HomeDocumentationThe early years of Opus Dei1931-1932: The Second Spanish Republic and Spanish anticlericalism
The early years of Opus Dei

1931-1932: The Second Spanish Republic and Spanish anticlericalism

John Coverdale

Tags: Alvaro del Portillo, Suffering, Sickness, Spanish Civil War, History, Madrid, Poverty, Politics, Women, Juan Jimenez Vargas, Opus Dei members, Anti-clericalism, Spanish history
- The coming of the Second Republic, 1931
- Spanish anti-clericalism
- The The burning of convents
- Anti-clerical legislation of the Provisional Government
- The Constituent Assembly and the Constitution
- Father Josemaria’s reaction to growing anti-clericalism
- Stoning with Hail Marys
- From the Foundation for the sick to St. Elisabeth’s
- Back among the sick
- Courage and dedication
- New trials

The coming of the Second Republic, 1931
When King Alfonso XIII forced Primo de Rivera to resign in January 1930, the king hoped to reestablish political normality under a constitutional monarchy. The transitional Berenguer government planned to feel its way, step by step, toward that goal, starting with municipal elections in April 1931.

Spanish society was by now highly fragmented and polarized. The monarchy’s inability to find a solution to the country’s problems between 1898 and 1923 and its complicity in Primo de Rivera’s rejection of the constitution had soured many Spaniards toward the whole idea of monarchical government. Even among socially and economically conservative voters, only a small percentage backed a monarchical form of government. Many other conservatives preferred the monarchy to the republic because of Spain’s bad experience during the short-lived First Republic (1873-1874), but they were not passionately committed to the defense of the monarchy for its own sake.

A significant number of voters supported bourgeois parties such as the Radical Republicans, which took their political ideology from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. For them, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing a democratic republic was a principal political goal.

The largest working-class party was the Socialists. Their principal goal was Marxist-inspired economic and social change, but they strongly favored a republic. Many other industrial and agricultural workers were Anarchists, opposed to any kind of organized government. They were against the monarchy, but would not participate in the elections on principle. Only a tiny minority of workers belonged to the Communist party.

The elections held in April 1931 were only for town councils, but everyone viewed them as a first test of public opinion on the issue of monarchy versus republic. Early results, mostly from the larger cities, showed a majority of republican votes. King Alfonso XIII was disheartened by this rebuff and by lack of support from the army or the most important police force, the Civil Guard (the national police charged with keeping order in the countryside). He left the country on April 14, 1931, and a republic was proclaimed. Significant numbers of Catholics, especially in the larger cities, had voted for republican candidates, and many others were willing to give the new regime a chance.

A provisional coalition government was formed, presided over by Niceto Alcala Zamora, whose Catholicism reassured moderate public opinion. Two other Catholics were included in the government, but the majority of members were more or less openly anti-Catholic, comprising three Socialists, two Radical Socialists, two Radicals, and one member each of the Left Republicans and a Galician regional party.

One of the provisional government’s first measures was a declaration of religious freedom and the separation of Church and State. It assured Catholics that no religion would be persecuted. Few Catholics welcomed the proclamation of religious freedom or the disestablishment of the Church. However, the initial reaction of ordinary Catholics, and that of the Catholic hierarchy, was restrained. The majority accepted the new regime, perhaps with misgivings but without overt hostility.

Spanish anti-clericalism
The situation changed dramatically on May 10, 1931, as a result of the “Burning of Convents”. To understand those events it is necessary to examine the roots of Spanish anticlericalism.

By the 1930s Spaniards had been divided for more than a century not only by questions of social and economic policy but by bitter differences in attitude toward the Church and its role in society. Spaniards’ position with respect to the church was most frequently what identified them as left, center, or right on the political spectrum.

The vast majority of Spaniards were baptized Catholics. Many took their religion seriously and were happy to see Catholic influence in the country’s legislation on marriage and education. Some devout Catholics could be called “anti-clerical” in the sense that they were critical of the shortcomings of the clergy and wanted to see the Church reformed in various ways. Father Josemaria Escriva would frequently describe himself as “anti-clerical”, in the sense that he did not want the clergy to meddle in political or economic affairs but rather to dedicate themselves one hundred per cent to their religious ministry.

In Spanish political discourse, however, the term “anti-clerical” was normally reserved for groups who wanted to see a reduction or elimination of the Church’s influence on the country’s life. This kind of anticlericalism was widespread among bourgeois political liberals who took their ideology from the Enlightenment.

