Every hour of every day millions of human beings give witness to their belief and trust in the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – and have done this for millennia of which we really do not know the exact number. But on some occasions this statement is made in a public manner which is so powerful and so palpable that it imprints itself on human consciousness in a way that makes one wonder how the warriors of modern atheism can withstand it.
One of these took place last Saturday (September 27) in a large open space on the outskirts of Madrid when an estimated 200,000 people, representing people from over 80 countries around the globe, listened to and responded to a sublime rendering of The Lord Is My Shepherd in the Mass for the Beatification of Bishop Alvaro del Portillo.
As a spectacle this was a truly astounding sight, as the congregation gathered for the Mass stretched as far back as the eye could see along the improvised esplanade, and seemed to merge into the four giant towers which now dominate Madrid´s landscape. But it was not just a spectacle. This event had deep resonances, as all beatification ceremonies have, which reminded this giant congregation of all that is central to their Christian faith.
But while this ceremony, this celebration, reminded these people of many things about the life of an ordinary man, a priest, who sought and attained sanctity in the course of his life in this world, it also reminded them of one very particular and painful reality in our world today. As we read and hear every day of the horrific persecution and martyrdom of thousands of Christians in the turmoil of the Middle East, we are reminded that this is no new story and that Christians have been suffering and dying for their faith in every millennium, in every century, in every decade of the Christian Era.
The Venerable Alvaro del Portillo, whose Beatification Mass this was, was a man who lived his faith and lived for his faith up to the time of his peaceful death in 1994. He was also a man who lived through the years of persecution of Catholics during the Spanish Civil War and who at one point was threatened with summary execution when a gun was put to his head, simply because he was a Catholic.
Fr. Alvaro del Portillo – who had worked as an engineer before becoming a priest – was the right-hand-man of St Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. Having worked by his side from the mid 1930s to the latter’s death in 1975, Fr Alvaro, later a bishop, became the new head of what was to become the Prelature of Opus Dei by decree of St John Paul II in 1982.
On the morning of August 13, 1936, soldiers entered the apartment block in which the del Portillo family lived. They raided the apartment above, looking for Cristino Bermudez, the son of an officer in the Nationalist army. Bermudez was not at home but, when his wife tried to escape and hide in the del Portillo apartment, it was also raided and occupied until such time as Bermudez arrived home. Bermudez was arrested, taken away and shot. Alvaro’s father, Ramón was also arrested and taken to prison, but escaped execution.
As the persecution in Madrid intensified, and when simply to be known as a practising and devout Catholic amounted to a death sentence, Alvaro left the family home and went into hiding, eventually taking refuge in the Finnish Embassy. This, however, proved to be no protection and when the military raided the Embassy in December of that year, Alvaro and other refugees were arrested and imprisoned.
Speaking of this experience in later life Alvaro said, “I had never been involved in any political activity and I was not a priest, or a monk, or even a seminarian. I was an engineering student. I got thrown in jail just because I came from a Catholic family. By then I was already wearing glasses, and one of the guards came up to me – his name was Petrof – and he put a pistol to my temple and said, ‘You’re wearing glasses – you must be a priest.’ He could have killed me at any moment…. It was terrifying”.
In later years Fr. Alvaro, apart from his administrative and pastoral work in Opus Dei, was called on by the Holy See to work as a consultor to several Congregations of the Curia and was active on a daily basis in the work and deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. Then, in 1975, was elected to succeed Josemaría Escrivá as head of Opus Dei and in the years that followed saw the expansion of the Prelature into several countries of Eastern Europe and also in the Far East. He visited Ireland on several occasions.
In March, 1994 he celebrated his 80th birthday. Friends had given him the present of a few days in the Holy Land, and – in what is seen by many as an extraordinary gift of Providence to him – he celebrated his last Mass in the Church of the Last Supper in Jerusalem on March 22, 1994. He died in the early hours of March 23, back in Rome to where he had returned the evening before.
Later that day, in an extraordinary step for a Pope, St John Paul II went to pray beside his mortal remains. The booklet produced for the occasion of the Beatification recounts his words when Fr. Javier Echevarría, who would be Bishop Alvaro’s elected successor, thanked the Pope for the honor of his visit, he said, “Si doveva, si doveva,” meaning, I had to do it, I had to do it, recognizing his contribution to the life of the Church.
The Feast of Blessed Alvaro will be celebrated on 12 May, the anniversary of his First Holy Communion.
A version of this article appeared in today’s print edition of The Irish Catholic newspaper.