rome, Italy; his body is interred at Prelatic Church of Our Lady of Peace at Viale Bruno Buozzi 75, Rome, Italy) – Priest, Founder Writer, Teacher, Doctor of Civil Law and Theology – known as “The Saint of Ordinary Life”.; St Josemaria was Beatified on 17 May 1992 by Pope John Paul II: the beatification miracle involved the cure in 1976 of Carmelite Sister Concepcion Boullon Rubio from the nearly-fatal cancerous form of lipomatosis following prayers by her family for the intercession of Father Josemaria and was Canonised on 6 October 2002 by Pope John Paul II: the canonization miracle involved saving a surgeon’s hands from a career-ending disease. Patron of Opus Dei and of Ordinary Life.
St Josemaria founded Opus Dei, an organization of laypeople and priests dedicated to the teaching that everyone is called to holiness by God and that ordinary life can result in sanctity. He was canonised during 2002 by Pope John Paul II, who declared Saint Josemaría should be “counted among the great witnesses of Christianity.”
His principal work was the initiation, government and expansion of Opus Dei. Escrivá’s best-known publication is The Way, which has been translated into 43 languages and has sold several million copies.
St Josemaria Escrivá and Opus Dei have aroused controversy, primarily concerning allegations of secrecy, elitism, cult-like practices and political involvement with right-wing causes, such as the dictatorship of General Franco in Spain (1939–1975). After his death, his canonisation attracted considerable attention and controversy, by some Catholics and the worldwide press. Several journalists who have investigated the history of Opus Dei, among them Vatican analyst John L. Allen, Jr., have argued that these accusations are unproven or have grown from allegations by enemies of Escrivá and his organization. Cardinal Albino Luciani (later Pope John Paul I), John Paul II, Benedict XVI, Francis, Oscar Romero and many Catholic leaders have endorsed Escrivá’s teaching concerning the universal call to holiness, the role of laity and sanctification of ordinary work. According to Allen, among Catholics, Escrivá is “reviled by some and venerated by millions more”.
José María Mariano Escrivá y Albás was born to José Escrivá y Corzán and his wife, María de los Dolores Albás y Blanc on 9 January 1902, in the small town of Barbastro, in Huesca, Aragon, Spain, the second of six children and the first of two sons. José Escrivá was a merchant and a partner of a textile company which eventually became bankrupt, forcing the family to relocate during 1915 to the city of Logroño, in the northern province of La Rioja, where he worked as a clerk in a clothing store. Young Josemaría first felt that “he had been chosen for something”, it is reported, when he saw footprints left in the snow by a monk walking barefoot.
With his father’s blessing, Escrivá prepared to become a priest. He studied first in Logroño and then in Zaragoza, where he was ordained as deacon on Saturday, 20 December 1924. He was ordained a priest, also in Zaragoza, on Saturday, 28 March 1925. After a brief appointment to a rural parish in Perdiguera, he went to Madrid, the Spanish capital, during 1927 to study law at the Central University. In Madrid, Escrivá was employed as a private tutor and as a chaplain to the Foundation of Santa Isabel, which comprised the royal Convent of Santa Isabel and a school managed by the Little Sisters of the Assumption.
Mission as the founder of Opus Dei
A prayerful retreat helped him to discern more definitely what he considered to be God’s will for him and, on 2 October 1928, he “saw” Opus Dei (English: Work of God), a way by which Catholics might learn to sanctify themselves by their secular work. He founded it during 1928 and Pius XII gave it final approval during 1950. According to the decree of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which contains a condensed biography of Escrivá, “[t]o this mission he gave himself totally. From the beginning his was a very wide-ranging apostolate in social environments of all kinds. He worked especially among the poor and the sick languishing in the slums and hospitals of Madrid.”
During the Spanish Civil War, Escrivá fled from Madrid, which was controlled by the republicans, via Andorra and France, to the city of Burgos, possessed by the nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco. After the war ended during 1939 with Franco’s victory, Escrivá was able to resume his studies in Madrid and complete a doctorate in law, for which he submitted a thesis on the historical jurisdiction of the Abbess of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas.
The Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, affiliated with Opus Dei, was founded on Sunday, 14 February 1943. Escrivá relocated to Rome during 1946. The decree declaring Escrivá “Venerable” states that “in 1947 and on Monday, 16 June 1950, he obtained approval of Opus Dei as an institution of pontifical right. With tireless charity and operative hope he guided the development of Opus Dei throughout the world, activating a vast mobilization of lay people … He gave life to numerous initiatives in the work of evangelisation and human welfare; he fostered vocations to the priesthood and the religious life everywhere… Above all, he devoted himself tirelessly to the task of forming the members of Opus Dei.”\
According to some accounts, at the age of two he suffered from a disease (perhaps epilepsy) so severe that the doctors expected him to die soon but his mother had taken him to Torreciudad, where the Aragonese locals venerated a statue of the Virgin Mary (as “Our Lady of the Angels”), thought to date from the 11th century. Escrivá recovered and as the director of Opus Dei during the 1960s and 1970s, promoted and oversaw the design and construction of a major shrine at Torreciudad. The new shrine was inaugurated on 7 July 1975, soon after Escrivá’s death and to this day remains the spiritual center of Opus Dei, as well as an important destination for pilgrimage. By the time of Escrivá’s death during 1975, the members of Opus Dei numbered some 60,000 in 80 countries. As an adult, Escrivá suffered from type 1 diabetes and, according to some sources, also epilepsy.
