10 Questions: Bishop Javier Echevarria on St. Josemaria Escriva
Did St Josemaria ever get tired of serving God? How did he react to his failures? And to difficulties? What was his secret for staying faithful and in love with God? These and other questions are answered in this interview with Bishop Javier Echevarria (1932-2016) published in 2000.
Bishop Javier Echevarria lived and worked near St. Josemaria from 1953 to 1975. In 1956 he was elected a custos or “guardian”, one of the two people who, in accordance with Opus Dei’s statutes, have to help the person at the head of Opus Dei in his material and spiritual life and in his daily work, and point out to him things they consider need improving. Bishop Echevarria was successor of Blessed Alvaro del Portillo as Prelate of Opus Dei (1994-2016).
1. St Josemaria was one of the forerunners of Vatican II in that, back in 1928, he reminded people that we are all called by God to be saints. How did he himself respond to that call from God?
He never got tired of struggling to get closer to our Lord. He fought every day against his smallest defects, and made demands on himself with the zeal of someone who was in love, and who wanted to give absolutely all of his love to the Person he loved. He struggled every day, in difficult things and easy ones, in important tasks and things that seemed insignificant. I lived with him for nearly twenty years, and I can say that he was always grateful for the suggestions or comments we made to him.
He used to say: “Holiness means fighting constantly against our own defects. Holiness lies in fulfilling the duty of each moment, without making up excuses. Holiness means serving other people without looking for any kind of reward. Holiness means seeking God’s presence, constant conversation with him, with prayer and work, which fuse together in an ongoing dialogue with our Lord. Holiness is zeal for souls that leads us to forget about ourselves. Holiness is saying yes at every moment in our personal encounter with God.”
And he fought to practice what he preached. Up until his last day on earth, he asked his two sons who were his Custodes, the people closest to him, to help him to be more devout, more cheerful, more optimistic, to do his duty more perfectly, to endure sickness better, to work untiringly, and to give himself completely. I can say honestly and objectively that he never consciously said no to our Lord, and that he never gave a half-hearted response to what God asked of him.
2. To help people understand St Josemaria better, can you describe briefly some aspect of his struggle to improve?
The defects he fought against were his quickness and hot temper, and the vivid indignation he felt when he thought something was being done badly or not as well as it should.
Those traits, which could have grown into major defects, instead served to enrich his character and became the basis for the firmness he afterwards needed in order to tackle the job God had lined up for him. His impatience turned into holy daring, and his impulsive temper was transformed into the habit of being demanding on himself and understanding towards others. He often told us, in words that came straight from the depths of his soul, “I’m sorry for any upsets I may have caused any one of you. I assure you, and this is my constant wish, that I don’t ever want to mortify anyone deliberately. In any case, as I say, I’m very sorry if I have ever upset anyone by my way of talking or behaving.”
He didn’t let himself be ruled by his temper, he learned to control his instinctive reactions, and did all he could to act with rectitude of intention in the service of God and souls.
He never failed to ask us to help him. I have seen how he struggled against those fine threads that if they weren’t dealt with would grow into chains that kept him away from God. He learned serenity and balance, and the terrific forcefulness of his temperament was always moderated by prudence and fortitude.
3. How did he react to his own faults?
When he saw his faults he reacted by making an act of love-sorrow and at the same time by relying even more strongly on grace. He used to say “I am nothing, I have nothing, I can do nothing, I am worth nothing, nothing at all! But with Him I can do everything: omnia possum in eo qui me confortat, I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” [Phil 4:13]. I think he taught many people how to overcome complexes, sadness, and loneliness in their spiritual struggle, because he showed them that our Lord had made them with their weaknesses, and at the same time calls them to be holy. Therefore, with His help, they can do everything.
He used to say, “Our personal strength has just one name: weakness. I have my own lifelong experience. We will be strong only when we really realize just how weak we are. If we think we are strong and can manage by ourselves, we’ll fall flat on our faces into the foulest dung-heap.”
Recalling the words of the Gospel, “it is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12), he said once, “That’s been my constant prayer all day: ‘Lord, here I am, I’m chronically sick and I need you!’” I can never forget something he asked me in 1950, when I was not much more than 20 years old. Spontaneously, out of his great love for our Lord, he confided, “Today I’m sad over my lack of devotion: help me to make atonement for it!” That plea cut me to the heart, because I knew the efforts he made to be truly devout.
