Divine Inspirations: On the 80th Anniversary of the Founding of the Opus Dei

In 1931 the founder of Opus Dei wrote down a brief account of what had happened during the morning of October 2, 1928, while making a retreat in Madrid on Garcia de Paredes Street. “I received an illumination about the entire Work, while I was reading those papers. Deeply moved, I knelt down—I was alone in my room, at a time between one talk and the next—and gave thanks to our Lord; and I remember with a heart full of emotion the pealing of the bells of the Church of Our Lady of the Angels.... I compiled into some kind of unity the separate notes that I’d been taking up to that time.”[1] These words open for us a window onto his soul while also making clear the divine initiative in what had just occurred.

The light that St. Josemaría had received was an entrance by God into history. God continues to act in the world in the hic et nunc, in the here and now of the life of men and women. Opus Dei is a work of God, operatio Dei. “God is working,” insisted Pope Benedict XVI in his recent visit to France, citing the Gospel of St. John. “Thus human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God’s activity as creator of the world.”[2] God always continues working, present in his Church, transforming the world and drawing souls to himself. As the Fourth Eucharistic Prayer says, the Holy Spirit was sent by the Father through the Son to bring to fulfillment his work in the world: Opus suum in mundo perficiens.

“I received an illumination about the entire Work.” The whole of Opus Dei was already present on October 2, 1928, although the light received on February 14, 1930, would make St. Josemaría understand that women were also to form part of the Work. While the juridical solution for the priests would not come until February 14, 1943, on October 2nd the priesthood was already present: the first priest of Opus Dei was the founder himself. The Work was born in the Church, and God chose a priest to found it. Opus Dei was to proclaim the universal call to sanctity and apostolate, the sanctifying value of professional work done as well as possible, when it is transformed into prayer and service to others.

“Deeply moved, I knelt down.” The founder’s reaction reflects his faith. To kneel is to recognize that one is facing a Mystery: a reality that is sacred and, therefore, that does not belong to us. If this exterior act is accompanied by an authentic interior attitude, it manifests both faith and humility. Everything comes from God. He counts, certainly, on our generous response, but it is He who has chosen us and loved us first. Faced with God’s goodness, the founder’s heart spontaneously poured forth an act of thanksgiving: “I gave thanks to our Lord.”

In the New Testament, the act of kneeling or of prostrating oneself signifies obedience, respect. This is how the leper acted when he met Christ, and the disciples in the boat, after Jesus calmed the storm. In the darkness of Gethsemane, our Lord, kneeling on the hard rock, spoke a loving “yes” to the Will of the Father. Jesus kneels from the humility of his human will, united to his divine will, with a physical gesture whose symbolism remains valid for all times and cultures. As Cardinal Ratzinger pointed out, in the early Church the devil was portrayed without knees, because he lacks the power of God: he doesn’t know how to love. “The inability to kneel is seen as the very essence of the diabolical.”[3]

In contrast to the fallen angel, the myriad of angels in heaven sing the glories of God. On October 2, 1928, the bells of the church of Our Lady of the Angels were perhaps calling the people to gather for Mass, or simply marking the hours. The pealing of those bells resounded in St. Josemaría’s heart during his whole life. It was in his heart, on the feast of the Holy Guardian Angels, that the seed of Opus Dei was born.

With the vision of faith, from that morning on, the founder saw Opus Dei projected in time and space. What did he see? Above all, persons, one by one, many souls, “men and women of God who will lift the cross, with the teachings of Christ, to the pinnacle of all human activities.”[4]

To transmit the seed of Opus Dei is, above all, to bring souls close to God, close to Jesus Christ. And to do so requires a deep sense of our divine filiation, of which St. Josemaría was an efficacious herald throughout his life. The baptized person is a child of God in Christ. “Anyone who does not realize that he is a child of God is unaware of the deepest truth about himself. When he acts he lacks the dominion and self-mastery we find in those who love our Lord above all else.”[5]

A child of God loves the world born good from God’s hands, and all upright professions. Human work is born of love; sanctifying work is an art, a path to God. It is a passionate collaboration with God, which gives meaning to life, and therefore sureness and security because God never abandons us. Each of us has to be a teacher of holiness, even with our miseries, and transmit the faith with a dedication that allows the soft breeze of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, to act.

