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Approaching the Church through the saints


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Pope Benedict XVI famously said, "To me art and the saints are the greatest apologetics for our faith." In that regard, we have been particularly fortunate to have lived alongside and witnessed the powerful example of some modern saints and blesseds. I saw Blessed John Paul II on numerous occasions in the flesh, and indeed, because of his countless trips around the world, he was doubtless actually seen by more people than anyone else in human history. Pope Francis is going to canonize him on April 27 in Rome, along with Pope John XXIII, the good pope who summoned the Second Vatican Council. Yes, there are and have been plenty of scoundrels and hypocrites in the Church, even among the hierarchy, but they are not a reason for embracing Catholicism. The saints are.

One such modern-day exemplar of Christian virtue is Bishop Alvaro del Portillo, who would've turned 100 this coming March 11, had he not died 20 years ago this coming March 23. (Pope John Paul II attended his wake that day.) The first successor of St. Josemaria Escriva as the head of Opus Dei (from 1975 until 1994), he will be beatified in Madrid on Saturday, Sept. 27, by Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Sacred Congregation of the Causes of Saints. (Ever since Pope Benedict XVI reverted to the earlier practice, popes since John Paul II do not generally perform beatifications.)

Don Alvaro, as he is affectionately called, had his heroic virtue decreed by Pope Benedict in 2012, and a miracle attributed to his intercession by Pope Francis in 2013. These are the two prerequisites for beatification of a non-martyr: exemplary virtue, which makes him a model for others in living the Christian life, and demonstrated intercessory power to work a cure which is humanly inexplicable, which means that you can pray to him, and not just for him, as you would do for any of the faithful (and not-so-faithful) departed.

One very striking quality of Don Alvaro was his fidelity to Christ, to the Church, to St. Josemaria, and to his vocation to Opus Dei (He was one of its first three priests, ordained in 1944 after some years working as an engineer.) This rock-like dependability caused St. Josemaria to give him the nickname Saxum, a Latin word meaning "rock or boulder." Originally from Madrid, he was for many years St. Josemaria's right-hand man and closest collaborator in building Opus Dei throughout the world from its headquarters in Rome.

He exuded peace and tranquility. Nothing fazed him. He exemplified faith and confidence in God at every turn. St. Marianne Cope, the last American to be canonized, a nun who spent the last decades of her life serving lepers on Molokai in Hawaii, once wrote that "I think life is all too short to spend any part of it in worry and anxiety." That was characteristic of Bishop Alvaro.

He made his first trip to Rome in 1943, at the height of World War II, on an Italian civilian passenger plane to seek papal approval for Opus Dei. On the way, the passengers found themselves in the midst of a battle between British bombers and an Axis naval flotilla. While other passengers panicked and shouted things like "Mamma mia!," Don Alvaro never lost his composure or his peace. His faith-filled thought was, "I am going to fulfill a mission which God wants, and so nothing can happen."

After the death of St. Josemaria in 1975, he oversaw the successful application of Opus Dei to become the Church's first personal prelature, a jurisdictional structure akin to a diocese, which guarantees the secular character of the vocation to Opus Dei. In her recently published Prayer Journal, the great southern writer Flannery O'Connor wrote in the 1940s, "I don't want to fear to be out, I want to be in: I don't want to believe in hell but in heaven. Stating this does me no good. It is a matter of the gift of grace. Help me to feel that I will give up every earthly thing for this. I do not mean becoming a nun." While nuns and religious brothers and priests are great and holy vocations in the Church, most laypeople are called to holiness in and through their ordinary lives and work and relations, rather than through taking evangelical vows as religious.

If St. Josemaria is the saint of ordinary life, as Pope John Paul II called him, Don Alvaro was wonderfully true to that calling and to the faith in the challenging times in which we have the good fortune, by the grace of God, to live.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.

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