“Intimations of Love” | The Priestly Ordination and First Mass of St. Josemaria Escriva
As a teenager, St. Josemaria Escriva followed the normal course of a high school student. He aimed to be a good student, get excellent grades, and dreamed of being an architect. Becoming a priest was not what St. Josemaria had originally thought was for him.
Agustin Perez Tomas, a fellow-classmate from Logroño, recalls that one of their friends once told St. Josemaria that he could be a priest one day, and St. Josemaria answered simply, “Don’t be silly.” But, in his heart, St. Josemaria sensed that God was asking something of him, calling him for something that he did not know yet, which caused a generous change of plans.
On January 9, 1918, St. Josemaria turned sixteen. The city of Logroño where he lived lay peaceful under a heavy snowfall. The temperature hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. No one went out unless they absolutely had to.
On one of those wintry days, a young Josemaria looked down at the snow and saw footprints left by bare feet. He realized that they had been made by one of the Carmelite friars who had recently arrived in the city. He wondered: If others can make such sacrifices for God, can’t I offer him something? It was a thought destined to remain with him for the rest of his life.
Later, he would say that:
“I never thought of dedicating myself to God. The problem never came up because I thought it was not for me. But Our Lord was preparing things, giving me one grace after another, passing over my defects, my childhood errors and adolescent mistakes.”
“I began to have intimations of Love, to realize that my heart was asking for something great, and that it was love. I didn’t know what God wanted of me, but it was evident that I had been chosen for something.”
So what did St. Josemaria do? Pray, certainly. Ask the Lord to enlighten his heart. He began to use the words of the blind man of the Gospel as an aspiration: “Domine, ut videam! — Lord, make me see what you want from me” (Luke 18:41).
A “YES” TO GOD
St. Josemaria answered “yes,” a yes to whatever it was that God had called him to, which led him to discern that he would be better prepared for his vocation if he became a priest.
“One fine day I told my father that I wanted to be a priest,” explained St. Josemaria, “it was the only time I ever saw him cry. He had other plans in mind, but he did not object. He told me, ‘My son, think it over carefully. A priest has to be a saint… It is very hard not to have a home, a love on earth. Think about it a bit more, but I will not oppose your decision.’”
His father advised him to speak with a priest he knew. This priest spoke with St. Josemaria and assured his father that his son had a vocation to the priesthood. He still had to finish high school. But now that he had ruled out studying architecture, his father advised him to pursue a degree in law and to make these civil studies compatible with his commitments in the seminary.
God used the example of his father to introduce into St. Josemaria’s heart a conviction that he shared with others throughout his life: “It is no ‘sacrifice’ for parents when God asks them for their children. Neither, for those that he calls, is it a sacrifice to follow him. Rather it is an immense honor, a motive for a great and holy pride, a mark of predilection, a very special affection that God has shown at a particular time, but that he has foreseen from all eternity” (The Forge, no. 18).
THE SEMINARY YEARS
In September 1920, St. Josemaria arrived at the Seminary of San Carlos in Zaragoza, after having completed the first year at the diocesan seminary in Logroño.
In Zaragoza, he went every day to the nearby basilica where Our Lady of the Pillar has been venerated since early Christianity. St. Josemaria entrusted himself to Our Lady while waiting for a definitive answer regarding the will of God: “And I, half-blind, was always waiting for the answer. Why am I becoming a priest? Our Lord wants something: what is it? And in Latin — not very elegant Latin — … I kept repeating ‘Domine, ut videam! Ut sit! Ut sit! What is it that you want and that I don’t know?’”
His prayer to Mary was accompanied by prolonged adoration of the Eucharist. He spent much time in the chapel of the seminary, at times praying for an entire night from an upper balcony that had a view of the tabernacle.
“Time passed, and many hard and distressing things happened, which I will not tell you about. Although they do not make me suffer, you would be saddened by them,” said St. Josemaria. “They were axe blows struck at the tree by our Lord. From that tree, he was shaping a beam that would be used, in spite of its weakness, to do his Work.”
