The ordinary that made a man extraordinary

AUCKLAND — Towards the end of September, several small groups of Kiwis will be making their way to Madrid for the beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, who succeeded St Josemaria
Escriva as head of Opus Dei after the founder’s death in 1975.
Killian de Lacy gave an excellent summary of Don Alvaro’s life in a recent NZ Catholic (July 27).

Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, right, and Pope John Paul II embrace in St Peter’s Square.

To be recognised as a saint by the Church requires something extraordinary — a miracle. The miracle attributed to Don Alvaro for his beatification is the recovery of Jose Ignacio Ureta Wilson, a boy living in Santiago, Chile, whose moving story you can read on the Opus
Dei website (
But it was through the ordinary things of his life that Don Alvaro actually became holy: as a student and engineer, then as a priest and close collaborator of St Josemaria (who nicknamed
him Saxum, or rock), and ultimately as the father and prelate of the great family of Opus Dei. The way he lived his vocation can be an inspiration for lay people, too.
As a new biography by John F. Coverdale shows, Don Alvaro got through an enormous amount of work. By the age of 36 he was procurator general of Opus Dei, rector of the fledgling Roman College of the Holy Cross (now a pontifical university), and head of Opus Dei in Italy — but he still found time to earn a doctorate in canon law and to work in the Vatican.
Over the years his workload did not grow less — nor his health better — but people invariably found him serene and cheerful. He could accomplish in a couple of hours what would take others a whole day. His secret? A life of prayer that permeated all the daily tasks.
“To multiply our time,” he once said, “we need to have more presence of God.
Then we will work with greater peace and greater intensity and with more desire of doing things well.”
Don Alvaro had a great capacity for friendship. Although he was by nature reserved (as an adolescent, he chose engineering over law because he did not like to speak in public), he was very affectionate and made lifelong friends even out of people who had not been well disposed towards the Work. A woman tells how a hug from Don Alvaro brought her husband back to the faith and Confession. People who see his photo invariably remark, “What a kind face he has!”
During nearly five decades living in Rome, Don Alvaro became a friend of successive popes, but especially of John Paul II. The two holy men exchanged many tokens of respect and affection, and when Bishop Alvaro del Portillo (as he was by then) died suddenly in 1994,
John Paul came to pray at his wake.
He was always concerned for the human and spiritual advancement of people. As a student, before he met St Josemaria, Alvaro visited the poor of Madrid, along with friends in the St
Vincent de Paul Society, and taught the children catechism.
In 1951 he came up with a novel scheme for funding the purchase of some land outside Rome by selling most of the 3000-acre farm in separate parcels to the nearly 300 peasants who had
been employed there. He also provided for their formation in the faith.
In the 1980s he encouraged projects by members of Opus Dei, together with many cooperators and friends, to help people out of poverty. In countries from Mexico to Argentina, the Philippines and several African countries, they established technical, agricultural
and professional schools and centres for training women for the hospitality industry.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, a walk-in clinic in Monkole, one of the poorest districts of Kinshasa, grew into a 50-bed hospital that has plans for further expansion. Fee-paying ex-pats and others who can afford to pay fund free treatment for those who cannot.
Monkole is, by the way, one of four African development projects under the umbrella of an NGO called Harambee ( for which funds are being raised in association with the beatification of Don Alvaro. Your support would no doubt earn you a big spiritual hug from the new blessed.
Carolyn Moynihan is an Auckland journalist and member of Opus Dei.
Biography: Saxum: The Life of Alvaro del Portillo, by John F. Coverdale, Scepter, New
York, 2014.

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