St Josemaria Escriva

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“The Lord God took the man and settled him in the Garden of Eden to cultivate and care for it”.

The choice of the creation narrative from the second chapter of Genesis appropriately links us with one of the key inspirations of the mission of St Josemaria Escriva.

In recent times I have been reading a book about the founding of Opus Dei. “Uncommon Faith”, by John Coverdale, opens up the early years from 1928 onwards. I have found that it has offered me a very valuable insight into the uncertainties and struggles that St Josemaria experienced in the founding of Opus Dei. It was far from a smooth and clear path for him. It required an extraordinary amount of humility, trust and patience. It was a path that no doubt fashioned his own soul. He learnt to depend entirely on God’s provident guidance and care.

There can be no doubt that his own personal journey and the holiness it generated fashioned the spirit of Opus Dei. His own indomitable confidence in God was bequeathed to the original members of the movement, and shaped its spiritual foundations. This was no human enterprise. It would not have survived, even in the heart of St Josemaria, had it been of merely human inspiration. It emerged, survived and flourished because its origin was a grace given to St Josemaria. It was a work of God, an opus dei.  

St Josemaria began with the vaguest of inspirations: God was calling him to something. This was in 1918. It was not at all evident what it was to be even after he had entered the seminary and was ordained a diocesan priest in 1925. He clung to his belief that there was a mission for him, while struggling even to find a role as a priest. Moving to Madrid he had to take simple chaplaincy work to support himself. Nothing was clear. Nothing was easy. Nothing seemed to fall into place. He learnt to wait until the path became clear for him.

Furthermore, since the death of his father he had to support his mother and sister and brother. Finding them accommodation was another challenge for him. Money, just enough money to live on, also proved a significant challenge.

Despite all the external uncertainties he clung to his belief in a mission that was to be given to him. Only slowly did he begin to envisage what it was that he was to do. Then, in 1928, when he finally saw what his mission was to be, he began with a few young men with whom he had shared his vision. He called young men – and later women – to a life dedicated to personal holiness within their particular professions. He set high spiritual ideals, and promoted prayer and mortification. He proposed personal holiness as the standard. It was the quality of inner life that was most important, not what might be done by way of apostolic actions. These would flow from lives wholly given over to God. His high expectations coupled with his own example and absolute confidence in what he was undertaking attracted men and women to him. They entrusted their spiritual lives to his guidance and direction. His calm disposition and evident holiness was attractive.

There were powerful anti-Catholic movements in Spain at the time which added to the difficulties he faced. It was dangerous even to be seen as a priest wearing clerical dress, yet he bravely continued to carry out his role taking Holy Communion to the sick in different parts of the city.
The Spanish Civil war from 1936 to 1939 made life itself precarious. He was trapped in the Republican area. He could be identified as a priest and shot at any moment. There were a number of close calls. There was the need to constantly be on the move and depend on the help and protection of people who risked their own lives. Food was hard to obtain. Yet he held steadfastly to the vision given him. Even during the most uncertain of circumstances he never departed from his mission, and steadily fostered it. Indeed, in the midst of all these risks and dangers, he held to a bold vision for the future of this work. It would survive and it would spread. In the midst of a daily struggle for existence, St Josemaria saw a future that must have seemed an impossible dream to his companions.

Despite all odds he held to his inspiration and encouraged the small band that gathered around him to hold on to the vision. And they did. They undertook the perilous crossing of the Pyrenees, quite ill equipped for the weather and conditions, facing the risk of discovery by Republican soldiers guarding the frontier at any time. 

The account in the Book of Genesis read this evening was no doubt chosen because of St Josemaria’s theology of work (if I may use the term). However, we can also see this text as a reference to the spirit of St Josemaria. He was entrusted with a task. God placed him in a certain garden (if you like) and placed him at a certain time (which was extremely challenging). He was called upon to cultivate what was given to him and indeed he did.

Each of us finds ourselves in a particular place, and we live in a particular time. Fortunately we do not have any of the life-threatening challenges that St Josemaria faced. However, we are to cultivate what God has entrusted to us. We are to embrace the vocation that is ours. This vocation is found firstly in our state in life – married, a father or mother, a child, a single adult. Then our occupation: homemaker, business, education, trade. Then our social circumstances: our friends, our interests, our community.

We are called firstly to be holy. Then we are to witness to this holiness and draw others to its source: God himself.

When we reflect on the life of St Josemaria we cannot dare protest that our circumstances make it too difficult for us to carry out such a mission. Radical trust in God, patience, humility are the simple ingredients needed. We leave the rest up to God and the wondrous workings of divine grace.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Thursday, June 9, 2016