“I did not know what it was he wanted, but I went forward without doing anything unusual, working with average intensity… Those were the years in Zaragoza.”
A few months before his priestly ordination, St. Josemaria’s family was struck by a tragedy: his father died suddenly on November 27, 1924. When St. Josemaria, summoned by a telegram, arrived back home, all he could do was pray for the repose of his father’s soul, and try to comfort his mother, sister and little brother. “My father died exhausted,” explained St. Josemaria, “but still with a smile on his lips…”
In addition to their sorrow, the Escriva’s were now in an even tighter financial situation than before. St. Josemaria was only 23 years old, ten months short of the age required by canon law for ordination, so he had to request a dispensation from the Pope. On February 20, 1925, a positive response arrived from Rome. On March 4, St. Josemaria sent the vicar general this formal request: “Desiring to receive the Holy Order of the Priesthood on the coming ember day of the fifth week of Lent, since I believe I am called by God to the priestly state, I entreat Your Excellency to deign to grant me the requisite dimissory letters, upon fulfillment of the requirements of canon law.”
On March 28, 1925, still in mourning, St. Josemaria was ordained a priest in the chapel of the Seminary of San Carlos.
Another nine deacons were ordained to the priesthood at the same time as Josemaria. As well as the ten priests, fourteen sub-deacons and four deacons were ordained, and their families and the seminarians from Zaragoza were all there. Among the large congregation were St. Josemaria’s mother, Dolores Albas Escriva, and her other two children Carmen and Santiago. These were apparently the only close relatives of his who attended his ordination.
St. Josemaria recalled putting his whole heart into the liturgical ceremonies: the anointing of the hands, the traditio instrumentorum (giving the new priest a chalice and some of the other items he will use in his priestly ministry), the words of the Consecration…
Deeply moved and bewildered by God’s goodness, he dismissed as nothing the many difficulties he had experienced since his calling, and offered thanks with the ardor of his youthful heart. Much later, someone asked him what he remembered from that day, and he replied, “Look, my son, I can’t remember anything that I could tell you about here and now. But it wouldn’t be true to say I don’t remember a lot about that day; I think I remember it all.”
On March 30, St. Josemaria celebrated his first Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, at the feet of the beloved Madonna he had prayed to so often. He sent notices to only a small number of people, since the family was still in mourning and the celebration was to be a private one. His mother, his sister, and a few close friends were present, and the Mass was said for the repose of the soul of his father.
It had not been easy to get permission to use that chapel, but he very much wanted to celebrate his first Mass there, in the place where he had gone every day to cry out his petition “Domina, ut sit!” The Mass was more sorrowful than the celebrant could have foreseen, although he would hide the memory and circumstances of the ceremony in a very simple statement: “In the Holy Chapel, in the presence of a handful of people, I quietly celebrated my first Mass.”
From that moment on, Holy Mass became even more central in his life. Within the Mass, he received some of the most important inspirations from God.
Conveying his own experience, he counseled: “Keep struggling, so that the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar really becomes the center and the root of your interior life, and so your whole day will turn into an act of worship — an extension of the Mass you have attended and a preparation for the next. This will then overflow in aspirations, visits to the Blessed Sacrament and the offering up of your professional work and your family life.”
The next day, the 23-year-old priest said farewell to the seminary where he had spent five years of intense activity, study, and spiritual formation, and embarked on his first parish assignment at the parish of Perdiguera, Spain.
Sources: Ramon Herrando Prat de la Riba, Los años de seminario de Josemaria Escriva en Zaragoza (1920-1925), Rialp, 2002; Salvador Bernal, Msgr. Josemaria Escriva: a Profile of the Founder of Opus Dei, Veritas, 1977; Andrés Vazquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, vol. 1 The Early Years, Scepter, 2001; Michele Dolz, Saint Josemaría Escriva, Opus Dei Information Office, 2002.