Brief Biography of St. Josemaria Escriva

The following is an appreciation of the life of St. Josemaria Escriva who has be the inspiration of my adult life for the past 30 years. Today is his feast day.

The bloodthirsty mob had caught the man who looked like Fr. Josemaria Escriva. They hung the poor fellow from a lamppost in front of the apartment building in which Josemaria’s mother, older sister, and younger brother lived.

It was 1936. Spain was wracked by civil war. Because he was a Catholic priest, the thirty-four year old Escriva was sought by the communist, socialist, and anarchistic militias spreading terror in the capitol.

Wearing civilian clothes and his father’s wedding ring, Escriva hid out wherever he could, usually not staying in any one place more than a night. Anyone might turn you in. Once, he and a fellow refugee hid in a stifling attic for hours while soldiers searched the home. Sometimes it was safer for Escriva and his handful of followers to wander the streets from dawn till dusk rather than risk staying put.

One day, Fr. Josemaria got the heartbreaking news that two close friends, both priests, had been assassinated. Then, another friend passed Escriva the key to a safe place to stay. The apartment’s owners were out of town and the young maid taking care of it could be trusted not to inform on him. But as he paced the streets, Josemaria decided to toss the key down into a sewer. He explained to his friend, “My son, don’t you realize that I am a priest? With the war and the persecution, everyone’s nerves are on edge. I cannot and do not want to remain shut up day and night with a young woman. I have a commitment to God which is more important than anything else. I would prefer to die rather than offend God, rather than fail in the commitment of love.”

The war and the persecution

In the Republican-controlled areas of Spain, Catholic churches, schools, and other buildings were torched. By the war’s end, twelve bishops, more than 4000 diocesan priests, 2500 religious, and countless lay men and women were murdered, just because they were Catholics. For a while, Josemaria and a few of his followers hid out in a mental hospital, pretending to be crazy whenever somebody suspicious came around. For months they took refuge in the Honduran embassy, crammed in with hundreds of others, hungry all the time. Later, Josemaria would hear confessions in the street, walking arm in arm with the penitent as if chatting. Because it was so difficult to carry on the work God had called him to do, he and his spiritual sons undertook a dangerous trip to Valencia, followed by a harrowing ordeal escaping over the Pyrenees Mountains into Nationalist-controlled territory.

The Work God had called him to do

Josemaria was born on January 9, 1902 in Barbastro, in northern Spain. He was the second child—and firstborn son—of Jose and Maria Dolores Escriva. Theirs was a virtuous, pious, and cultured upper middle-class Catholic home. This did not mean life was easy. When he was about two, Josemaria contracted a serious infection and the doctor said he would not live out the night. His mother prayed to Our Lady and promised she would take him on a pilgrimage to the little shrine of Our Lady of Torreciudad if he lived. He did and she did. At the end of his life, Escriva caused to be built in Torreciudad a huge shrine and conference center where thousands have studied the faith, deepened their Christian and human formation, and received the Sacrament of Penance. Fr. Josemaria was always aided in his life of celibacy—and in every other way— through his great devotion to the Virgin Mary, Mother of God.

Josemaria was an intelligent and hard-working boy. His childhood dream was to become an architect. But one after the other, his three younger sisters died. He concluded he would be next. One day his older sister, Carmen, and her friends were building a castle out of a deck of cards. The would-be architect walked in, looked at the castle in the air, and then knocked it down with the comment, “That’s how God deals with our plans.”

A few years later, Josemaria’s father’s prosperous business was ruined due to a dishonest partner. His father decided to use his own property to pay back the company’s creditors, plunging his family into poverty. The Escrivas lost their home, had to give up their maid, cook, and nanny, and eventually moved to a new town, Logroño. Probably the worst thing was the way their relatives turned their backs on them because of the “shame” of being poor. Through all this, Josemaria’s parents never lost their peace or good humor. Josemaria said he never saw his parents fight.

God’s plans

One winter day, snow covered the streets of Logroño. Josemaria spied bare footprints. He followed them to a monastery and realized they belonged to a Carmelite monk. Josemaria thought, if he can walk barefoot in the snow out of love for God, why can’t I do something for Him? Josemaria felt God was calling him to something but he had no idea what. He began to pray, over and over, for the next ten years, “Lord, that I may see” and (long before the Beatles) “Let it be.”

