Opus Dei is a Catholic institution made up largely of lay people who believe that everyone is called to holiness and that ordinary life is a path to sanctity. The past forty years have seen several biographies of its founder, Monsignor Josemaria Escriva, who died in 1975 and was proclaimed a saint in 2002. By far the most detailed and comprehensive is the 1800-page, three-volume biography written at the turn of the millennium by Andrés Vazquez de Prada, a member of the “Work” (shorthand for Opus Dei), who knew its founder well and had access to his papers. One therefore can’t help wondering what new information might be found in this fine English translation of a more recent biography initially published in Spanish.
The Man of Villa Tevere by Pilar Urbano is certainly not as exhaustive as Vasquez de Prada’s biography, focusing as it does mainly, although not exclusively, on the years Monsignor Josemaria spent in Rome, where he settled in 1946 and died in 1975. However, it has the immense advantage of offering us an intimate portrait of this twentieth century saint unmatched by any other biography.
Professional historians may lament the fact that the book is no more than a collection of anecdotes centered on the last 30 years of Monsignor Josemaria’s life and told by people who knew him well in Rome. But such an assessment would miss the entire point of the book, which is to shed light on the day-to-day activities of this hero of the Christian faith as they were lived amidst the hustle and bustle of professional work and family life. The book illustrates vividly what it was like to live close to the man that members of Opus Dei affectionately call “Our Father.”
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The portrait of Monsignor Josemaria emerging from the numerous stories elegantly recounted by Urbano accords perfectly with the unattributed words appearing on the title page: “Like Nietzsche, you said you could only believe in a God who could dance. Well, I assure you he can: I have known a man who danced with God.”
A good part of the book is devoted to reporting things that Monsignor Josemaria said in “family” gatherings with those seeking to live the lay spirituality of the Work. Thus the reader gets the distinct impression of entering into the daily life of the formative years of that spiritual family that is Opus Dei.
Monsignor Escriva’s whole life was deeply imbued with the presence of God. He kept saying that he could speak of nothing else but God and that doing so was the cause of his happiness. One day in 1971, he told a small group in a get-together: “I laugh, I even laugh out loud all by myself, because I have God’s presence. If I didn’t—the things I could say! But two years ago, I wept a lot. You can’t imagine how consoling those tears during Mass were, even though they hurt my eyes. My serenity now, like my tears then, are all God’s doing.”
Because he was passionate about God, Monsignor Escriva was often led to speak of him, even with reference to trivial matters. One morning, while walking around the Villa where he was staying, he saw the owner working with his youngest son, about four, clinging to his trouser leg. Monsignor Escriva looked at the child, observing his eyes round with admiration, not missing any of his father’s movements. Later, he commented: “I was moved by that child’s eyes; I felt a holy envy of him. And I asked our Lord for that same sense of sonship for us, so that we always wish to be like that, contemplating our Father God with admiration, sure that he does things divinely because, in his providence, he takes care of the whole field we have to work in.” This sense of spiritual childhood was prominent in his pastoral work.
Although his desire to be close to God never faltered, Monsignor Escriva did not consider himself spiritually remarkable or a model, let alone a saint. When referring to himself, he often said that he was “a poor sinner who lives among saints.” Speaking to his spiritual sons helping him administer what soon became a Church institution with a world-wide presence, he once declared: “My dear sons, I don’t know how I have the nerve to call myself the father of such children, who have given themselves so completely to God. For years I’ve had the impression that I’m living among saints. Lord, what sons you have given me although I’m just a sinner.”
Pilar Urbano highlights one aspect of Monsignor Escriva’s life that goes unmentioned in other biographies. It has to do with the fact that while very few people were known to have made him change his mind on anything regarding the practical aspects of spiritual life, his daughters in the Work managed to do so in at least one instance. More specifically, we learn that while spending some time near Florence one summer, he advised his daughters in charge of the residence where he was staying with two other priests of the Work to go to the nearest village church for their weekly confession. Later the same day, one of his daughters came back and told him on behalf of the whole group: “Father, we’ve been thinking it over, and we’ve come to the conclusion that we’d prefer to go to confession to a priest of the Work.” At first, Monsignor Escriva reiterated his initial view, to which his daughter responded that “We’d prefer to bare our conscience to someone who is practicing the same spirituality as ourselves…” Apparently, the exchange went on for a few more minutes until, finally, Monsignor Escriva yielded to his daughters’ request. All this suggests that, even within this spiritual family of Opus Dei, women perhaps wield more influence that is usually acknowledged.
The most attractive feature of Urbano’s book is its ring of truth. It recounts a life lived to the full, one which, although marked by a disproportionate amount of physical and emotional hardships, was most joyful. One need not be associated with Opus Dei, nor even with the Catholic Church, to enjoy it.