Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, who was Beatified by the Church on 27 Sept., in Madrid, is the only such person so far whom I have met and corresponded with. He was clearly no ordinary man.
Our meeting occurred over two decades ago in New Rochelle; Bishop Portillo was visiting America, and I was invited to a reception in his honor. At the time, I was teaching theology at Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, while still working at my editorial desk at the Transcript, which was my principal assignment. I recall completing my usual morning lecture, a three-and-a-half hour session, after which I drove down to New Rochelle (via the Wilbur Cross and Merritt Parkways), then met with the Bishop (not yet named a Bishop), then drove back to Cromwell for an evening class of three-and-a-half hours. (I probably missed a meal, but I was still young and energetic.) Bishop Portillo expressed concern about my schedule that day, and even made reference to it later, in a piece of correspondence.
Since our initial meeting, Bishop Portillo, who was long associated with the Personal Prelature, Opus Dei, became the successor of Saint JoseMaria Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002.
Opus Dei is Latin for “the Work of God.” When this movement began, it was difficult to define in terms of Church law. Though it was meant to encourage, order and facilitate a Christian’s vocation in the world by helping him or her to sanctify daily life in the concrete (i.e., in one’s specific vocation, from parenting to teaching, to laboring in the fields or in a factory – whatever), its status, vis-à-vis one’s bishop and parish, needed to be explained in the context of order and duties. Answers came in the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983. Therein, the title of “Personal Prelature” is defined and explained; Opus Dei fits neatly into this category. (See Canons 294, 295, 296-7; 265-6, 297; 370, 368, 370.)
I first heard about Opus Dei from the celebrated historian and author, Carlton J.H. Hayes, who was United States Ambassador to Spain during World War II. He and Mrs. Hayes had recently returned from Spain and had resumed life in Carlton’s hometown, Afton, N.Y., along the banks of the Susquehanna River, in New York’s “Southern Tier.” My aunt (my mother’s sister) and uncle (a retired New York City police officer) had purchased a restaurant and a home nearby (Nineveh); Mrs. Hayes used to hold her First Friday post-Communion breakfasts there. I met Professor Carlton one summer (1945 or 1946) in the Afton Post Office, which was being used as a church; he was kneeling at a makeshift altar there, serving Sunday Mass. I offered to take his place, of course. (Later a small church was raised not too far away; as a young priest, I offered Mass there while on vacation.)
Over the years, while studying at St. Bernard’s in Rochester, and later as a priest, I made it a point to revisit Dr. Hayes regularly, and to learn from him. Our visits usually took place in summertime, since he still taught classes at Columbia University during academic seasons.
Early on, during my years here at the Transcript (I was appointed Associate Editor by Archbishop Henry J. O’Brien in 1954, a year after ordination), I had an occasion to address the issue of Opus Dei in my Question and Answer column. My familiarity with the subject prompted recollections of what Professor Hayes had told me. Several years ago I was made aware that the column I wrote then was probably the very first of its kind in the United States Catholic press.
By any assessment, Bishop Alvaro ranks among the century’s most enthusiastic heralds of lay Godly witness in our secularized, often atheistic world. As a totally committed advocate, he participated in Vatican Council II’s vision of the laity in our times – while also contributing immensely to its final document on the priesthood (Presbyterorum Ordinis). Cardinal Yves Congar, in his My Journal of the Council, cites Msgr. Portillo over a dozen times.
Blessed Alvaro chanced to meet Msgr. Josemaría Escrivá in 1935, while he was studying engineering in Madrid. By 1943, the future Beatus was assigned to Rome – as a lay person, still – to brief Pope Pius XII about Opus Dei; there he remained for most of his later life. His 1969 book Faithful and Laity in the Church constitutes a veritable Magna Carta for Christian laity, establishing both theologically and canonically the truth that a layperson is not simply defined as a “non-cleric” but as a vocation in itself. This is a thesis which St. Francis de Sales pioneered for the modern world; the layperson is truly called to act as leaven for the world, as Christ intended.
Precisely because of the “leaven” metaphor used by the Lord, laity need to be intellectually formed as well as spiritually mature. Such is a prime reason for Opus Dei’s emphasis on solid educational opportunities, as well as expertise in the arts, sciences and various skills. Specifically, Opus Dei is closely associated with great universities, medical and law schools, business colleges, and other institutes of higher learning; as well as social justice activism centers.
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.