The center of salvation history is Jesus Christ, true God and true man. We are his people who, convoked in the Eucharist, become the Body of Christ. In the Mass, the Church offers Christ, and offers herself, and thus becomes the Church: the Body of Christ. The same is true of Opus Dei which, as St. Josemaría liked to say, is a small “portion” of the Church.[6] The spirit of the Work encourages us to love to “serve the Church, and all men, without using the Church.”[7] Every Christian carries with them, so to speak, the whole Church, the heavenly hosts, and the saints. All the saints, each one of them, are ours, from the good thief to St. Narcisa, the Ecuadorian woman canonized by Benedict XVI in October 2008. In the first years of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría was already dreaming of the whole world.

On October 2, 1928, when St. Josemaría “saw” the Work, he had just finished celebrating Holy Mass, for the salvation of the world. Through the penitential rite and many other prayers from the Canon, he had shown, with all the passion of a good priest seeking God’s will, his desire to have a clean heart. He did not yet know that he was to be a herald of the sanctification of ordinary life, who would remind so many people of the need to offer God spiritual sacrifices of a pleasing aroma, united to the Sacrifice of the Mass, the center and root of the interior life.

The mystery of the passion, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father, had been made present. In the actualization of the paschal mystery, Christ offers himself under the appearances of bread and wine, fruit of the earth, of the vine, and of the work of man. The bread is no longer bread, it is his Body; the wine is his Blood. Jesus is really and substantially present: Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Heaven has come down to earth, and the celestial liturgy is anticipated, the supper of the marriage feast of the Lamb, as the ordinary form of the Latin Rite emphasizes: Beati qui ad cenam agni vocati sunt. St. Josemaría would also have read those words now found in the Missal of Blessed John XXIII: Corpus tuum, Domine, quod sumpsi, et Sanguis, quem potavi, adhaereat visceribus meis. The Body and Blood of Christ filled the soul of that twenty-six-year-old priest, who was about to “see” Opus Dei.

All nations were somehow present in the Mass of the founder, who could well affirm that, in each Mass, “heaven and earth join with the angels of the Lord to sing: Holy, Holy, Holy…”[8] All of creation, because heaven and earth are filled with the divine glory.[9]

On October 2, 1928, now eighty years ago, the founder gave thanks to God and set out to work. “I compiled into some kind of unity the separate notes that I’d been taking up to that time,” he wrote. Although he later thought, in his humility, that he had been slow to follow the divine inspiration, St. Josemaría worked a lot and well. Opus Dei was thus the fruit of divine initiative and human correspondence, a manifestation of the Holy Spirit guiding and sanctifying his people. As the Second Vatican Council teaches,[10] God wants his Church to have a renewed awareness of the universal call to holiness. This is the core of the message that St. Josemaría had received as far back as 1928, and which the faithful of Opus Dei, committed to sanctifying the world from within, seek to spread by their own lives.

The liturgical feast of the Holy Guardian Angels began to be celebrated in Spain and France in the fifth century. In 1670, Pope Clement X extended it to the universal Church, celebrated on the 2nd of October. The fact that God wanted the founder to see the Work on the feast of the Holy Angels is, for us, a call by Providence to never lose our supernatural viewpoint. There are many angels on our path; they guard us obeying God’s commands, and always praise him, as Scripture recalls in texts that, in 1928, were read in the liturgy of the Mass for October 2nd.[11]

In this Marian Year, our acts of thanksgiving are directed to our Lady, the first opus Dei by reason of her excellence, as the Holy Father John Paul II said during an audience granted to Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo in the first days of his pontificate. Let us ask our heavenly Mother to make us small, humble, so we may be filled with God.

[1] St. Josemaría, Apuntes Íntimos [Personal Notes], no. 306, in Andrés Vázquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, vol. I, Princeton, Scepter, p. 220.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Encounter with the world of culture in the Collège des Bernardins of París, September 12, 2008; cf. Jn 5:17.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Part 4, ch. 2, p. 193.

[4] St. Josemaría, Apuntes Íntimos, nos. 217-218, in Andrés Vázquez de Prada, The Founder of Opus Dei, vol. I, Princeton, Scepter, p. 288.

[5] St. Josemaría, Friends of God, no. 26.

[6] Cf. Pedro Rodríguez, Fernando Ocáriz, José Luis Illanes, Opus Dei in the Church, Dublin-Princeton, 1994, p. 1.

[7] St. Josemaría, Conversations, no. 47.

[8] St. Josemaría, Christ Is Passing By, no. 89.

[9] Cf. Roman Missal, Sanctus.

[10] Cf. Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, no. 11

[11] Cf. Ex 23:20-23; Ps 91[90]:11-12; 103[102]:20-21.

Romana, n. 47, July-December 2008, p. 184-187.

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