Enlightenment-style “liberalism” included the idea that all religious belief was simply a matter of opinion, that religion had no place in social or political affairs, and that all organized religion was a form of tyranny and domination. This type of anti-clericalism had deep roots in Spanish history, especially evident in the period following the upheaval caused in Spain and the rest of Europe by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests. It was also common among Socialists and among the members of Spain’s large Anarchist party and labor union.

In 1834 rumors ran through Madrid that Jesuits and groups of friars had caused a cholera epidemic among the poor by poisoning the public water supply, in order to punish the liberal capital for its impiety. Between fifty and one hundred priests and monks were killed in the riots that ensued. The propaganda that triggered the riots was similar in tone and psychology to the crude anti-Semite stories of ritual murders of children by Jews that routinely circulated in many parts of Europe. In this case, the rumors of poisoning wells can be traced to middle-class, anti-clerical propagandists from Masonic lodges and other secret societies that were a powerful force among Spanish liberals. However, the fact that urban mobs believed the rumors and acted upon them suggests that by the early nineteenth century a significant number of workers were already sufficiently disaffected from the Church.

In the period between 1830 and 1860 liberal Spanish governments confiscated large amounts of Church-owned land and other productive property that had been used to support the clergy and members of religious orders. There was little tradition in Spain of regular contributions by ordinary Catholics for the support of the clergy and religious. This confiscation of the Church’s property, therefore, made the clergy dependent on the inadequate stipends that the government agreed to pay in partial compensation for the confiscated property.

During the period of conservative resurgence that began in 1876 and continued until Spain’s humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Church regained some of its social position and influence, though not its property. The Church also flourished internally during this period, with a new fervor and an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. However, there was at the same time a hardening of opposition to the Church on the part of liberals and working-class parties.

At the end of the nineteenth century, both sides increasingly saw themselves as threatened and besieged. Fervent Catholics saw society and religion endangered by the advance of a secular wave of Freethinkers and Masons, inspired by liberalism. Many Catholics considered liberalism a heresy and rejected the parliamentary constitutional monarchy altogether. Others accepted the constitutional regime as a lesser evil, but yearned for a fully confessional State that would enforce Catholic unity in the country.

To liberals, the resurgence of the Church meant handing Spain over to the enemy of modern institutions and allowing the forces of the past to direct society. Between 1876 and 1898, the Church became increasingly identified with the political establishment and the upper classes. At the same time, a growing rift developed between the Church and the urban lower classes, and the landless peasants of the south of the country. Religious instruction among these groups was almost non-existent, and efforts to reach out to them were largely unsuccessful. During the decade that followed the disasters of the Spanish-American War and the loss of Spain’s colonial empire, Spaniards of all political persuasions tried to find ways to regenerate the country. Conservatives focused on reform of political institutions. Liberals and radicals also recognized the need for political reform, but they sought to transform the whole of society. An important part of their agenda consisted in reducing or eliminating the role of the Church in Spanish life.

Middle-class Republicans stressed political and cultural change, in which enmity toward the Church was almost as important as opposition to the monarchy. Among the working class, there were sharp differences between Socialists and Anarchists, but both were anti-clerical. For the Socialists, inspired by Marx, economic change was paramount. They saw the Church as a mainstay of the existing economic order that needed to be rooted out, but economic revolution was much more important to them than attacking the Church directly.

The Anarchists, by contrast, aimed in the first place to create a new morality and a new culture. The elimination of religion would be a defining feature of the new order they hoped to inaugurate. For them, opposition to the Church, and more generally to religion, was not merely something that would facilitate economic revolution, but a vital component of a new way of life. Anticlericalism turned violent in Barcelona in July 1909. The violence was triggered by events that had no apparent direct link with the Church. After a defeat in Spain’s North African colonies, the army mobilized reserve units and called up reserve troops from Barcelona. The call-up led to massive draft riots that soon took on revolutionary overtones.

The main focus of the violence was the burning of monasteries, convents, and schools and the profaning of tombs and religious images. By the time the riots had been put down, twenty-one of Barcelona’s fifty-eight churches, thirty of its seventy-five convents and monasteries, and about thirty other Church-related schools and buildings used for social services had gone up in flames. Although two clergymen were killed and another perished in a fire started by the rioters, the violence was primarily directed against Church property rather than persons.

