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A scientist who had the ‘gift of tears’ will be beatified tomorrow

Guadalupe Ortiz will be the first lay member of Opus Dei to be declared Blessed

A scientist and educational pioneer will be the first Opus Dei lay member to be beatified. Guadalupe Ortiz was a Spanish chemist who worked hard to promote the dignity of poor rural women in Mexico. She will join St Josemaría Escrivá, a priest, and Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, a bishop, as the three members of the Prelature thus far raised to the altars.

As Opus Dei is primarily a lay organisation – 98 per cent of its members are lay, most of whom called to marriage while a smaller number live celibacy – Guadalupe’s beatification is particularly significant. When St Josemaría first preached in the 1930s and 40s that all men and women, and not just priests and religious, are called to be saints, he was even accused of heresy. Some priests in Spain and Italy visited the families of the new members to tell them their sons would be damned because they were being led to believe that they could be saints in the world. Today Guadalupe’s life is like a first proof of St Josemaría’s message, which would later be confirmed by the Second Vatican Council.

When Guadalupe met St Josemaría in Madrid 1944 she was a young woman of 27, trying to discern her vocation and feeling a call to celibacy. He was a 42 year-old priest struggling to make known the ideal which God had shown him some 16 years earlier. Having only recently emerged from the carnage of the Spanish Civil War and with World War II still raging, Escrivá was facing numerous challenges, including poverty and incomprehension. He was also finding it particularly difficult to find women members (they are now a majority in Opus Dei).

While Guadalupe was not the first woman member of Opus Dei, she had a pivotal role in getting the Work (as it is commonly called) moving among women. While St Josemaría mainly dealt with young women through the confessional, Guadalupe could be a real friend to them. Her joy and personable nature helped to attract some of the early female vocations.

This joy, however, did not come easy and already as a young woman suffering made itself present in her life in various forms. Her father was in the military and at the start of the Spanish Civil War was arrested by forces of the Republic and condemned to death. His son managed to get a reprieve but when the father found out it would only apply to him and not to his men, he turned it down. On the night of the execution Guadalupe, who was only 20 at the time, was with him until the early morning. Earlier, in 1928, she had suffered a rheumatic fever when her family were stationed in Tetouan, Morocco. This illness and a later insect bite which had grave consequences would contribute in a significant manner to the chronic ill health she endured in later years and which cut short her life.

Various factors contributed to Guadalupe’s sanctity but what perhaps most stands out was her total availability to God’s will. This led her, for example, to undertake various tasks and missions for which she had little personal inclination or ability. Thus, although she wasn’t good at household tasks at the beginning, she willingly agreed to help in the domestic care of a number of Opus Dei centres. Some of her letters to St Josemaría  – and she wrote many  – delightfully describe some of her “disasters” in this field. “Despite all my efforts,” she wrote once, “I messed some things up like getting a stain on the desk and breaking off one of the bed-knobs. And I keep forgetting where I left the keys, so that I sometimes make my sisters waste their time. I’ve done lots of other things like that, but I don’t get discouraged, and I think, if God helps me (pray that he will!), I’ll manage to correct myself.”

And despite being a high-powered intellectual, to the very end of her life she maintained interest in home care, understanding its importance for building family life. Thus, in her last years she was deeply involved in a tertiary level educational project to provide scientific training in domestic work. She linked this to her love of chemistry: even in hospital she was carrying out experiments on the effect of different solvents on certain stains in cloth.

Another example of her total availability shows in one of her letters from Mexico where she had gone in 1950, at the founder’s request, to help develop Opus Dei in that country: “And, knowing me as you do, you can see that it’s all much too much for me, can’t you? But I don’t get discouraged or scared; I only ask for your prayers that I may never fail to do what God wants in anything, big or small.”

Like many women who generously curtail their own professional interests for the sake of their families or the good of others, Guadalupe began but then had to interrupt on various occasions a doctorate in chemistry for which she had an authentic passion. One of the factors which delayed her academic studies was helping to start a housecraft school for poor girls in a rural area of Mexico. She began teaching the girls the basics – first the alphabet, then how to run a home and with that Christian doctrine. She loved them deeply and they felt it and demanded her presence and attention, feeling “lonely”, as they put it, whenever she wasn’t around.

In order to get students for the school, she undertook long uncomfortable journeys across the country. As one biography explains: “In those country districts, where the only transport was riding on a mule, travelling was difficult and dangerous. Human life was held cheap, and Guadalupe was urged by some to carry a pistol as protection. She refused, because she was afraid that she might panic and shoot from a distance without real need. Instead she took a dagger for self-defence “should the need arise”, which fortunately it did not.

When Guadalupe first went to university in 1933, very few women studied science. Indeed, she was one of only five women out of 70 students on the chemistry course. But when ill health later forced her to leave Mexico and return to Spain she managed to finish the doctorate and even earned a prestigious prize for it. For some years she managed to combine a career in research and teaching. Her doctoral thesis was a novel study, analysis and practical application of maximising the utility of recyclable materials and energy-saving using the refractory value of ashes of rice husks. This was long before recycling and responsible energy had become as mainstream as they are now.

Guadalupe was not only concerned about the basic education of women. She also sought to help women achieve their full intellectual and professional potential. Thus in the late 1940s she helped to start Zurbaran, a residence for female students in Madrid at a time when women were just beginning to go to university in larger numbers. It was the first Opus Dei residence for women in the world. (Today there are more than 100 world-wide.)

Numerous testimonies about her point to her unflagging cheerfulness. One biography, for instance, mentions how as director of Zurbaran residence “she made friends easily with university students, who appreciated her patience and affection, as well as the sense of humour with which she helped them in their academic and personal lives.” Another person writes: “Her Christian optimism and her habitual smile were very attractive, and she often expressed her joy in song, even though she was not particularly good at singing.” Beatriz Gaytan, an historian, says that “whenever I think of her, despite the time that has elapsed, what I hear is her laughter. Guadalupe had a permanent smile. She was welcoming, affable, straightforward.”

Witnesses also point to her growing relationship with God, even though in her humility her letters to St Josemaría often pointed to what she felt she was doing badly.  She wrote on various occasions to the saint after finishing retreats saying she felt she hadn’t really made any progress. Yet others noticed the signs of her spiritual life.

As one person wrote: “She had a deep interior life. I still see her praying devoutly before the Blessed Sacrament, absorbed in what she was living, but in a very natural way.” Someone else who knew her said: “She was a contemplative soul. This was particularly noticeable in the last year of her life. She made frequent visits to the chapel and each day she showed deeper emotion. It seemed as if the Lord had granted her the gift of tears, even though she was a very strong person.”

Her ill health led to her premature death in 1975, aged only 58, but with a reputation for holiness. Now many people seek her intercession for all sorts of personal needs and have found her prayers from heaven very effective. Following a study of her life and a miracle performed through her intercession approved by the Church, she will be beatified tomorrow (May 18) in the Vista Alegre stadium in Madrid, in a ceremony performed by Cardinal Becciu, Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints.

The ceremony, which starts at 10am UK time, can be viewed here. Fr Joseph Evans is a priest of the Opus Dei prelature and chaplain at Greygarth Hall in Manchester