“My Memories of St. Josemaria Escriva: 1953-1975”
Born in Valladolid, Spain, Fr. Soria discerned his vocation to Opus Dei while in medical school in 1932. In 1953, he moved to Rome where he met St. Josemaria and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956. For 22 years, Fr. Soria lived and worked with St. Josemaria serving as his personal physician until his death on June 26, 1975.
In 1976, Fr. Soria moved to Montreal, where he was spiritual director and later Vicar of Opus Dei for Canada from 1977 to 1984. In 1997, he moved to Vancouver where he continued to carry out his pastoral ministry as a priest of Opus Dei.
In 2009, Fr. Joseph Soria wrote “My Memories of St. Josemaria Escriva”, a series of articles for The Westbrook Voice (Canada) in which he described some of the most memorable moments he shared with St. Josemaria Escriva.
I. A PORTRAIT
Literary portraits can at times suffer from the same limitations as photographic, sculpted or painted ones have. That is, a person described can be depicted using words in many different manners, depending on the skills, the psychology and the moods of the artist, but any good portrait demands a lot from the author; indeed, not every skilled painter or sculptor is necessarily a good portraitist.
It is said that any outstanding painted portrait must take up the challenge of capturing some part of the subject’s life without the aid of the spoken or the written word. One Dutch poet, commenting on the famous portrait of Cornelis Anslo—a renowned preacher—by Rembrandt said: “That’s right, Rembrandt paints Cornelis’s voice! His visible self is a second choice. The invisible can only be known through the word. For Anslo to be seen, he must be heard”.
A portrait (not the portrait) of Saint Josemaria Escriva is going to be my task in these articles, contained in a series of articles. My credentials as a painter are non-existent, but I do have some for attempting a literary portrait of the founder of Opus Dei:
I spent 22 years at his side, in Rome, from 1953 to the very day of his death on June 26, 1975. That day, as his family physician during the last years of his life, I tried to revive him after he suffered a massive heart attack in the room where I and his next two successors at the head of Opus Dei were standing. After an hour and a half of vain efforts by a small group, some of them also physicians, I closed his eyes with my fingers.
Painters make frequent use of sketches in their work. In a conventional sketch, the emphasis is usually laid on the general design and composition of the work and on its overall feeling. Conventionally, there are three main types of functional sketches.
The first—sometimes known as a croquis—is intended to remind the artist of some scene or event he has seen and wishes to record in a more permanent form.
The second type is related to portraiture, and notes the look on a face, the turn of a head, or other physical characteristics of a prospective sitter.
The third—a pochade—is one in which he records, usually in colour, the atmospheric effects and general impressions of a landscape.
In these articles my task is going to be to present to you sketches of the first two types (the croquis and the notes I have kept in my memory since I met Saint Josemaria for the first time and during the few following years), plus a more complete portrait based on the other twenty years I worked and lived close to him.
Other writers have taken care of the pochade, describing for us the times and the historical setting of Saint Josemaria’s life and work. I mention, among others, John Coverdale, Andrés Vázquez de Prada, and Peter Berglar, who have written beautiful biographical sketches or full biographies of Saint Josemaria, the Founder of Opus Dei.
II. THE FOUNDER
When I met the now Saint Josemaria in the fall of 1953, what had most attracted my attention was that the chance to meet the founder of Opus Dei.
I knew, too, that the founders of most institutions in the Church had been beatified or canonized. Usually when the Lord places on the shoulders of a man or a woman the task of opening a new way of following Christ, He chooses the appropriate instrument. Whatever the difficulties such a foundation will meet (and the founding of Opus Dei implied incredible difficulties of all kinds) the founder is also given the necessary graces to be faithful to the mission received.
I knew very little more about the then Monsignor Escriva and, even regarding his physical appearance, my knowledge was extremely limited. Prior to that day in 1953 I remembered having seen only one picture of him, taken probably 13 or 14 years earlier.
Of course, never before in my life had I been acquainted with a personality such as Saint Josemaria, but I was not overwhelmed. In the years to come I was going to have the opportunity of hearing the question he addressed sometimes to young members of Opus Dei when they arrived in Rome: “How did you imagine the Father (that is, he himself, since we all called him “Father”)? As a stern, solemn and serious character?”