Why did riots about military drafting give rise to anti-clerical violence? It may be that the rioters viewed the Church as allied with the wealthy and powerful, who decreed the draft while they themselves avoided its effects. Alternatively, the Church may have been singled out as somehow morally responsible for the injustices of a society that condemned the sons of workers to die in useless colonial wars. Neither explanation, however, accounts for the profaning of tombs and religious symbols. Whatever the cause, the Barcelona riots confirmed that sizeable numbers of urban workers had not only grown disaffected from the Church but had become extremely hostile toward it, at least in part because of the violently anti-clerical propaganda that the Radical Republican party had been carrying on for years in Barcelona.

During the next two decades, there were no major outbreaks of anti-clerical violence, although propaganda against the Church continued. In the 1920s, the support offered to the Primo de Rivera regime by prominent Catholics helped exacerbate the anti-clericalism of many Republicans and other liberals, who became more convinced than ever that the Church was a major obstacle to their desires for a more liberal society. During the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and the interlude that followed it, however, anti-clerical forces were held in check by the government, which prevented them from taking any overt action against the Church.

The burning of convents, 1931
The provisional government of the Second Spanish Republic had little interest in restraining manifestations of anticlericalism, as became apparent shortly after the proclamation of the Republic. Many of the new political leaders were openly anti-Catholic. Like all devout Catholics, Father Josemaria was saddened by their stance, and the harm they might do the Church. On April 20, 1931, he wrote in his personal notes:

"May the Immaculate Virgin defend our poor Spain and may God confound the enemies of our Mother, the Catholic Church. The Spanish Republic. For twenty-four hours, Madrid was one huge madhouse… Things seem to have calmed down. […] The Heart of Jesus also keeps watch! This is my hope".

On May 10, 1931, the playing of the monarchist anthem or hymn at a royalist club in Madrid provoked an attack by supporters of the Republic that soon degenerated into three days of violence directed primarily against churches, convents and monasteries. Rioting soon spread from Madrid to Seville, Malaga and four other cities. The government at first did nothing to quell the growing violence.

When the mob began to attack churches and convents in Madrid, Father Josemaria feared that the church of the Foundation for the Sick, of which he was chaplain, might be sacked and the Eucharist profaned. Dressed in borrowed lay clothes and accompanied by his younger brother, he slipped out of the side door of the church “like a thief,” carrying a ciborium full of consecrated Hosts wrapped in a cassock and newspaper. As he hurried through the streets, he prayed with tears in his eyes, “Jesus, may each sacrilegious fire increase my fire of love and reparation!” After reverently depositing the Eucharist in the nearby home of a friend, Father Josemaria observed with horror the smoke-filled sky of Madrid as churches and convents went up in flames.

On May 13, he heard rumors that the Foundation for the Sick, where he was living with his mother, brother and sister, might soon be attacked. He quickly found rooms for rent on Viriato Street and moved his family and their few belongings there. During the coming months, the family was crowded into a tiny apartment whose only windows faced an air shaft. Father Josemaria’s room was so small that he could not even fit in a chair, and had to write kneeling down, using the bed for a desk.

The provisional Republican government did not provoke the burning of the convents, but many of its members were sympathetic to the rioters. The left-Republican minister Manuel Azana, who was rapidly becoming the most powerful political figure in the country, told his colleagues, “All the convents of Madrid are not worth the life of a single Republican.” He threatened to resign “if a single person is injured in Madrid because of this stupidity.” For several days, the government did nothing to control the riots.

Once the government finally intervened, the violence ended quickly, but by that time the damage had been done. Approximately a hundred churches and convents had been burnt, including forty-one in Malaga, a medium-size city on the Mediterranean coast. The government’s inaction during the early days of the rioting convinced Catholics throughout the country that the new regime was an implacable enemy of the Church. Azana’s reluctance to use force against anti-clerical rioters would eventually cost the Republic and the country dearly.

Anti-clerical legislation of the Provisional Government
The sense of the Republican government’s hostility to the Church soon increased as the provisional government issued a series of decrees and regulations that upset many Catholics. It established full freedom of conscience and worship; made religious instruction voluntary in State schools; dissolved the chaplain corps of the army and navy; replaced the traditional religious oath of office with a promise; deprived the Church of representation in the National Council on Education; and prohibited government officials from attending public religious acts. In a tolerant, religiously pluralistic society, many of these actions would seem acceptable.

Most Spanish Catholics of the time, however, reared in a society in which virtually everyone was at least nominally Catholic and in which close cooperation between Church and State had been the norm for centuries, viewed these actions as hostile to the Church. Their perception of hostility was increased by the government’s failure to negotiate or even consult with Church officials about changes in religious policy, despite a long tradition of handling religious affairs through treaties with the Holy See.

