The upcoming beatification of Opus Dei lead prelate Bishop Alvaro del Portillo brings to prominence a man of deep faith and love of God, according to his biographer.
“He was someone who reached out to all kinds of people. He would befriend the doormen in the Vatican. They’d come over and say hello to him. He was interested in everybody,” Seton Hall University professor John Coverdale told CNA Jan. 24.
“There can’t be too many people who take up interest in the doorman.”
Bishop del Portillo, a native of Madrid, Spain, headed the personal prelature of Opus Dei from 1975 until his death in 1994. He will be beatified in Madrid on Sept. 27, with Cardinal Angelo Amato of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints presiding.
“He had confidence in God, confidence that Opus Dei was part of God’s plan for the Church, and that he was called to put his whole life at the service of seeing that actually happen,” Coverdale continued.
“That’s exactly what he did. He worked very hard, even in the final days of his life as an old man and much exhausted.”
Bishop del Portillo studied to be an engineer and received doctorates in philosophy, liberal arts and canon law.
He joined Opus Dei in 1935 and soon became a close collaborator of St. Josemaria Escriva, who founded the organization dedicated to spiritual growth and discipleship among the Catholic laity. The organization teaches its members to use their work and their ordinary activities as a way to encounter God.
Coverdale, a tax law professor and member of Opus Dei since 1957, is the author of a history of the prelature. He is now working on a biography of Bishop del Portillo.
The professor said Bishop del Portillo’s personality was “very different” from that of the “ebullient” and “high energy” St. Josemaria.
“Don Alvaro was a much quieter sort of person,” he explained.
However, his life showed his “complete availability” to the Church. He served in various Vatican congregations and commissions. During the Second Vatican Council, he served as a secretary and a “peritus,” or theological expert.
“He told one of his collaborators, who had been asked to take on a very onerous appointment in the Vatican, ‘just always say yes’,” Coverdale said.
The professor worked and studied in the Opus Dei headquarters for five to six years in the 1960s, alongside St. Josemaria Escriva and
At the time, the bishop was “very much a man in the background.”
“He made no effort to stand out or have people pay attention. He was there to second whatever the founder was doing, and help him in that.”
Coverdale was impressed that a man “of his enormous talent” would simply stand by to be there “in case he was needed.”
He described the bishop's importance in Opus Dei as “extraordinary.” In addition to being a long-time aide and the “closest collaborator” of the prelature’s founder, Bishop del Portillo had a “very strong sense” of the spirit of the organization.
Upon St. Josemaria’s death, he helped maintain the continuity of Opus Dei’s spirit and practice, securing the organization's status as a prelature – a special structure under church law – and helping secure the beatification of St. Josemaria.
Coverdale suggested that the death of St. Josemaria was the bishop’s “most dramatic” moment, due to his close friendship with the saint, with whom he lived and ate “every day for 30 years.”
“He had enormous affection for him, and was probably the person most saddened and upset by St. Josemaria’s death.”
But rather than simply grieving, Bishop del Portillo “immediately took up the reins” and wrote Opus Dei members a 30-40 page letter recounting the founder’s death.
“It must have been very hard to do, when, I am sure, he was in tears,” Coverdale noted. “He knew he had to take care of the other people.”
The biographer said he was also struck by “just how much” the man prayed.
“Not only did he celebrate Mass everyday and say the breviary and say the rosary and do an hour a day at least of mental prayer,” the biographer recalled. “Many times if he was traveling by car, he said multiple decades of the rosary.”
“There are all kinds of occasions when you see him simply returning to prayer as a way of solving issues and opening God’s grace for Opus Dei and for the Church as a whole,” Coverdale said.
Since the bishop’s death in 1994, many people have turned to him in prayer.
In July 2013, Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Bishop del Portillo. It involved the August 2003 healing of a Chilean newborn boy who suffered a 30-minute period of cardiac arrest and a major hemorrhage.
Although the newborn’s medical team thought he had already died, his parents prayed for healing through the bishop’s intercession. The baby’s heart began to beat again and he went on to live a normal life.
Monsignor Flavio Capucci, the postulator in charge of Bishop del Portillo’s cause for canonization, has said that he has received almost 12,000 signed reports from Catholics who believe they have received favors through his intercession.
The recognition of a second miracle is typically necessary for a blessed to become a saint.
Beatification events will include visits to Madrid’s Almuenda Cathedral and other places related to the bishop’s life and the beginnings of Opus Dei. Related events will also be held in Rome.
The current Prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría, said the Vatican’s Jan. 21 announcement of the beatification ceremony was a “moment of profound joy.” He said Bishop del Portillo “loved and served the Church so much.”