In fact he was for us (young professionals or university students at the time) the personification of a loving, cheerful, amusing and strong father. It was so easy to love him!
The get-togethers we had with him were sheer pleasure: good humour, sometimes to the point of explosive laughter, and at the same time incredible occasions of learning about God, the characteristics of the spirit of Opus Dei, the history of the Church, funny or interesting anecdotes based on art and literature, news about the apostolic activities of Opus Dei in other countries, etc.
Close to two hundred people were crammed into the headquarters of Opus Dei, which were then under construction, some parts already finished in a traditional Roman style, and some other parts of the pre-existing buildings awaiting demolition.
I remember Saint Josemaria teasing one young man from the United States about one recently finished section, seemingly of a venerable age due to the skills of Roman painters and construction workers. The patina fooled the person who was questioned, who declared, convinced that that part should not survive the demolition: that it was “too old”!
His immense, enormous faith and—in consequence—his unity of life, without independent compartments separating prayer and action, was another trait of his personality, immediately evident after meeting him. Saint Josemaria had suffered and would continue to suffer because some people (many of whom should have known better) interpreted his faith as fanaticism or madness.
But for me, as for many other people, his unity of life was an outstanding characteristic.
III. IN HIS COMPANY
I will always remember the impression I received in the summer of 1950 when I had the opportunity of hearing a tape, on which was recorded a meditation on faith preached by Saint Josemaria.
Years later he would rework it and publish it in Friends of God with the title “Living by Faith.”
Similar impressions were repeated later on, every time I attended one of his preached meditations, and those occasions were many, to say the least.
His words were very powerful, simple and deep, attractive and challenging, moving from the most delicate moments of dialogue with Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament or compassionate understanding of human weakness to instances of forceful and sometimes thunderous demands upon the listeners.
It was mostly dialogue with the Lord, but certainly he knew how to teach us to share in the same dialogue.
When Saint Josemaria preached, you could immediately see that Jesus (and especially Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle) was fully real and at the same time fully loved by him.
The Lord was not for him somebody to pray to in moments when an emergency struck. Very often Saint Josemaria talked to us about the need of living in the presence of God, in spite of distractions and the commitment to the most intense activity.
We were supposed to become, he added, “contemplative souls in the midst of the world.”
What he wrote in the 1930s expresses perfectly the same idea: “It’s necessary to be convinced that God is always near us. Too often we live as though our Lord were somewhere far off —where the stars shine. We fail to realize that he is also by our side – always. For he is a loving Father. He loves each one of us more than all the mothers in the world can love their children, helping us and inspiring us, blessing… and forgiving.” (The Way, no. 267)
Convinced of his sanctity and future canonization, from the very moment I had the opportunity to do so, I kept everything I could obtain, as souvenirs or relics. I remember among those things an empty insulin bottle (the severe diabetes suffered by Saint Josemaria from 1940 until April 1954 forced him to receive large doses); a rosary he blessed and gave me; several small papers with some of his hand writing…
But I was very far from imagining that my stay in Rome was going to be much longer than I had initially planned. In fact my original idea was that, after three years of ecclesiastical studies and formation in the spirit of Opus Dei, I was going to return to my native Spain to practice my career as a physician.
The prayers, the example and the preaching of Saint Josemaria changed all that, and led me to the priesthood.
Once I was ordained in 1956, the founder wanted me to remain in Rome, working close to him, and there I stayed for 20 more years. Those years in his company allowed me to attempt to move from this initial sketch to a more detailed portrait of the founder of Opus Dei. We will explore this in the next article.
IV. A Dedication to God and to Souls
Fifteenth-century portraits—take one by Pisanello or Jan van Eyck, for example—may be considered completed pictorial works in their concentration, execution, and distribution of space. The clear, delicately delineated representation follows every detail of the surface, striving for realism. The profile, rich in detail, is preferred; resembling relief, it is akin to the medallion with its accidented surface.
More interested in the psychological aspects of portraiture, late nineteenth and twentieth-century draftsmen prefer softer pastels that readily follow every artistic impulse.
Mood elements, intellectual tension, and personal engagement are typical features of the modern portrait and thus also of modern portrait drawing. In my attempt as a portraitist I will be eclectic, even if incomplete, but I should start with a point that gives reason for all the other details of my sitter.
As Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, the first successor of Saint Josemaria at the head of Opus Dei, put it “to understand the character of our founder, one must keep in view this basic quality which pervaded everything else: his dedication to God, and to all souls for God’s sake; his constant readiness to correspond generously to the will of God. This was the aim of his whole life. He was a man in love, a man possessed of a secret he would later spell out in point No. 1006 of The Forge: ‘With crystal clarity I see the formula, the secret of happiness, both earthly and eternal. It is not just a matter of accepting the will of God, but of embracing it, of identifying oneself with it-—in a word, of loving the divine will with a positive act of our own will. This, I repeat, is the infallible secret of joy and peace.’” (Immersed in God, Scepter Publishers 1996, pages 31-32).
Strength of character was one of his outstanding features. “He was endowed with a keen, agile intellect that was complemented by a lively interest in all branches of knowledge, by a remarkable juridical mentality, and by a most refined aesthetic sense. His personality was vibrant and vigorous; his temperament was courageous and impetuous, strong and energetic; and he managed to acquire a remarkable degree of self-mastery”.
I must say that the strongest correction I have received during my adult life came from Saint Josemaria, as a consequence of my negligence in a particular set of circumstances. But not even then did I feel less loved.
He had the gift of showing his authentic affection especially when he feared that his words or deeds could have hurt the feelings of some of us. He was an open and sometimes even blunt man who disliked ceremony and simulation. He loved sincerity and personal freedom. His strong character and temper were softened by a keen sense of humor and a smile that would light up his face and make his penetrating eyes sparkle.
Yes, as the Postulator of his Cause of Canonization put it some time ago, “he had an iron will and very great gentleness. He asked for high and demanding goals, but he was able to motivate with his charity (…). He did not ask the impossible.”
V. Magnanimous Influence and Example
St. Josemaria (1902-1975) was a man totally dedicated to the service of the Church according to the charism that he received to found Opus Dei and to overcome all obstacles in doing so.
Probably this was why, referring to his love for the Church, he used to say that his goal was “to serve the Church as the Church wants to be served”, not—I would add—as the limitations of an inappropriate canonical frame would impose or as the opinion of any member of the clergy would prefer.
In fact, it was only in 1982 and 1983—more than 10 years after the passing away of its founder—that St. John Paul II granted Opus Dei the status of Personal Prelature. Until then there was no framework in the legal structure of the Church that would allow Opus Dei to grow and work in her service with full faithfulness to the light received by the founder in 1928.
St. Josemaria was magnanimous, especially in everything related to divine worship, but also in how he lived friendship and hospitality.
I remember that the first time I heard the name “Château Neuf du Pape” (the renowned brand of French wine) was on the occasion of Christmas gifts he was sending to some friends in the Vatican Curia, at a time when we were financially strained, due especially to the expense of building Villa Tevere, the headquarters of Opus Dei in Rome; we walked to our classes in the different Pontifical Universities where we were studying, as we had no money for public transit.
The smokers—and there were many in the 1950s, when knowledge of the harmful effects of tobacco had not yet reached the general public—could not smoke more than two or three cigarettes a day.
The menus of our meals were not very diversified, because the main staples were set thanks to the merciful offices of the Vatican’s Caritas (flour, biscuits I used to call “shipwreck biscuits” because of their hardness, and cheddar cheese).
His artistic good taste was outstanding. His literary style was very good. I acknowledge with deep gratitude that the greatest source of my education in these fields were his influence and example.
His heart—at once maternal and paternal—and his immense love for God enriched him with leadership and energy, yes, but also with a tremendous warmth and humanity.
When I first arrived in the Eternal City, he somehow found out that my father wasn’t entirely pleased with my decision to study in Rome for a few years. St. Josemaría told me that my father was right “from his point of view”; he urged me to write home often, always addressing the envelope to my father, even if he might not reply; and to pray and to be confident that things would change.
His intuition was correct, and eventually my father became a Cooperator of Opus Dei. When I was ordained to the priesthood in 1956, my dad donated a beautiful chalice that Blessed Alvaro del Portillo (1914–1994) used to celebrate Mass for several years.
“My Memories of Saint Josemaria” by Fr. Joseph Soria first appeared in The Westbrook Voice in 2009 and is published on the Opus Dei website.