The Constituent Assembly and the Constitution
Elections were now held for a constituent assembly or parliament, and Catholics and conservatives found themselves in disarray. The electoral law passed by the provisional government awarded each seat to the party that won a simple majority in the district, with the result that a small difference in popular vote could lead to a large difference in seats. Conservative or explicitly Catholic candidates won only a small number of seats, although they had received a significant number of votes overall.

Parties hostile to the Church had an overwhelming majority in the constituent assembly. The largest bloc was made up of Socialists. Although they were more concerned about economic questions than about religion, they would gladly support anti-clerical measures. Another large block was the Radical Republican party, in which anti-clericalism was an essential element.

The newly elected majority of the constituent assembly was not interested in a bloody persecution of the Church like the religious persecution Mexico and the Soviet Union were experiencing at that time. However, its goals went well beyond turning Spain into a non-confessional country by severing ties between Church and State and putting an end to government subsidies to the Church. Republican leaders wanted to transform Spain from a traditional to a modern society. In their view, this could be done only by reducing the influence of the Church in daily life and establishing a secular culture in which religion would play a very limited role.

Republican leaders considered the Church, and particularly the religious orders that played such a large role in Spanish education, to be the major obstacle to their plans for transforming Spain into a modern secular society. In order to reduce the Church’s influence on society, they were committed to abolishing the Jesuits and restricting the activities of other religious orders. Above all, they were determined to eliminate, or at least to reduce, Catholic influence in education by prohibiting priests and religious from running schools. Like the changes already introduced by the provisional government, all of these provisions struck most Spanish Catholics, many of whom drew no distinctions between their religious faith and their social and cultural traditionalism, as unjustified attacks on religion. The Spanish bishops initially limited themselves to exhorting Spanish Catholics to accept peacefully the legitimate decrees of the government and to remain united.

The draft constitution prepared by the constituent assembly during summer and fall 1931 contained a number of provisions that directly affected the Church. It put an end to the union of Church and State that had characterized Spain for centuries. It forbade the central, regional or local government to support the Church or any religious association in any way; the subsidies paid to diocesan clergy for the past century would cease within two years. It provided for the dissolution of the Jesuits and the confiscation of all their property. All other religious orders were forbidden to own any property beyond what was strictly necessary for the maintenance of their members and the fulfillment of their specific aims. Above all, they were forbidden to engage in education. Spain was suffering from a desperate lack of schools at the time, and the members of the assembly listed education among their top priorities. Yet they were attempting to force the closing of schools that were then educating about thirty per cent of the country’s high school students and about twenty per cent of its grade school students, in order to reduce the Church’s influence in the country.

Father Josemaria’s reaction to growing anti-clericalism
Spanish Catholics were sharply divided over how best to defend the Church. Monarchists believed that the only way was to overturn the Second Republic and bring back the monarchy. Other Catholics argued that the form of government was not an essential mater. Catholics, they said, could and should work within the republican framework to protect the Church’s rights. Passions ran high; opposing views were often taken as, at best, a sign of wrong-headedness and at worst, as a lack of zeal in the service of the Church.

Father Josemaria took no part in these debates. From his seminary days when he had been repelled by the clericalism that characterized large parts of the Spanish Church, he had been convinced that priests should respect the right of lay Catholics to form their own political opinions and to join political parties of their choice. Although he had a lively interest in current events, he made it an inflexible rule throughout his life not to express any political opinions.

Shortly after the proclamation of the Republic, Father Josemaria advised Isidoro Zorzano: “Don’t worry one way or the other about the political change. Be concerned only that they do not offend God.” He wrote to him in August 1931, “I suppose that all these attacks on our Christ will have served to inflame you even more in his service. Try to belong to him more each day…, with prayer. Offer him also each day, as expiation that is very pleasing in his divine eyes, the annoyances that life continually brings with it.” He gave similar advice to the nuns of St Elizabeth’s convent, where he also worked as chaplain. They were much disturbed by the news of anti-clerical legislation and terrified by new outbreaks of violence like those that occurred during the Burning of Convents in May 1931. A day or two after the main anti-Church laws were passed, Father Josemaria spoke to the nuns “about Love, about the Cross, about Joy, and about Victory.” “Away with anxiety,” he told them. “We are at the beginning of the end.” As for himself, Father Josemaria recorded: “St Teresa has obtained for me from our Jesus the Joy – with a capital letter – that I have today when apparently, humanly speaking, I should be sad for the Church and for my own affairs (which are truly going badly). Much faith, and expiation, but more important than faith and expiation, much Love.”

