75th Anniversary: St. Josemaria’s First Journey to Rome (June 19 to June 23, 1946)
By the mid-1940’s, St. Josemaria Escriva had witnessed the apostolate of Opus Dei, which he founded, beginning to spread throughout Spain and abroad. But, for various reasons, the expansion was met with difficulties and misunderstandings. Therefore, it became apparent to St. Josemaria and his collaborators that Opus Dei urgently needed official approval on the part of the Holy See, to enable its apostolate to expand to other countries.
For this purpose Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, who would succeed St. Josemaria as head of Opus Dei, travelled to Rome on February 25, 1946. Upon arriving, Blessed Alvaro recalled: “I was told, among many other things, that it was impossible for Opus Dei to be given official approval at that point, because we had been born, as they put it, ‘a century too soon’. The difficulties were so great that they seemed insuperable. I decided to write to the Father [St. Josemaria] to tell him that he had to come to Rome in person.” At that time St. Josemaria was suffering from very serious diabetes; his doctor told him that if he undertook the journey to Rome he would be putting his life at risk. Nevertheless, he decided to go to Rome by ship, embarking at Barcelona and crossing over to Genoa.
On June 19, 1946, St. Josemaria left Madrid by car early in the afternoon and spent that night in a hotel in Saragossa. [Click to view a slide presentation of the journey.]
The next day, June 20, was the feast of Corpus Christi. As was his habit, St. Josemaria went to pray at the Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, where he was ordained to the priesthood. Later that day they departed for Barcelona. Along the way, they went to the Monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat to beg her for her protection, and to greet Abbott Escarré, a close friend of St. Josemaria.
In the morning of June 21, St. Josemaria visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Mercy in Barcelona. It was a visit from a son who sought from his Mother, “almighty in her petition”, all the the support, strength, and light he would need for this journey and beyond.
On June 22, shortly before six o’clock in the evening, St. Josemaria and his companions boarded the ship, J.J. Sister, at the harbor of Barcelona. Six hours later, they arrived in the port in Genoa, Italy. They disembarked at 11:30 at night and got through passport control and customs as quickly as they could, while Blessed Alvaro del Portillo and Salvador Canals awaited them eagerly.
On Sunday morning, June 23, St. Josemaria and Blessed Alvaro celebrated Mass at a nearby church and then set off for Rome by car, stopping for lunch at Viareggio.
It rained over the whole of Italy that day. Throughout the journey St. Josemaria prayed for the Pope. He felt an ever-growing impatience to reach Rome, the Eternal City. When he caught sight of the Dome of St. Peter’s silhouetted on the horizon in the twilight that evening, he was visibly moved, and recited the Apostles’ Creed aloud.
They finally arrived at Number 9, Piazza dell Città Leonina, at about 9 o’clock that evening. The apartment, rented by Blessed Alvaro shortly before St. Josemaria came to Rome, was on the top floor of the building and had an open gallery, a sort of roofed terrace, which looked over the Bernini colonnade into St. Peter’s Square. Close by, they could see the lighted window of the Pope’s private library. The sight of it affected St. Josemaria deeply and kept him awake: while the others went to bed, exhausted by the long journey, he remained on the terrace all night long in prayer.
In memory of his trip, Pope Pius XII gave St. Josemaria signed photograph of himself, on which he had written: “To our beloved son Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer, Founder of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei, with a special blessing, June 28, 1946. Pius P.P. XII.”