Josemaria believed he could best prepare himself for whatever God wanted by becoming a diocesan priest. This was hard on the family, because they hoped to rely on him financially once he got his degree, but his father gave his consent. Then, toward the end of Josemaria’s time in the seminary, his father died. Now, the support of his family—his widowed mother, his sister Carmen, and his very young brother Santiago—rested solely on his shoulders. It was a responsibility he never neglected.

At this point, given his family situation, Josemaria probably could have left the seminary and pursued a lucrative secular career. Instead he decided to trust God to take care of them. After his ordination on March 28, 1926, and with the approval of his bishop, St. Josemaria moved his family to Madrid where he pursued doctoral studies in civil law, tutored and taught university students, and served as chaplain in a hospital for the poor. He began a very intense apostolate among the poor, sick, and dying in Madrid, akin to the work Mother Teresa would take up twenty years later in Calcutta. He often asked those he served to pray for and offer their sufferings for a special intention he had. He continued to pray unceasingly to know what God was asking of him and that he could carry it out.

Then, on October 2, 1928, during a break between meditations while he was on a retreat, Fr. Escriva “saw” what God had been hinting to him for a decade. Josemaria totally dedicated the rest of his life to the fulfillment of what would later be named Opus Dei or Work of God.

What did he “see”? We don’t know for sure, because St. Josemaria maintained a certain reserve about it, but we do know the basic ideas. The central one is what the Second Vatican Council thirty-five years later termed the universal call to holiness. It is the idea that every person has a vocation to become a saint. At the time, this idea seemed crazy to many people. They thought if you were serious about your faith you would become a priest, brother, sister or nun—just like Josemaria himself had done. God made Josemaria “see” that this call to holiness was for lay people, too.

How would lay people become holy? The answer was also surprising: through their ordinary lives. They would not have to leave their family, their professional work, their friendships, or their participation in public life to become holy. In fact these human realities would be the vehicle for holiness. At the heart of Opus Dei was sanctification of ordinary work, whatever one’s ordinary work was. You do your work as well as you can, as a service, offering it to God.

As he wrote much later, “Opus Dei is as old and as new as the Gospel. It intends to remind Christians of the wonderful words of Genesis: God created man to work. We try to imitate the example of Christ, who spent almost all his life on earth working as a carpenter in a small town. Work is one of the highest human values and the way in which men contribute to the progress of society. But even more, it is a way to holiness.”

Josemaria also “saw” something worldwide, touching millions of souls, stretching far into the future. But what didn’t even have a name yet had only one member: him. By the time Escriva died in 1975, Opus Dei had sixty thousand members and had spread to every continent. Its view of the role of the laity became part of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. But how does one transform something which only exists as an idea in one man’s head into a worldwide institution? Opus Dei had no money. No one knew it existed. It had no status whatsoever in the Catholic Church, and, in fact, nothing else like it existed in the Church. There was not even a place for something like it in the laws of the Church. And how would Josemaria find members? How would he form them? How would the members relate to one another and to the Church? All that had to be discovered, worked out, and lived. This was Escriva’s life’s work and he set out to do it with complete dedication.

The struggle begins

From a purely human point of view, it was not a good time to start something new. Fr. Josemaria could barely support his family, let alone obtain money necessary to begin and grow an institution. Then there was the novelty of the idea. This meant there would be misunderstanding and even opposition from members of the Church. Then there was the growing hatred for the Catholic faith in pre-civil war Spain.

Josemaria decided to work with college-age youth who might have a vocation to celibacy and who could thus devote themselves whole-heartedly to apostolate with other young people. One idea was to open a study center and student residence in Madrid. At the time, college students generally had no place to study or “hang out.” Some young men could live in this residence; others could come over to take classes and study. And while they were there, Josemaria could provide spiritual formation to those who were open to it. With great effort and even financial sacrifice from his family, Escriva opened the DYA Academy. The acronym officially meant (in Spanish) Law and Architecture but in Escriva’s mind it stood for God and Daring. The academy grew, all the rooms were filled with boarders, classes were held, and those who joined Fr. Escriva were even making plans to expand to Valencia and Paris.