Taken by itself, Father Josemaria’s advice to Isidoro “not to worry one way or the other about the political change” might suggest that he advised indifference to politics and concern only with religious matters. This was not the case. He encouraged an active interest in politics and careful fulfillment of civic responsibilities. In sharp contrast to the clerical one-party mentality that prevailed among Spanish Catholics at the time, however, he believed that it was up to individual Catholics to make their own choices about how to implement the Church’s teaching in practice. He continued to refrain scrupulously from expressing any political preferences, limiting himself to encouraging all those who sought his advice to take their civic duties seriously and to exercise their rights as citizens in ways that would make society more Christian.

Stoning with Hail Marys
Father Josemaria continued to wear his cassock in public and, therefore, increasingly found himself the object of insults. During the summer of 1931, he made a novena to a recently deceased member of the “Damas Apostolicas” (a newly founded religious order dedicated to helping the poor and sick). For this novena he visited her tomb every day in a cemetery located in a poor neighborhood of Madrid. Every day of the novena brought new insults. Once, on his way back from the cemetery, a bricklayer came at him shouting, “A cockroach! Stamp on it!” Despite his resolutions not to pay attention to such things, Father Josemaria was unable to contain himself. “What courage,” he retorted, “to pick a fight with someone who walks past without offending you!” The other workers told the bricklayer to shut up, and one of them tried to excuse his fellow-worker’s conduct. “It’s not right,” he said with the air of someone giving a satisfactory explanation, “but you have to understand, he just hates priests.” On another day, one of a group of boys shouted, “A priest!” Let’s throw stones at him!” Father Josemaria recounts his reaction: “With a movement that was anterior to any act of my will, I shut the breviary I had been reading, and faced them. ‘You rascals! Is that what you mothers teach you?’” “I added other words,” he concludes, without specifying what they were.

Father Josemaria was hit several times by stones, and once a well-aimed soccer ball struck him full in the face. Some of the Damas Apostolicas suffered much worse. One day they were attacked and dragged down the street of a working-class neighborhood while someone drove a shoemaker’s awl into their scalps. When one of them tried to defend the others, the attackers ripped off part of her scalp, leaving her disfigured.

In the midst of this hostile environment, Father Josemaria struggled to control his temper and to “stone with Hail Marys” his attackers. He was not always successful, but by mid-September 1931, he was able to record in his personal notes:

"I have to thank my God for a noteworthy change. Until recently, the insults and jeers I received for being a priest (mostly since the coming of the Republic, before only rarely) made me angry. I made a resolution to entrust to our Lady, with a Hail Mary, those from whom I heard rude and foul expressions. I did it. It was hard. Now, when I hear that sort of ignoble words, I usually feel moved with pity, considering the misfortune of the poor people who do those things. They think they are doing something good, because people have taken advantage of their ignorance and passions to make them believe that priests are not only lazy parasites but their enemies, accomplices of the bourgeoisie that exploits them".

Father Josemaria finished this note with a characteristic exclamation that reflected his conviction, even at this early stage when he still had little to show for his efforts, that God intended to do great things through Opus Dei. “Your Work, Lord,” he concluded, “will open their eyes!”

A few months later he was deeply distressed by the decree of dissolution of the Jesuits. He wrote, “Yesterday I suffered when I learned about the expulsion of the Jesuits and the other anti-Catholic measures adopted by the Parliament. My head ached and I felt sick until afternoon. In the afternoon, dressed as a layman, I went with Adolfo to Charmartin” (where the Jesuits’ house was located). “Father Sanchez and all the other Jesuits were delighted to suffer persecution… What serenely beautiful things they said to us!”

* * *

The second half of 1931 was an exceptionally difficult period for Father Josemaria. He suffered because of the many attacks on the Church launched by the Republican government and its supporters. He continued to encounter great difficulty in finding people capable of understanding and committing themselves to his message. His family’s financial situation was extremely difficult. And, finally, his own situation as a priest from outside the diocese, exposed to being expelled at any moment, was highly unstable.

