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The founder of Opus Dei was canonised on 6 October 2002. Who was Saint Josemaria Escriva that Pope John Paul II defined as “the saint of the ordinary”? In Terris has asked Don Matteo Fabbri, vicar for Italy of the Prelature.

“Saint Josemaria was a father. This is the way his spiritual sons called him and this is way they call him even those who, like me, have not had the grace of knowing him in person. But we have been able to understand from his writings, from the videos of some meetings of family catechesis held in the last years of his life, from the many stories of those who knew him and have lived and worked with him, that he had a deep perception of his paternity and he tried manifesting it ‘with a motherly and fatherly heart, as he liked to say, even in special moments of attention and care towards the whole person, body and soul. He liked to say that in order to be ‘divine’, i.e. identified with Christ and transformed as sons in the Son by divine grace, we must be very human. He exhorted us to mutually love one another through concrete gestures and he himself lived in this way: he cared, he asked, he remembered”.

In the square 15 years ago there were tens of thousands of people. What is your remembrance?

“I remember the overflowing joy of that day. It was not simply the satisfaction for a goal, it was a joy with deep roots, accompanied by a strong sense of hope. Saint Josemaria become saint by practicing the discipleship of Christ according to a specific way, the same that, by the grace of God, many people in the five Continents travel, and that I myself am experiencing: therefore, an explicit confirmation that this path recognized by the Church can bring to the definitive encounter with God, if each one of us can be transformed by Him, welcomes his gifts, responds to his endless calls to conversion. I think that the joy of that day was the result of a very strong experience of fraternal and ecclesial communion: there were people from all over the world, of very different conditions, age, professions. Certainly, also different in their relationship with God and with the Church. But all of them felt they were children of God. At the end of one of the ceremonies of those days Pope John Paul II welcomed the Romanian Patriarch Toktist, and they both blessed the assembly together. It was a touching ecumenical experience “.

  1. Josemaria was a much loved or very opposed character: why?

“The saints are often a sign of contradiction. Much loved and very opposed. It is surprising to notice it in many biographies of people that have been elevated by the Church. Often even within the same Church. Let us think about what Padre Pio had to suffer, or to the misunderstandings suffered by don Bosco on the part of the Bishop of Turin. No wonder, because Jesus first was a sign of contradiction and revealed also the fickleness of human judgments: ‘For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at this glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and of sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her actions’. The same is for the saints: in the long term, their action speak of their holiness. Moreover, Saint Josemaria was the bearer of a message which was objectively innovative:  I think it is normal that in any environment, even in the Church, a novelty may inspire doubts, and even misunderstandings. He himself then said to have a ‘temper’: i.e. a strong character. I think that it has been necessary to bring forward the great task that God had entrusted to him; perhaps this has caused some difficulties: I remember episodes that he himself told, on how he used to apologise for having treated someone harshly, and he knew how to make it up with paternal affection”.

A few days ago, on 2 October, it was the anniversary of the foundation of the Opus. If you were to describe it in a few words, how would you define it?

“I could use the words of Escriva: divine paths opened up for the earth. That is to say that every human event, in the midst of the world, is a path that leads to the encounter with God. Every human road, every family, social or work environment is the road to Emmaus. Or again: we can try to look for something divine that is hidden every day, as a treasure in a field, in the most ordinary, habitual, banal things. The founder defined the Opus Dei a disorganized organisation that wanted to help people live this ideal in everyday life. More: the sanctification of work and the sanctification of friendship. A person of the Opus is called to do good there where he is. Each one by his own, often in very different environments and with beliefs and opinions which differ from the other people of the Opus. However, we are ‘brothers’ in the sense of feeling spiritually protected by the affection of our brothers and sisters. In this way, we constitute a ‘whole’ full of autonomy and mutual independence but with a closeness and an esteem that go beyond what each one does, because we start from what each one is: we are members of the same family. As for my brothers of my family of origin in respect of which I will always be near regardless of what they are doing, of what they think, of who I am”.

In many environments, the Opus is still considered with suspicion, like a lobby of power, almost a sort of white masonry. How are things really?

“Before I was telling you that we are characterized by the family spirit and that we try to continuously feed it. This does not mean in the most absolute way constituting economic, political agreements or lobbies of power. Indeed, we all undertake to avoid this in an unequivocal way. You ask me why instead someone thinks in this way. Perhaps for a rumour that widespread in Spain in the 1940s. Maybe because we are still a new phenomenon, even if the idea that a lay faithful is really responsible in the first person of his action in the world and of his apostolic and pastoral action, without acting on the mandate of the hierarchy, is now a situation that is widespread and explicitly recognized by the Magisterium since Vatican II. I am thinking about the teaching on this point of the ‘Christifideles laici’ of John Paul II, or about the illuminating interventions of Pope Francis on many occasions. Different is what and how one manages to live this teaching. We call it upon ourselves and we try to live it and to help each other. The prelate encourages us in this sense continually.  I know that some people who have a group mindset and do not know us closely, tend to think that there is a link between the professional activity of one of the faithful of the Opus Dei and the managers of the Opus. But I can assure you that is not true. The dedication of the senior executives is all aimed solely at ensuring Christian formation and preparation to be witnesses in the world. In this we are helped and supported by the Magisterium of Pope Francis, by the Evangelii Gaudium that we study and recommend: an outgoing Church, the joy of evangelizing, the time that is greater than the space, not occupying spaces, starting processes that over time will bear fruits for the improvement of people and society, highlighting the very personal responsibility of each one of us”.

