The Blessed who gave Hans Küng a big hug

Bishop Álvaro del Portillo: a shy man with a lion's strength (CNS)

I have met one canonised saint in my life and from this weekend I will add to that a Blessed. The saint was John Paul II, whom I encountered when I worked as a translator at a number of synods of bishops that he presided over. Though already frail by then, he still demonstrated his wit and warmth on various occasions. The Blessed-to-be is Álvaro del Portillo, who this Saturday will be beatified in a ceremony in Madrid, with more than 100,000 people expected to attend.

There’s more than a touch of divine irony in considering that so many people will assemble to celebrate the life and holiness of a man who throughout his life always preferred to avoid the limelight. Del Portillo, warm and profoundly paternal, as I experienced on various occasions, joined Opus Dei in 1935 after meeting its founder, St Josemaría Escrivá, in the Spanish capital. From that moment onwards, he dedicated his existence to being Escrivá’s faithful follower and spreading the saint’s message of holiness in everyday life for people of every class and condition.

When the founder died in 1975, del Portillo succeeded him at the head of Opus Dei, a post he held until his own death in 1994. He worked tirelessly to make sure the organisation would stay faithful to its God-given charism, always insisting he was merely the “baton” in the saint’s hand and that Escrivá still led Opus Dei from heaven. He rejoiced when someone described him as St Josemaria’s “shadow”.

He wasn’t a natural public speaker, though he wrote and spoke with great clarity and his holiness shone through. As a student, he had chosen to study engineering in part because it would spare him giving presentations. As head of Opus Dei, he was, of course, constantly addressing groups and crowds, and he did so willingly to announce Jesus Christ and speak to them of finding God in ordinary life.

Everything I have said so far could make del Portillo appear a retiring and even timid type. While he did admit that he was slightly shy, when it came to defending the Church and Opus Dei, he did so, as one cardinal put it, “with the strength of a lion”. And in his quiet but effective manner he played a significant role in one of the major moments of the contemporary Church: the Second Vatican Council.

When St John XXIII proclaimed the Council, del Portillo was well known in the Vatican for his competence, intelligence and excellent people skills. He was involved in the preparatory group for the commission on the laity and was then secretary of the conciliar commission on priesthood. The commission’s work, which would finally culminate in the document Presbyterorum Ordinis, was very hard and frustrating, also because its members held sharply divided opinions. Its cardinal-president was often absent so del Portillo frequently led the sessions. One member later described his open and understanding manner, “intransigent with error … but understanding with persons. He could see a positive side to everything”.

This open spirit also showed itself towards people who were publicly critical of Opus Dei. Once del Portillo met the Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who had outspokenly criticised Opus Dei in a Council meeting. Del Portillo embraced him saying: “As Christians and priests, we should love one another.” He offered to provide him with more information about the organisation.

Del Portillo continued at the same time to help St Josemaria run Opus Dei and so found himself with an enormous workload. He was also suffering from conjunctivitis and sinusitis at an important moment in his commission’s work. To get through everything, he was forced to cut down on sleep, but he never cut down on prayer. Apart from daily Mass and his Divine Office, he was always faithful to his daily hour of mental prayer, his rosary, spiritual reading and examination of conscience. He realised that without prayer one can never truly serve the Church. Likewise, he never neglected his friendships, for which he had a special gift. It was extraordinary how many bishops and cardinals, many of whom he had met at the Council, testified on his death to how close a friend he had been to them.

Del Portillo shunned any offer to help him go up the ecclesiastical ladder. He abhorred careerism and only wanted to dedicate his life to promoting Opus Dei. Furthermore, his self-giving and sanctity were so discreet and unassuming that people considered them as something “normal”. Once, when he was not present, St Josemaria talked of his heroism, “a heroism which appears very ordinary”. Though del Portillo had many reasons in life to get annoyed and opportunities to be disloyal, Escrivá said, “he has always kept an incomparable smile and an incomparable faithfulness”.

I experienced that smile when I first met him as a young student in London during his 1985 visit to England. My Spanish then was very limited and his English not much better. As he got out of the car and I went to greet him, I was lost for words due both to the shyness of youth and linguistic barriers. For a few seconds I just looked at him, tongue-tied. He said something to me in Spanish but, above all, he smiled, with the smile and delight of a father meeting one of his spiritual sons.
It is that smile which I will always remember.

Fr Joseph Evans is a member of the regional council of Opus Dei in Britain and Catholic chaplain to King’s College London

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Catholic Herald on September 26 2014