From the Foundation for the sick to St. Elisabeth’s
On June 18, 1931, Father Josemaria ceased being the official chaplain to the Foundation for the Sick, but as no other chaplain had been appointed, he continued serving on an interim basis until October. He needed to be able to dedicate more time to getting Opus Dei on its feet. He also urgently needed a permanent position so that he could remain in Madrid and support his family. During the summer, he served briefly at the church of St Barbara, but the appointment proved temporary. Then he learned that the Recollect Augustinian nuns of the Convent of St Elizabeth desperately needed someone to say Mass and hear confessions. After the proclamation of the Second Spanish Republic, anti-clerical violence prevented their normal priests from passing through dangerous neighborhoods to reach the convent, so the nuns often had no one. Father Josemaria volunteered to help out until someone could be found. In November, he was formally appointed as their chaplain.

The move from the Foundation for the Sick to St Elizabeth’s proved providential. In November the diocese of Madrid began to expel priests from other dioceses who were living in Madrid. Because St Elizabeth’s was a royal foundation, Father Josemaria was not subject to expulsion. On the other hand, his economic situation was desperate. He was not yet receiving a regular stipend for his post as chaplain to St Elizabeth’s, and his income from tutoring and teaching at a tutorial college did not even cover his family’s basic expenses. For himself, he loved the fact of living in poverty, but his family’s sufferings hurt him in a way no personal discomfort could.

Back among the sick
No sooner had Father Josemaria left the Foundation for the Sick than he began to miss the daily contact with sick and poor people. He felt an overwhelming desire to exercise his priestly ministry among them. In addition, he believed that their prayers and sacrifices were essential for the growth of the Work.

Through the sacristan of St Elizabeth’s he learned about the Congregation of St Philip Neri, a group who visited and took care of the sick in the General Hospital of Madrid. On Sunday November 8, 1931, he went for the first time with the “Philippians”, as they were called, to make the beds of the sick, to bathe them and cut their hair and nails, and to empty bedpans and spittoons.

Father Josemaria became close friends with a number of the young men who were already involved in the “Philippians”. They soon began to seek spiritual direction from him. He also brought to the hospital, to join him in visiting and caring for the patients, a handful of students who were already coming to him for spiritual direction.
Spending Sunday afternoons in the hospital required great generosity on the part of the young men. In the increasingly anti-clerical atmosphere of the hospital, some of the patients rudely rejected their services. The hospital reeked of urine, excrement, and unwashed bodies, and some of the services they performed were so repugnant that more than once they vomited after leaving the hospital.

In addition to giving personal spiritual direction to these young men, Father Josemaria met with them in small groups. Sometimes he would share with them his personal notes about sanctity and apostolate in the world. Other times they would make plans for expanding their little groups and spreading the incipient apostolate of Opus Dei. They had nowhere to meet, so they often sat on a bench on one of Madrid’s main boulevards or in a nearby park. Father Josemaria shared with them his ambitious dreams of a worldwide apostolate, reaching down through the centuries. This vision contrasted starkly with the reality of a handful of boys and young men sitting on a park bench with a priest who was barely thirty.
Throughout the next year Father Josemaria worked hard to nurture the spirit of Opus Dei in the young men and priests to whom he gave spiritual direction. At the same time he was struggling to support his mother, sister and 13-year-old brother.

The beginning of 1933 brought with it hopeful developments. A year earlier, Father Josemaria had met a young medical student named Juan Jimenez Vargas. On January 4, 1933, he explained his apostolic projects to him, specifically his plans for giving religious formation to young people. Juan promptly convinced a number of his friends to help teach catechism in Los Pinos, one of the deprived neighborhoods where Father Josemaria had recently offered to help the nuns with catechism classes for poor children. Soon Juan and a number of his friends were going with Father Josemaria on visits to the destitute sick in hospitals or in their homes.

Father Josemaria invited Juan to attend a series of classes of religious formation. The first class took place on January 21, 1933, in the reception room of Porta Coeli, a home for street urchins, where Father Josemaria helped out from time to time. Although he had invited quite a few young men to attend the class and had prayed for them beforehand, only Juan and two other medical students came. This class was the first in an apostolic activity that still continues today around the world: short classes or “circles” of practical Christian formation in which young men and women could learn how to practice natural and supernatural virtues, to become men and women of prayer, and to live a more Christian life. After the class, Father Josemaria took the three young men to the chapel for Benediction. Years later he recalled the scene. Lifting up the monstrance to give the Benediction he saw “not three people, nor thirty, nor three hundred, but three hundred thousand, many millions.” One of the three never returned, but the other two did.
Juan not only continued attending the circles, but soon asked to become a member of Opus Dei. He was followed by Jenaro Lazaro, an artist who earned his living working for the railroads and whom Father Josemaria met through the Congregation of St Philip Neri.