What is the “secret” of the Opus Dei?

“Our founder did not like to talk about a secret. He only loved the one of confession, and the confidentiality of spiritual direction and the natural one of friendship or of family dialogs. But if we intend it in the sense that you mean, of what really matters and that is the basis of our joy, then I would say that the ‘secret’ of the Opus Dei is that we are called to transform the job, friendship and family in prayer and in contemplation of God who is always beside us, indeed within us”.

Is it true that the relationship between the Opus Dei, considered in a certain sense “conservative”, and Pope Francis are not so good?

“I would like to specify that the Opus Dei is not traditionalist, in the sense that it is commonly given to this word. Before the Second Vatican Council we were considered to be at the forefront: a clergyman of the Roman Curia said at the end of the forties that we were moving with a hundred years in advance. Certainly, in the climate that has been created in the post Council, Saint Josemaria adopted an attitude of prudence in respect of a certain way of conceiving the change ‘just for a change’. I would like to underline that in the Opus Dei, as well as there is all the freedom enjoyed by every Catholic in the questionable of science, arts and politics, there is always in unity with the teaching of the Church, freedom of theological, liturgical, pastoral thought. We love the Pope, we pray for him and follow his magisterium and we study it to revive our vocation. I think for example of the immense good that the year of mercy did to us: we recalled the teachings of the founder in this area and we committed ourselves to grow in living spiritual and corporal works of mercy: this commitment is continuing, and it is a wonderful wealth. The Pope has repeatedly and publicly expressed his affection and his gratitude for the apostolic activities of the Opus Dei, for the work of ecumenism that we do in particular in some nations, he beatified the successor of Escriva (Mons. Alvaro del Portillo, editor’s note), he has appointed various priests of the Opus as bishops, he is a personal friend of some members of the Opus, he is devoted to Saint Josemaria: when he was a Cardinal he prayed in front of his tomb on his knees for forty minutes to thank him for a favour received. Some Catholics, as you known, do not understand the Pope. They are a minority even if they do much noise on the social media. Some of these are also members of the Opus and we try to help them, understanding their pain, asking the Holy Spirit the light to understand the Pope: the unity with the Successor of Peter, also in the case in which there may be differences in sensitivity, is crucial for every Catholic and for every faithful of the Opus. In my opinion, the majority of Italian Catholics is enthusiastic about the Pope: for example, in Milan (where the vicar for Italy lives, editor’s note) he was welcomed in an extraordinary way”.

In December last year disappeared mons. Javier Echevarrã. The current prelate, Mons. Fernando Ocariz, is the first one that was not “formed” directly by S. Josemaria. Has something changed?

“Historically yes: the first two successors of Escriva had much familiarity with him. As Mons. Mariano Fazio, the vicar general of Opus Dei recently said: ‘We are living a moment of great unity and keeping very faithful to the spirit of the Opus, but we are also in a moment of dynamic faithfulness, because the times change and the Opus Dei is a living body which changes with the times’. It is normal for this to happen in the Church. On the other hand, Pope Francis is giving to the whole Church a great pastoral turning point: we are trying to follow him in his impulse, we are seeing how to revive and renew certain apostolic ways by remaining faithful to our charism. The Founder himself stated: the spirit of the Opus should be maintained in its essence but the ways of acting and speaking change, because the times change. In the first meeting with the new prelate the Bishop of Rome has entrusted to us directly ‘the peripheries of the middle classes’ and we are asking ourselves how to respond to this pulse that we believe is by the Holy Spirit”.

Next year the Opus will celebrate 90 years. They seem many but for an institution of the Church they are not so many: will there be a special preparation for this Anniversary?

“The most important preparation is the one of each one of us. These anniversaries at the end, remind us how the Opera is young. I ask the Lord that a perennial youth may be maintained: the spontaneity of a living organization. In addition to this we are trying to promote in Italy something concrete to make visible that even the Opus is that outgoing Church of which the Pope speaks. We immediately accepted with joy the task to take charge of an important parish of Milan with rich and poor people, close to all railway stations with a very active Consultation Centre. In Rome, where for decades is active the ELIS Centre in the Tiburtino district, was initiated a school open all day for disadvantaged young people (in particular there are many immigrant children): in this 90° anniversary, we want to encourage more initiatives and ensure that every one think ‘I, in my circumstances, what can I do to bring the Gospel to all the peripheries?’. Social, existential, but also cultural suburbs”.

What is the priority challenge today for the Opus Dei?

“The centrality of Christ and the perseverance (that with the passing of the years the wellspring reference to the charism and to the encounter with Christ that has led us to undertake this journey, should not be lost), and personal apostolic dynamism. Then family and young people. We must always more be ‘people with the Gospel in our hand’ as Pope Francis said: the Gospel of everyday life and in everyday life. The Gospel lived with consistency, losing the fear of giving your life for this”.

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