John Paul II and Opus Dei
Wlodzimierz Redzioch talks to Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodriguez.
Bishop Javier Echevarría Rodriguez, the head of the personal prelature of Opus Dei, speaks about the relationships between the Polish Pope and ‘the Work of God’ founded by St Josemaría Escriva de Balaguer.
Wlodzimierz Redzioch: – Your Excellency, when did the contacts between Archbishop Karol Wojtyla and Opus Dei begin?
Bishop Javier Echevarría: – In the distant times of the Second Vatican Council Fr Alvaro del Portillo [the successor of Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer as the head of Opus Dei] was presented to Karol Wojtyla who was a council father from Poland. It was his first contact with Opus Dei. The next meeting was in 1971 when the young cardinal from Krakow came to Rome for the Bishops’ Synod. He was invited for a conference of Cardinal Hoeffner, organized by some priests of Opus Dei at the Roman Centre of Priestly Meetings (CRIS). On that occasion Cardinal Wojtyla was interviewed since it was discerned that the opinion of a bishop from a communist country could be interesting. The cardinal wrote down the questions and after several weeks he sent his answers on 31 handwritten pages.
In 1974 the sane centre invited him as a speaker for a cycle of meetings entitled ‘Esaltazione dell’uomo e sapienza cristiana’ (Glorification of Man and Christian Wisdom). Cardinal Wojtyla lectured on ‘Evangelisation and inner man’ and it was a very deep reflection to which Msgr. Josemaria Escriva referred, ‘Sanctify your work, sanctify yourself in work, and sanctify others through your work.’
Four years later Cardinal Wojtyla visited Villa Tevere, the Roman headquarters of Opus Dei, and stayed for lunch there. He spent the time in a very friendly atmosphere. At the end of the meeting we went to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and Cardinal Wojtyla knelt on a wooden stool, which we are preserving as a relic since it belonged to Pius VII and St Pius X as well as to Josemaria who received it from the family of Pius X. When Fr Alvaro gave those details to Cardinal Wojtyla he stood at once, kissed the stool and knelt on the floor. I will never forget this spontaneous gesture of authentic humility.
I would like to add that Cardinal Wojtyla liked Fr Alvaro very much and was attached to him, especially after his election to the papacy – saints understand one another very well.
– When did you meet Karol Wojtyla as Pope?
– It may seem unlikely but our first meeting was the next day after his election to the papacy, on 17 October 1978. Bishop Andrzej Deskur (today Cardinal Deskur), who was then the President of the Papal Commission for Social Communications, a friend of Fr Alvaro and at the same time a great friend of Karol Wojtyla from his seminary years, had been in the Gemelli clinic since the day preceding the conclave, where he had been taken because of stroke. On the day of the Pope’s election Fr Alvaro phoned him in the hospital. He did not want to tell him that joyful news fearing that strong emotions could have harmed him. He only asked, ‘Andrzej, do you know that they elected the Pope?’ Bishop Deskur answered, ‘They could not have made a better choice.’ Then he added, ‘If you come to me tomorrow, you will meet him here.’ Fr Alvaro thought that the sick bishop was delirious because he could not imagine that the newly elected Pope could leave the Vatican. But he came with me to the hospital to see his friend. I don’t have to explain you our astonishment when after having left the room we were asked to wait with our people because the Pope came to the hospital and the entrance was blocked. Our meeting with John Paul II was an even bigger surprise. After leaving the room of his sick friend he approached Fr Alvaro and greeted him. Fr Alvaro was moved and kissed the papal ring. Then he saw the Pope held a rosary in his hand.
It was our first meeting with John Paul II and more meetings followed then. At that moment we could not imagine that in the future we would meet him so often.
– When did Fr Álvaro del Portillo as the head of Opus Dei officially meet the Pope?
– Soon after that moving encounter in the clinic, on 28 October, John Paul II received him at a private audience. Fr Alvaro told the Pope that due to the unexpected death of John Paul I the letter, which the deceased Pope was to send on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Opus Dei was not prepared. John Paul II answered, ‘We are going to write it!’
– John Paul II wanted very much to solve the legal situation of Opus Dei. And indeed, in a short time the personal prelature of Opus Dei was established. Could you tell us more about it?