A few weeks later, Jose Maria Gonzalez Barredo also joined Opus Dei. Father Josemaria had noticed Barredo in 1931, while celebrating Mass in the church of the Foundation for the Sick. He had asked him to pray for an intention of his. The intention was that God would grant Barredo a vocation to Opus Dei. When they first met, Barredo had finished a degree in chemistry and was completing advanced studies at the university. A short time later, however, he took a position teaching science in a school in the distant province of Jaen, and Father Josemaria lost touch with him.

Then, in February 1933, Barredo returned to Madrid to work on his doctorate at the Rockefeller Institute there. When he saw Father Josemaria in the street one day, he tried to avoid him, because he feared that Father Josemaria might try to interest him in some parish activity unconnected with his professional work. He sincerely wanted to serve God, but he also wanted to pursue his profession. Father Josemaria, however, came over to greet him and insisted that they get together to talk. When they met later that afternoon, Barredo realized that Opus Dei, as described by Father Josemaria, was what he had unconsciously been searching for. He joined Opus Dei on February 11, 1933, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes.

Another vocation came in the fall of 1933. Father Josemaria had first met Ricardo Fernandez Vallespin on May 14 that year. Ricardo, a bright architecture student, was tutoring the son of a family Father Josemaria came to visit. Although their first meeting was brief, it left a deep impression on Ricardo, who wrote in his diary: “I met a young priest today who is enthusiastic and full of love of God. I don’t know why, but I think he is going to have a big impact on my life.” Father Josemaria and Ricardo met a second time a few weeks later at Father Josemaria’s home. Two of Ricardo’s brothers were in jail for political crimes, so he was struck by the fact that Father Josemaria spoke about “things of the soul,” not about politics. Before he left, Father Josemaria gave him a book called the Story of the Passion. On a blank page in the front of the book he wrote this dedication: “Madrid, May 29, 1933. May you look for Christ. May you find Christ. May you love Christ.”

During the summer, they had almost no contact, because Ricardo was busy with other things. Toward the end of the summer, Ricardo was laid up with a severe attack of rheumatism. After he recovered, he went to Father Josemaria several times for spiritual direction. On October 4, 1933, Father Josemaria explained Opus Dei to him, stressing its divine origin and the fact that is was not a response to the difficult situation of the Church in Spain, but rather was called to carry out a mission through the centuries and throughout the world. Father Josemaria emphasized that, to carry out this mission, Opus Dei needed people in love with Christ, who would sanctify their work and embrace Christ’s cross in the middle of the world.

Ricardo was a practicing but not particularly devout Catholic. At no stage in his life had he received Holy Communion three days in a row. Nevertheless, Father Josemaria’s words struck a deep chord in him. Up to then, he had never thought of giving himself completely to God, but now, as he recalled years later, he said simply, “I want to be part of that,” because he didn’t recall the name “Work of God.” Juan, Barredo and Ricardo all persevered in Opus Dei and, together with Isidoro and Father Josemaria himself, formed the initial nucleus of Opus Dei in the coming years.

Courage and dedication
In addition to giving personal spiritual direction to the members of the Work and others, Father Josemaria organized classes and informal get-togethers with them. These were held in the apartment on Martinez Campos Street in Madrid which he had rented for his family in December 1932. Holding the meetings in his home, where his mother, sister and brother were often present, made it easier for Father Josemaria to develop a family spirit among those who attended. Opus Dei became, in a real sense, an extension of his own family.

For the family, however, this arrangement represented a considerable burden. Not only was the peace and quiet of their home frequently disrupted by the arrival of a small troop of students, but their meager provisions were often consumed providing refreshments to the guests. “Josemaria’s boys eat everything!” the fourteen-year-old Santiago was heard to complain. Father Josemaria’s mother, Dona Dolores, and his sister Carmen, however, cheerfully welcomed the guests and treated them with such warmth and affection that the young members of the Work, who called Father Josemaria “Father,” soon began to call them “Grandmother” and “Aunt Carmen.”