During 1950, Escrivá was appointed an Honorary Domestic Prelate by Pope Pius XII, which allowed him to use the title of Monsignor. During 1955, he received a doctorate of theology from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. He was a consultor to two Vatican congregations (the Congregation for Seminaries and Universities and the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law) and an honourary member of the Pontifical Academy of Theology. The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) confirmed the importance of the universal call to holiness, the role of the laity, and the Mass as the basis of Christian life.
During 1948 Escrivá founded the Collegium Romanum Sanctae Crucis (Roman College of the Holy Cross), Opus Dei’s educational center for men, in Rome. During 1953 he founded the Collegium Romanum Sanctae Mariae (Roman College of Saint Mary) to serve the women’s section (these institutions are now joined into the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross.) Escrivá also established the University of Navarre, in Pamplona, and the University of Piura (in Peru), as secular institutions affiliated with Opus Dei. Escrivá died on 26 June 1975, aged 73.
Three years after Escrivá died, the then Cardinal Albino Luciani (later Pope John Paul I) celebrated the originality of his contribution to Christian spirituality. The Statue below is at St Peter’s the Vatican.
St Josemaria and the Blessed Virgin Mary
Pope John Paul II stated on Sunday, 6 October 2002, after the Angelus greetings: “Love for our Lady is a constant characteristic of the life of Josemaría Escrivá and is an eminent part of the legacy that he left to his spiritual sons and daughters.” The Pope also said that “St. Josemaría wrote a beautiful small book called The Holy Rosary which presents spiritual childhood, a real disposition of spirit of those who wish to attain total abandonment to the divine will”.
When Escrivá was 10 or 11 years old, he already had the habit of carrying the rosary in his pocket. As a priest, he would ordinarily end his homilies and his personal prayer with a conversation with the Blessed Virgin. He instructed that all rooms in the offices of Opus Dei should have an image of the Virgin. He encouraged his spiritual children to greet these images when they entered a room. He encouraged a Marian apostolate, preaching that “To Jesus we go and to Him we return through Mary”. While looking at a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe giving a rose to San Juan Diego, he commented: “I would like to die that way.” On 26 June 1975, after entering his work room, which had a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, he slumped on the floor and died.
Teachings and legacy
The significance of Escrivá’s message and teachings has been a topic of debate, by Catholics and others. The Protestant French historian Pierre Chaunu, a professor at the Sorbonne and president of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences, said that “the work of Escrivá de Balaguer will undoubtedly mark the 21st century. This is a prudent and reasonable wager. Do not pass close to this contemporary without paying him close attention”. The Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who was appointed cardinal by Pope John Paul II (but died during 1988 before his investiture), dismissed Escrivá’s principal work, The Way, as “a little Spanish manual for advanced Boy Scouts” and argued that it was quite insufficient to sustain a major religious organization. However, the monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton declared that Escrivá’s book “will certainly do a great deal of good by its simplicity, which is the true medium for the Gospel message”.
Critics of Opus Dei have often argued that the importance and originality of Escrivá’s intellectual contributions to theology, history and law, at least as measured by his published writings, has been grossly exaggerated by his devotees. However, various officials of the Catholic church have spoken well of Escrivá’s influence and of the relevance of his teachings. In the decree introducing the cause of beatification and canonisation of Escrivá, Cardinal Ugo Poletti wrote during 1981: “For having proclaimed the universal call to holiness since he founded Opus Dei during 1928, Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá de Balaguer, has been unanimously recognized as the precursor of precisely what constitutes the fundamental nucleus of the Church’s magisterium, a message of such fruitfulness in the life of the Church.” Sebastiano Baggio, Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, wrote a month after Escrivá’s death: “It is evident even today that the life, works, and message of the founder of Opus Dei constitutes a turning point, or more exactly a new original chapter in the history of Christian spirituality.” A Vatican peritus or consultor for the process of beatification said that “he is like a figure from the deepest spiritual sources”. Franz König, Archbishop of Vienna, wrote in 1975:
“The magnetic force of Opus Dei probably comes from its profoundly lay spirituality. At the very beginning, in 1928, Msgr. Escrivá anticipated the return to the Patrimony of the Church brought by the Second Vatican Council … [H]e was able to anticipate the great themes of the Church’s pastoral action in the dawn of the third millennium of her history.”
The “absolutely central” part of Escrivá’s teaching, says American theologian William May, is that “sanctification is possible only because of the grace of God, freely given to his children through his only-begotten Son and it consists essentially in an intimate, loving union with Jesus, our Redeemer and Saviour.”
Escrivá’s books, including Furrow, The Way, Christ is Passing By and The Forge, continue to be read widely and emphasize the laity’s calling to daily sanctification (a message also to be found in the documents of Vatican II). Pope John Paul II made the following observation in his homily at the beatification of Escrivá:
“With supernatural intuition, Blessed Josemaría untiringly preached the universal call to holiness and apostolate. Christ calls everyone to become holy in the realities of everyday life. Hence work too is a means of personal holiness and apostolate, when it is done in union with Jesus Christ.”
John Paul II’s decree Christifideles omnes states: “By inviting Christians to seek union with God through their daily work — which confers dignity on human beings and is their lot as long as they exist on earth — his message is destined to endure as an inexhaustible source of spiritual light regardless of changing epochs and situations” St Josemaria pray for us!