4. Didn’t he ever get tired of struggling to be better and to serve others?
He often used to think about how a mother or father are centered on their children, even when they’re worn out at the end of the day. He applied that to his own life so as to overcome his tiredness and not leave a crack open for self-indulgence to creep in.
In 1968 I heard him say: “In these past forty years, whenever I’ve found myself exhausted, I’ve prayed confidently: ‘Jesus, Lord, I rest in You! Holy Mother Mary, I rest in you!’”
When facing something really difficult, he used to say “Lord, what are you going to give me, when you ask me for so much!” He once told us, “I wish I could tell you how often I’ve found myself alone between Heaven and earth, with nothing but prayer to cling on to. I have spent many years clinging to God, alone, suffering, but full of hope. I have spent many years like that, and tuus calix uberrimus, quam praeclarus est – your overflowing chalice, how glorious it is! I could not reject the chalice that our Father God presented me with.”
5. Did he never have doubts of faith, of perseverance? Was he never saddened by difficulties?
He never once doubted God or the truths of God. And that’s where he found the strength to keep practicing his faith with ever-growing conviction, even though he was physically tired, or his work exhausted him. He used to say graphically, “God can never let you down.” He often told me that he believed profoundly in the Blessed Trinity and in all the truths God has revealed.
In 1966, faced with tiredness that threatened to weaken him, he explained: “It makes me really sad to think how some people abandon the fight with the excuse that they’re feeling tired. I understand that tiredness can come – I’ve had to keep on working against the grain for many years – but then we should talk about it, without slackening off before it’s time to. The effort to keep on with our prayer and work, even though they are hard, is an offering that God is looking for from us.
God is also hoping that we’re not going to get sad or give up in discouragement when we have failed – failed on the human level, I mean, because in God’s eyes we never fail as long as we have been working for his glory. At times like that we should remember that sometimes God’s plans are not the same as ours. We can never get sad. When something goes wrong, our generosity should grow greater, for the simple reason that our life is one of love.”
And he explained, “On earth we can never adopt the tranquil, comfortable attitude of people who just let themselves go because they think the future is assured. Our future, everyone’s future, is uncertain, in the sense that we may betray our Lord, we may fail in our vocation or abandon the faith. Because of all this, every day we need to make the resolution to struggle always.”
“God doesn’t want flowery phrases or prayers that sound like public speeches. He wants us to stay with him all the time: when it’s cold, when it’s hot, when we’re healthy, when we’re sick, when we feel like it, and when we don’t. He never gets tired of us, or of listening to us, and he never fails to welcome us.”
6. What was his secret? How did he manage to remain faithful and in love with God, as so many people describe him?
He never stopped seeking conversation and a trusting dialogue with God, even at times of overwork or extreme suffering. One day in 1969 he confided to Msgr. Alvaro and me, “Yesterday evening I was really tired, and I went to do my prayer. I was there in the oratory, and I said to our Lord, ‘Here I am like a faithful dog at its master’s feet; I haven’t even got the strength to tell you I love you, as you can see!’ And other times, I tell him, ‘Here I am like a soldier on sentry-duty, vigilant, to give you everything I have, however little it is.’”
And he went to pray in the conviction that God our Lord would transform any dryness of his into effective help for the Church’s apostolate. He said, “God doesn’t want flowery phrases or prayers that sound like public speeches. He wants us to stay with him all the time: when it’s cold, when it’s hot, when we’re healthy, when we’re sick, when we feel like it, and when we don’t. He never gets tired of us, or of listening to us, and he never fails to welcome us.”
7. Then were there times when he found it difficult to pray, when he couldn’t think of anything and he didn’t feel God’s presence?
On November 26, 1970, he told me: “Yesterday I couldn’t pray two Hail Marys together without getting distracted. How much I suffered! But as usual, even though I found it hard and couldn’t manage, I carried on praying. I said, ‘Lord, help me! You’ll have to be the one who takes forward the great things you’ve entrusted to me, because you can see that I’m not even capable of doing the smallest things. I abandon myself into your hands, as always.’”
