Soon-to-be Blesssed Alvaro del Portillo was a “smiling saint,” constantly in the presence of God, yet without his “head in the clouds.”
This is the reflection offered by Monsignor Guillaume Derville, a close collaborator of the current Bishop-prelate of Opus Dei, Javier Echevarria.
Monsignor Derville shares here some personal anecdotes from his collaboration with Bishop Alvaro del Portillo (1914-1994)), who in 1975 succeeded Saint Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of Opus Dei, in leading the prelature. Bishop del Portillo will be beatified Sept. 27.
Q: When did you meet Alvaro del Portillo?
Monsignor Derville: In March of 1974. I was an adolescent then; there were some 100 of us French persons on pilgrimage to Rome. Saint Josemaria Escriva welcomed us. Although being very young at the time, I perceived immediately the humble and smiling presence of Alvaro del Portillo at his side. Our second meeting, in 1976 at Rome, was really an echo of the first.
When Don Alvaro went to pray to the tomb of Saint Josemaria, whom he had succeeded six months earlier, he met me, with another Frenchman, on his way, in front of a beautiful statue of the Holy Virgin. He asked us to pray for him, adding as if from an impetuous overflowing of heart, that he was very, very united to the founder.
Q: Did you meet him on other occasions?
Monsignor Derville: Yes, at Rome and especially at Paris. What struck me was his serenity in all circumstances. One felt that it was coupled with great interior solidity. Gentleness and strength at the same time. One had the impression that that was obvious. It’s curious, he had a very uncommon natural authority.
Q: Could you give an example?
Monsignor Derville: I remember that one day in 1986 I entered with him a room adjoining the Basilica of Notre Dame de Liesse, where we went to pray, and where some ten Parisians on pilgrimage were chattering while buying post cards. It was raining that day and Don Alvaro wore an overcoat over his cassock that concealed his pectoral cross. However, no sooner we entered that he fell into a profound and respectful silence. What a presence! Then we visited the Cathedral of Laon, and he praised the builders who had surmounted so many difficulties. The architect who accompanied us, refined and cultured, was a faithful member of the prelature. He only lacked a beret on his head and a baguette under his arm to embody a certain caricature of the average Frenchman. Don Alvaro listened to him with much affection. Then we recollected ourselves at certain tombs in a small village cemetery, and Don Alvaro commented that those dead, now in Heaven, are better there where they are, than us on this earth which, however, Josemaria Escriva taught us to love so much. His faith in God’s love seems as natural as his breathing.
Q: What were you doing at the time?
Monsignor Derville: Towards the end of the 80s I was one of the collaborators of the Vicar of the Opus Dei for France, Monsignor Augustin Romero, who was then called by the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris to fulfil the functions of Judicial Vicar during long years. There were formidable people there; I will only mention my souvenir of Francis Xavier Guerra, who from then on consecrated himself already full time to his teaching at the Sorbonne and who died from cancer in 2002: a gifted historian of astonishing speculative strength, he was a free spirit, totally inhabited by charity. The ambience was simple and joyful, and the fatuous remarks that one heard sometimes about the Opus Dei made one smile: we yielded easily to the tall story, as we say in my native Provence. Carefree? Confidence in Providence? Don Alvaro, whom we called familiarly “Father,” lodged obviously with us when he came to see us or when he was passing through Paris, for instance, on his trips to the United States or Germany. I remember that one afternoon we sent him Le Monde and Le Figaro, for which he thanked us with a smile: “Why two dailies? One is enough for me!” It was for him, I think, a way of taking advantage of time and, in his case, of being content with the necessary. However, what struck me most was his humility.
Q: Could you give an example?
Monsignor Derville: On August 29, 1988, he held a great informal meeting at Paris, with more than one thousand people. It was an agitated period in the Church; the Holy See had declared on July 1 that Monsignor Lefebvre was excommunicated. Don Alvaro held essential the unity of French Catholics with their Bishops and with the Bishop of Rome, without whom we would only be leaves carried away by the wind. On returning to the house, I opened the door to the building with joy: “A success, Father!” I was referring of course to the numerous attendance
Q: What other things struck you of the personality of the future Blessed Alvaro?
Monsignor Derville: His habitually being in the presence of God. I remember that, shortly before passing my Baccalaureate , in March of 1976, I had the occasion to take part with other Frenchmen in an informal meeting with him. He explained to us that we could address God at any moment saying: “I love you.” At that very instant I felt, without the least doubt, that he was about to talk to God. I remember that he then asked us to pray for Paul VI, and that years later, someone said to him ”the Opus Dei, the Pope’s men.” He retorted, situating himself well beyond his filial friendship with John Paul II: “the men of the Pope, the men of all the Popes, the men of all the Bishops.” The Pope was, for him, the “sweet Christ on earth,” an expression of Catherine of Siena dear to the founder of Opus Dei.
This spirit of unity grew without a doubt in his friendship with Jesus. I also recall his way of adoring the Eucharist and his thanksgiving in an audible voice. One summer evening in 1986, we had watched a film with him on two or three sunsets in the Carpathians, with its reddish, orangy, purplish, golden tones. The following day, after the Mass, Don Alvaro compared the flaming horizon of a sunset to the love of Jesus, “sun of suns,” who burns our heart. Then he prayed to God for the Church, especially for the men and women religious. One often saw him recollected, as though sunk in God. This having been said, he was not in the clouds.
Q: What do you mean?
Monsignor Derville: One day in August of 1988, when he came from greeting the Blessed Sacrament and went down, in front of me, on a bad snail staircase that connected two Parisian apartments (at the time we were really lacking in means), all of a sudden he spoke to me without even turning: “Guillaume, works fail because of a lack of spirit, but it is necessary to work seriously on their technical and financial aspects,” he said in essence. One of us, thank God, was an excellent expert in the matter. That having been said, Don Alvaro was usually joyful and even jokey and approachable.
Q: A memorable anecdote to share?
Monsignor Derville: During a stay in France in 1986, he told us laughing that during World War II the first Italian of the Opus Dei had chosen the parachutists, telling himself without believing it too much that at the first jump he would break his leg and would be immediately sent back: something that indeed happened to him despite himself, because he was distracted by a flock of sheep. I remember also
that Don Alvaro called me one day ”Guillaume the Non Taciturn,” a simple play on words that revealed his paternal tenderness. I heard him say to a priest, who was much younger than him, that he was very united to him. I also saw him take a crucifix out of his pocket to recite a prayer in a low voice after the Mass. He had a predilection for the sick. I remember that he would visit them when he arrived somewhere, and that he said to them, as Saint Josemaria did: “Your job, now, is to be a good sick person.” One day, I asked Don Alvaro a concrete question on the past and his immediate response surprised me as well as the amused smile that accompanied it: “I made a mistake!” See, it is a sanctity that is hard as granite, but truly likeable, serene, not stuck at all. I remember that once in 1988 I wanted to say something personal to Monsignor del Portillo; then he bowed with gentleness and affability to hear me, it did not matter that he was between two airplanes. If the famous “Smiling Angel” exists of the Rheims Cathedral, Don Alvaro is a smiling Saint.” Many have had the experience, and well beyond what I lived. My modest experience, certainly subjective, suffices me to think that from Heaven Don Alvaro continues to smile on us, and above all that God loves us infinitely!