– Both Paul VI and John Paul I intended to close the legal ‘iter’ concerning Opus Dei but Lord God called them to himself earlier. John Paul II dealt with that matter at the beginning of his pontificate. He gave it to Cardinal Sebastiano Baggia, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and he set up a commission consisting of experts in canon law from the Apostolic See and Opus Dei. The Pope followed all the movements and was well informed about all matters. The results of this technical-legal works of the commission are known. I would like to stress the fatherly attitude of the Holy Father who gave a free hand to the experts to analyse the problems.
– Not all bishops agreed to create a personal prelature – this new ecclesiastical ‘unit’…
– Because the problem was a new canonical ‘figure’ and thus the reservations of some bishops could be understood. However, I want to repeat that the Pope was not only very cautious but also very fatherly – he made the bishops’ reservations considered and asked to find out proper solutions.
– When we speak about attacks on Opus Dei we cannot forget that at that time John Paul II himself was attacked and criticised. Did Fr del Portillo have an occasion to talk to the Pope about that issue?
– The Holy Father knew that he had to carry his cross but at the same time he was very determined and always tried to do all things for the good of the Church. I will tell you about a meaningful event. One day Fr Alvaro participated in the rosary prayer with John Paul II. At the end of the prayer the Pope presented Mother Theresa to him and she thanked Fr Alvaro for the priests belonging to Opus Dei who helped her sisters working in various parts of the world. At some moment the Pope – half jokingly, half seriously – asked the nun, ‘Mother, why is the Pope and Opus Dei criticised whereas all people speak highly of Mother Theresa?’ She responded, ‘Pray that I was humble.’
– Your Excellency mentioned that John Paul II was interested in the matters of Opus Dei. Does it mean that he gave you advice or intervened directly in your matters?
– The most important ‘intervention’ of the Pope was, of course, the very act of creating the personal prelature of Opus Dei. By this act the Pope put a part of the Church – laymen and priests, men and women of various social strata – under the jurisdiction of the Prelate so that they could serve the universal Church better, being in communion with the local Churches.
Besides the Pope suggested the Prelate to take apostolic initiatives because he was convinced of the effectiveness of personal apostleship of every member of Opus Dei. An example of John Paul II’s intervention into the internal affairs of the Prelature was his request to create an international seminary ‘Sedes Sapientiae’ in Rome to form priests who would be teachers in national seminaries, including those seminaries that were opened in the former Soviet block countries after they had regained freedom.
I would like to remind you of another fact. At least from 1981 John Paul II spoke about a new evangelisation and in 1985, during the Bishops’ Synod, he gave impulse to the new pastoral priority, especially in the countries of Western Europe and North America where the symptoms of secularisation became alarming. Immediately Fr Alvaro took up the papal challenge and wrote a pastoral letter to all the faithful of the prelature, encouraging them to collaborate to fulfil this task. The Pope encouraged Fr Alvaro del Portillo till the end of his life and after his death he also encouraged me to continue the mission of evangelisation in the spirit proper to Opus Dei. Fr Alvaro returned from the papal audiences with elevated spirit and the awareness that the Work of God had to be done always in the full communion with Peter’s Successor and with all bishops.
– The biggest ‘gift’ of John Paul II for Opus Dei was undoubtedly the beatification and canonisation of Josemaria despite the misunderstandings connected with the activities of Opus Dei, especially those before 1992…
– John Paul II was very glad to raise the founder of Opus Dei to the altars. The misunderstandings you have mentioned were the last ‘leaps’ of Satan. After the end of the beatification ceremony the Pope did not hide his joy seeing so many people pray and said to Fr Alvaro who accompanied him, ‘Now I can understand why some sectarians did not want this manifestation of faith.’ He added that he thanked God for the ceremony during which he could also beatify Giuseppina Bakhita, a Canossian sister, thanks to which the whole world could learn about the tragic situation in Sudan. What will remain is the good that is born from the cult of St Josemaria Escriva. And the Pope was aware of that. During the canonisation the Pope defined St Josemaria as ‘a saint of every day,’ which reflected his idea of evangelisation of society through daily life – in home church, i.e., every family, at work and in society.
