I’m finding it hard to watch the news lately, dominated as it is by the atrocities of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Hostages beheaded on YouTube, reports of Christians and other minority groups slaughtered, women sold into brothels, centuries-old communities obliterated.
“Barbaric” fails to describe the malevolence of these fanatics; a better word may be “demonic”.
Evil hogs the headlines; goodness flies under the radar. But as President Obama told the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, the ultimate victors over groups like this evil “network of death” will be the decency, dignity and courage of ordinary people in their everyday lives. Our civilisation rests on the hope that good will ultimately triumph over evil.
That’s why one reason why everyone has a stake in the existence of saints, people whose goodness has burned white hot: they are the last best hope for mankind. If the world produces ISIS, Pol Pot, the Rwandan genocide, the Holocaust and the Gulag, but it cannot produce saints we ought to give up.
Which is a round-about way of explaining why I am a bit disappointed not to be attending the Beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo in Madrid tomorrow. I gather that hundreds of thousands of people, from all over the world, will be there to celebrate his elevation to the ranks of the “Blessed”.
Bishop del Portillo was the head of Opus Dei, an institution for lay people in the Catholic Church. Although I have been a member of Opus Dei for many years, I only met him a couple of times and did not know him personally. But everyone who did was impressed by his affability and kindness. In all the many years that John Paul II was Pope, he only went to two wakes. One was the doctor’s who had saved his live after the 1981 assassination attempt. The other was Bishop del Portillo’s, on the day that he passed away. John Paul treasured his friendship and advice. “He was an example of fortitude, trust in divine providence and fidelity to the See of Peter,” he commented.
Del Portillo was born in 1914 in Madrid. He was a civil engineering student in 1935 when he met Father Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei (who was proclaimed a saint in 2002). He immediately sensed that God was calling him to be part of this new phenomenon in the Catholic Church. From then on, its message — that everyone can become a saint if they struggle to discover God in the humdrum activity of everyday life – became the focus of his life.
Only a year later the Spanish Civil War broke out and Alvaro found himself in the Communist zone. He spent a brief time in prison where he was tortured and barely escaped being shot dead. After the war, he became the right-hand man of Escrivá as Opus Dei’s work expanded throughout Spain. In 1944 he was ordained as one of Opus Dei’s first three priests and in 1946 he moved to Rome. He spent many years there helping Escrivá.
When the founder died in 1975, Alvaro del Portillo was the natural choice to succeed him. For the next 19 years, he oversaw the expansion of Opus Dei to 20 new countries. He passed away in 1994, the day after he returned from a brief trip to Israel.
This quick sketch of Bishop del Portillo’s 80 years might make him seem like an ecclesiastical bureaucrat. Which he was, in a way — but even bureaucrats can become saints. He did have a talent for organising and energising people and under his stewardship Opus Dei thrived. He pushed people with ample means to open social service projects in many developing countries.
With his great mind and discretion, he was tapped many times to be a consultant in the Vatican. He had a big role to play in drafting several of the documents of Vatican II, which have set the Catholic Church’s agenda for at least the next hundred years. If he was a bureaucrat, he was an energetic, big-hearted, visionary bureaucrat.
But what most touched the thousands of people who knew him was, I think, two outstanding habits of mind and heart.
The first was his kindness and fatherly heart. By nature he was retiring and quiet, but he made friends wherever he went. He radiated serenity.
The second was loyalty. He put himself completely at the service of Opus Dei ever since that luminous moment in the summer of 1935. He never wavered and never complained. Despite his immense talents, he lived happily in the shadow of St Josemaria until – and even after – he succeeded him. All the Popes since Pius XII knew him personally and appreciated his steadfast support for the Catholic Church.
Loyalty might not seem like a significant virtue – but try doing without it! Reliability, dependability, and commitment are what sustains families, organisations, nations and even the Church.
One of the constant themes of his preaching was that Christians are not supermen. Heroic virtues, indeed any virtue, have to be fuelled with love of God. As he said in a homily in 1987, “with a renewed effort every day we try to make our existence, with God’s grace, a hymn of praise to Our Lord. Our life becomes a supernatural symphony … because we recognise that we exist for the Lord and we want to do everything for him, for his glory, in the best possible way.”
Just reading about evil people and their evil deeds can dishearten us into thinking that life has no purpose. But the life of a just man can change one’s outlook completely. God exists. Goodness will triumph. Life is worthwhile. Alvaro del Portillo was that sort of man. Tomorrow is worth celebrating.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.