Just then, the civil war broke out. In fact, the bigger residence they had just found and gotten ready was across the street from the army barracks which was part of the coup against the Republican government. It became the scene of a battle.

By the end of the war three years later, there were fewer members of the Work than before it, and the DYA was rubble. Josemaria and his sons—and soon spiritual daughters—picked up where they left off in Madrid and then began expanding quickly throughout Spain. But again, as the Work was ready to leave Spain, this move was stopped cold by the Second World War.

As soon as it was safe to travel in 1946, St. Josemaria sent one of the first priests of the Work, (now-Blessed) Alvero del Portillo, to Rome to seek official approval. Escriva soon followed. Rome was the perfect place for him, not just because he loved the Church and the Pope, but also because Opus Dei was universal, not Spanish.

Thus, Opus Dei finally began its international expansion. By the end of the 1960s, members of the Work were doing apostolate in thirty-two nations and operating universities, colleges, hospitals, trade schools, and many educational and cultural programs. Married members soon vastly outnumbered celibate members. A smaller number of priests also looked after the spiritual needs of the others.

A man in full

What was it like to be with St. Josemaria?

Whether he was alone with one person, or in a small group, or in a larger get-together, or addressing thousands in a crowded auditorium, St. Josemaria was the same man at all times. He did not “perform” or posture. He was guileless and frank.

St. Josemaria seemed self-unaware. He also seemed unconcerned about the impression he was making on others. These qualities makes sense in the light of divine filiation, the Christian truth many of us find so hard to believe, that we are truly God’s children. If God really is my father, what do I have to be afraid of? Why should I have to pretend to be someone or something I am not? This child-like confidence and lack of self-concern allowed St. Josemaria to be totally focused on the person with whom he was conversing and on the divine-human message he was transmitting.

St. Josemaria had a rich personality that combined seeming opposites. He could demonstrate manly strength without harshness and motherly gentleness without effeminacy. He could be sincerely friendly and bluntly honest. He could show deep sorrow and weep, although most if the time he was bubbling over with cheer. He could inspire with great ideas and then joke around and have fun. St. Josemaria could very naturally move back and forth in his conversation from everyday things, like the score of a soccer game, to something profound, like the need to reflect Christ in one’s most ordinary actions.

The way Josemaria related to others was also very attractive. He had impressive natural gifts. He had special graces God gave him as a founder. He was also always generous in responded to what God wanted. At the same time, the people he dealt with were younger, less experienced, less intelligent, not as well educated, less close to God, and even less virtuous. Nevertheless, Josemaria lavishly affirmed and encouraged his spiritual children. He entrusted important tasks to them well beyond what they thought they could do. Then, in attempting to carry out those initiatives, they would develop their own powers so they could do more than they had ever dreamed. Fr. Escriva was never a controlling person. Instead, he prepared others to carry on without him.

St. Josemaria possessed the virtue of availability. The available person is one who is superior to you but who cares about you, listens to you, and acts for your true good. He makes you feel truly valued, like he is lucky to serve you. This was St. Josemaria. He forgot about himself and gave himself generously. He was the opposite of the self-centered egoist. He was also the opposite of the con man who warmly feigns interest to manipulate you.

These qualities—and others—made St. Josemaria truly charismatic. He transformed lives. He could meet a youth and in a few minutes create the basis for a life-long, faithful vocation. It makes sense that God would give this gift to a founder. It even sheds some light on how Jesus Christ, the perfect man, could so quickly call disciples who would followed him for the rest of their lives. It might seem shocking to say this, but had Josemaria used his gifts for selfish purposes he could probably have become one of the great villains of the twentieth century. St. Josemaria is also a lesson in how those enormously talented tyrants could, instead, have done so much good if they had made better use of their freedom.

Josemaria died in Rome on June 26, 1975. Blessed Pope John Paul II declared him a saint on October 6, 2002 in the presence of over 300,000 people. Today, Opus Dei is established in sixty- six countries with 95,000 lay members and priests. St. Josemaria’s feast day is June 26.

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