That same month, he told the members of Opus Dei’s General Council, “Dry, my sons, is the way I am at present. I’m only upheld by our Lord, because I myself am just a bag of rubbish. I seek union with God continually, and our Lord gives me great peace and great serenity. But I feel dry, arid, in prayer, including vocal prayer. There are days when I can’t concentrate on so much as a Hail Mary – I get distracted right away. But I keep trying and always continue fighting. I never fail to pray what I have to pray. I pray all the time, trying to do it with all my love, using whatever situation I find myself in. Right now I’m making a resolution to say the Rosary well this evening. Why am I telling you this? Because I feel the need to. I never tell you things that could be harmful to you. I know that what I’ve just told you about my situation will help you, because you too, or some of you, may some day come to feel this same dryness that I’m experiencing now. And that will be the time for you to keep praying, doing your mental prayer and your vocal prayers just as you did when you found it easy.”
8. How did Josemaria Escriva, as a young man, decide to become a priest?
I often heard him tell the story of how the first inklings of his call to serve God in the priesthood came when he was fifteen or sixteen. From that time on, he realized very strongly that God was concerned in his life, and a desire took possession of his soul: it was a supernatural yearning to seek God, look at him, relate to him, and love him more and more. When he talked about this love that flooded into him, he acknowledged very simply that “it was (his) first and only love”, that it had gone on growing, and that he never got used to it, or tired of it. His decision to become a priest was based solely and exclusively on the desire to fulfill God’s Will in what He was asking of him, though to begin with he didn’t know exactly what it was. He thought, with a strong, deep conviction, that if he became a priest he would be in a better position to hear God’s voice.
He received the call with real optimism. He didn’t enter the seminary with a victim mentality, as though he were making some heroic renunciation. He knew it would involve sacrifices, and that it was very hard for his family to give up the ambitions they had had for his future. But none of those considerations was an obstacle to his readiness to do God’s Will.
9. Can you tell us more about St Josemaria’s “first and only love”?
I was astonished at the ever-increasing love with which he lived every day, which shone through his relationship with God. You could understand why he said that he felt very young, with “the youth of God”; because his love was ardent, radiant, the love of a young person, who makes light of the obstacles because he wants to be with the one he loves. He would often tell Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo and me at the end of the day that he was convinced that he had made the best choice, and that he wanted to carry it forward with the total gift of his poor self, even though physically he was near collapse, as happened towards the end of his life. “I assure you,” he told us then, “that inside my love is growing stronger, because I feel an undiminished conviction that God deserves it all.”
He often employed a Spanish saying, “Love is repaid by love.” He applied this to being available to God at every moment, without laying down any conditions whatsoever. In 1966 I heard him say, “If there’s one thing I can honestly say about myself it is that I have never done my will, what I would have liked to do. Of course, if it had been up to me, right now I’d be a lawyer, a historian, something like that, but not a priest of Opus Dei. And yet I’m happier than anyone else, simply because I’ve done God’s Will, because I chose to, and said yes to his love. So I don’t feel constricted: I have the full, total freedom of God’s Love.”
10. When St Josemaria talked about Opus Dei, he said that God “made him see it”. What exactly did that mean? Was there a special act of God?
He said it in many ways. I remember now the following words, when he was speaking precisely about his love for God: “these divine chains that bind me to the Work are chains that I love madly. I never want to break them, or even loosen them, although sometimes they are hard, they weigh me down, because I’m convinced that God has chosen me entirely for Himself through this path and this spirit that he has given us.”
Another time, referring to the verse in the Book of Proverbs, “testis fidelis non mentitur; profert autem mendacium dolosus testis” (“a faithful witness does not lie, but a false witness breathes out lies,” Proverbs 14:5), he said: “Hence the effectiveness of our lives, if we are careful to be faithful to God’s Will. With our behavior, with our faithful response, we are giving witness, doing apostolate, helping others in their work of sanctification, in accordance with the path our Lord has marked out for us.”
This article originally appeared in Memoria del Beato Josemaría Escrivá, Javier Echevarria and Salvador Bernal, Madrid: Rialp, 2000. Published with permission.