– John Paul II was a person who listened to others. Did the Pope listen to advice and suggestions of the members of Opus Dei?
– Sometimes the Holy Father himself asked for advice. For example, in 1978 the Pope was wondering, considering the delicate situation, whether he should go to Mexico for the assembly of CELAM. He told Fr Alvaro that there were different opinions about that and asked about his. Fr Alvaro answered him that such a visit would be beneficial for Mexico. Of course, the Pope consulted other people and dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The visit took place and was a great success.
On many occasions Fr Alvaro suggested the Pope to write a letter or exhortation about St Joseph, asking him for protection over the Church and evoking believers’ piety. That’s why we were very happy when on 15 August 1989 the papal exhortation ‘Redemptoris Custos’ was published.
– When we speak about advice given to the Pope I would like to ask whether it is true that one of the members of Opus Dei contributed to the creation of the mosaic on St Peter’s Square?
– Yes, it is true. Every year thousands of students from the Opus Dei centres from all over the world come to Rome for Easter. In 1980, during a meeting between our students and John Paul II, one of them said that observing St Peter’s Square you could see figures of many saints but there was no figure of Our Lady. And he suggested, ‘Holy Father, perhaps it would be worth putting an image of the Mother of God.’ The Pope responded, ‘Very well!’ When Fr Alvaro learnt about the fact he ordered the architect Javier Cotelo to find the best spot on the square where the image of the Mother of God would draw pilgrims’ attention. The architect made a project that included a mosaic in the corner of the Apostolic Palace. The Pope liked that idea so much that ordered to realise the project.
– I was born in Czestochowa and that’s why I noticed that you have a picture of Our Lady of Czestochowa with John Paul II’s signature in your headquarters in Rome…
– This icon is a sign of John Paul II’s fatherly love. On the occasion of the 70th anniversary, 11 March 1984, Fr Alvaro del Portillo received this icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa with handwritten wishes of the Pope. All those who were frequent guests of John Paul II felt that he ‘could love.’
I would like to reveal another thing – three days after the death of the Pope don Stanislao (Archbishop Dziwisz) gave me a cassock of John Paul II, which we keep as a relic.
– Your Excellency was looking close at John Paul II’s activities. How can we evaluate this long pontificate?
– John Paul II’s activities were so wide and his figure was so meaningful that it is hard to give a simple synthesis. His pontificate was something exceptional in the last decades. He showed through facts that the Pope was ‘a servant of God’s servants,’ a tireless defender of the truth, a defender of all men and women in the name of their inalienable dignity. John Paul II made Christ present in our times and inclined humanity to seek in him ultimate questions concerning our existence. John Paul II gave us a wonderful treasure of doctrine and an example of pastoral love. In his pontificate I would like to stress the papal encouragement to undertake the new evangelisation in daily life by active people whose behaviours are in accordance with their faith.
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On 6 October 2002, from dawn, pilgrims were filling St Peter’s Square. When John Paul II appeared in front of the Basilica there were ca. 400,000 people in the square and the adjacent streets. Those crowds of believers came to the Vatican to pay homage to the Spanish priest who had founded Opus Dei in 1928 – a new movement in the Catholic Church aiming at helping believers desire sanctity and in apostolic activities through ‘sanctification’ of work. It was exactly on the 75th anniversary of Opus Dei that in St Peter’s Square the solemn words of the canonisation formula were uttered, ‘In honour of the Holy Trinity we declare and define as Saint, and inscribe in the Catalogue of the Saints, Blessed Josemaria Escriva, and that his memory shall be celebrated in the Universal Church.’ The canonisation of Josemaria Escriva was a very important event for the prelature of Opus Dei – thus the difficult period of the history of the movement, marked by misunderstandings, accusations and calumnies, ended.
Very few people know that the relationships between John Paul II and Opus Dei have a long history and go back to the times when Karol Wojtyla was Archbishop of Krakow. I talked about them to Bishop Javier Echevarría, the head of the personal prelature of Opus Dei. He had the privilege to collaborate with John Paul II throughout his whole pontificate.