Father Josemaria invited the members of the Work and other young people who gathered around him to teach catechism in the poor neighborhoods of Madrid and to visit the sick in the hospitals. The increasingly violent anti-clerical atmosphere in both the hospitals and the shantytowns where they taught catechism made the work hard and at times dangerous. One day in May 1933, a band of men attacked the school in Los Pinos where Father Josemaria and the students taught catechism on Sundays. As the men poured gasoline on the doors a group of local women urged them on, shouting, “Don’t let anyone escape alive! There are eight [nuns]! Kill them all!” The police arrived and dispersed the mob before any damage was done, but only the more courageous and generous students were willing to continue teaching. Less dramatic, though still unpleasant, incidents in the hospitals, combined with the nauseating stench and filth they often endured, also proved too much for the faint-hearted and less generous. Contact with abject poverty, ignorance and suffering taught those who stayed to practice real charity, forget about their own needs, and dedicate themselves to others.

In addition to accompanying the students when they went to the hospitals, Father Josemaria continued to dedicate many hours to visiting the sick and administering the sacraments to them. His ardent faith, optimism, and good humor helped to bring joy to those who had no earthly reasons to be happy. One of the nuns who worked in the King’s Hospital recalled that the patients “awaited his visits with joy and hope.” “I have seen them,” she said, “accept pain and death with a fervor and self-giving that inspired devotion in those of us who looked after them.” Another of the nuns recalled that, thanks to Father Josemaria’s help, “the patients who died in the hospital were not afraid of death. They looked it in the eye, and even received it with joy.” His infectious joy moved some of the women patients to being to take care of their appearance again out of consideration for the others in their ward, doing their hair and using the makeup that they had abandoned in their discouragement and despair.

Father Josemaria was aware of the hostility of some of the hospital personnel and the possibility that he might suffer the same fate as the last hospital chaplain, his friend Father Somoano, who had died at the age of thirty-something, having apparently been poisoned. He also faced the danger of contracting tuberculosis himself from hearing the confessions of so many tubercular patients. Nonetheless, he threw himself into priestly care of the patients and repeatedly urged them to pray and offer their sufferings for his intentions.

New trials
From the time of its foundation, Father Josemaria had never had any doubt about the divine origin of Opus Dei. His spiritual director, Father Postius, had warned him at the beginning of 1932 that at some point he would undergo the trial of uncertainty. That occurred during a retreat in June 1933. Father Josemaria recorded what happened:

"I was alone in a balcony of the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, trying to pray before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. For a moment and for no particular reason – there are none – this very bitter thought came into my mind: “What if it is all a lie, an illusion of yours, and you are wasting your time and, what is worse, making so many others waste theirs?"

Father Josemaria responded immediately with complete detachment, offering God what he loved best: Opus Dei. “If it is not yours,” he prayed, “destroy it. If it is yours, reassure me.” The trial, Father Josemaria wrote afterwards, “lasted only a few seconds, but what suffering!” God responded to his generous offering with renewed assurance. “Immediately I felt confirmed in the truth about his will concerning the Work.”

Maria Ignacia
Father Josemaria also suffered due to the deteriorating condition of Maria Ignacia Garcia Escobar, a hospital-bound tuberculosis patient who had joined Opus Dei in the spring of 1932 and offered all her sufferings for the apostolate that he was doing with young people. The disease was no longer confined to her lungs but was eating away her bones and her organs. Father Josemaria spoke to her about death and assured her that she would work more effectively for Opus Dei from heaven than on this earth. He even suggested a number of intentions that she could ask of Jesus and Mary when she got to heaven, especially for vocations.

Maria Ignacia not only maintained her peace of soul despite terrible pain, but, as Father Josemaria wrote, “She contemplated death with the joy of someone who knows that when she dies she will go to her Father.” “I know,” she wrote in a letter, “that I am suffering through Jesus and for Jesus. Are there any words on earth to compare with these? Blessed is the soul to whom our Lord grants such a favor if it knows how to take advantage of it! Help me with your prayers to achieve the most intimate union with Jesus. To love him madly is my only ambition on this earth. If he doesn’t want me to be aware on this earth that I do love him, that doesn’t matter. It is enough for me that he knows.”

Announcing Maria Ignacia’s death to the other members of the Work on September 13, 1933, Father Josemaria wrote: “Prayer and suffering have been the wheels of the triumphal chariot of this sister of ours. We have not lost her. We have gained her. We want the natural pain that we feel on learning of her death to be transformed promptly into the supernatural joy of knowing that we now certainly have more power in heaven.”

Maria Ignacia was the third member of the Work to die in the space of a year and a half. In addition, during that same time, some others in whom Father Josemaria had placed his hopes left the Work. He felt their loss sharply. Nonetheless a small nucleus of members was beginning to form who would stay the course and help him develop the Work. With their help, it would soon be possible for Opus Dei to open its first center.