The early years of Opus Dei

1934: Revolution in Spain

John Coverdale

Tags: Alvaro del Portillo, Spanish Civil War, Madrid, Politics, Spain, The DYA academy, Isidoro Zorzano, Juan Jimenez Vargas, Opus Dei members, Pedro Casciaro, Anti-clericalism, Spanish history, Republic
- Revolution in Spain
- DIY at DYA
- Opus Dei and the DYA Academy: criticisms and relations with the Spanish hierarchy
- New Members

Revolution in Spain
The immediate political roots of the October 1934 uprising in Spain are found in the elections held in the fall of 1933. By that time, Spanish conservatives had recovered from the shock and disorganization that had caused them to make such a poor showing in the 1931 elections. In preparation for the 1933 elections they formed an electoral coalition, the Union of the Right, that included not only monarchist parties bent on reinstating the king, but also the Spanish Coalition of the Autonomous Right (CEDA), a large, recently formed Catholic party that said it was willing to live with either a republic or a monarchy. The parties that made up the Union of the Right were divided on many issues. They agreed, however, on revoking anti-clerical legislation, on opposing the agrarian reforms sponsored by the parties of the Left, and on granting an amnesty to those accused of political crimes during the first years of the Second Republic. This enabled them to present a single candidate in most districts and thus take advantage of the winner-takes-all character of the electoral system that had worked against them and in favor of the parties of the Left in 1931. In addition, conservatives also benefited from the fact that women, who had not been enfranchised in 1931, were able to vote in 1933.

In contrast, the parties of the Left and Center-Left were so badly divided after two years of fierce fighting in the parliament that they could not present a united front in the elections. Most Anarchists abstained from voting and from taking part in the campaign. The Socialists were unable to reach an agreement with the parties of the Center-Left. The division of the Left and Center-Left cost them dearly in the election.

The largest number of deputies elected in 1933 belonged to the CEDA. The next largest bloc belonged the center-left Radical party. The Socialists won less than half as many seats as the CEDA. The party of the man who had been the dominant figure in the first two years of the Republic, Manuel Azana, won only a handful of seats.
Spain had no tradition of peaceful acceptance of electoral defeat.

The parties of the Left viewed the Second Republic as their own creation, and cried foul when the electoral law, which had benefited them in 1931, worked against them in 1933. Numerous protest-strikes broke out, inspired mostly by the large Anarchist trade unions. Labor leaders spoke freely about Spain’s need for a revolution like the Soviet revolution in Russian.

Shortly after the 1933 elections, a centrist government was formed. The CEDA showed considerable moderation, agreeing to vote for the government’s program without being given any seats in the cabinet, despite being the largest single party in the Parliament. During the next year, the government revoked some of the initial agrarian reform measures that had been instituted since 1931. It also granted amnesty to many who had been imprisoned for opposition to the Republican regime.

The swing to the Right in government policies was significant, but not dramatic. The Spanish left, however, viewed it with alarm. They saw it as part of the European movement that had brought Hitler to power in 1933 and had made possible Dolfuss’s suppression of the Austrian Socialist Party in February 1934. For a year, Spain was torn by frequent strikes and a number of small-scale revolts.

In the fall of 1934, the CEDA announced that it was no longer willing to support the government without having representatives in the cabinet. On October 4, 1934, a new government was formed. The majority of the ministers belonged to the center-left Radical party, but members of the CEDA headed the Ministries of Justice, Labor, and Agriculture. The Left responded with a nationwide general strike and a revolutionary uprising. The movement quickly failed in most of the country except for Catalonia, in the northeast near Barcelona, and the mining area of Asturias, in northern Spain. After a few days, the government regained control of Catalonia, but a full-scale revolution began in Asturias.

The government called in the “Army of Africa”, from Spain’s small colonies on the north coast of Africa, to put down the revolution in Asturias. This was a desperate move. About a third of the troops were Moroccans. The Army of Africa was trained to put down colonial uprisings with whatever force was necessary. To many Spaniards, it was unthinkable that it would be used in Spain. Fighting was bitter; neither the revolutionaries nor the army showed any restraint. More than one thousand civilians and some three hundred soldiers, Civil Guards, and police lost their lives. Nearly one thousand buildings were burned, blown up, or otherwise damaged. In the aftermath of the revolution, thirty thousand people were imprisoned.

The Asturian revolution was strongly anti-clerical. By the time peace was restored, fifty-eight churches had been destroyed and thirty-four priests and religious had been killed. This level of violence against persons marked a new phase in the history of Spanish anti-clericalism. In previous outbreaks of anti-clerical violence there had been extensive property damage, but attacks on priests and religious had been rare except for the events of 1834.

The leaders of the 1934 revolt justified it on grounds that it was required to head off a fascist coup. However, there was no significant fascist threat in Spain in 1934. In fact, the revolt galvanized the parties of the Right and their military supporters and contributed to the military uprising that started the Spanish Civil War in 1936. This eventually allowed the semi-fascist Falangist party to dominate Spanish political life under Franco. In this regard, there is a striking parallel, or rather mirror-image, between the 1934 revolt and the military uprising of July 1936, which its authors justified on grounds of heading off the threat of a Communist revolution, but which in fact touched off the revolution it was intended to avert.

Spanish universities had long been hotbeds of political activism. The last thing the government wanted in the highly-charged atmosphere of the fall of 1934 was to bring together thousands of students in Madrid, so it stepped in to postpone the beginning of the school year until further notice. As long as the university remained closed, there was no hope of obtaining the residents that DYA desperately needed to pay its bills.

DYA did everything it could to reduce expenses. The members of the Work, their friends, and other students did much of the painting and other work needed to convert the apartments to their new use as a student residence and academy. University students who would never have thought of picking up a hammer or a paintbrush in their own homes, where there was no tradition of doing it yourself, soon found themselves pressed into service at DYA. When an engineering student, Jose Maria Hernandez Garnica, visited DYA for the first time in the fall of 1934, he found Father Josemaria and a group of students hard at work preparing the best room in the house for a future oratory. No sooner had they been introduced than Father Josemaria gave him a hammer and asked him to get up on a ladder to help install a canopy on the ceiling over the spot where the altar would eventually go.

Father Josemaria, Ricardo, who had recently graduated from the School of Architecture and was serving as the director of the residence, and other members of the Work spent long hours doing dishes, cleaning rooms, and making beds. These were tasks they had probably never performed before, growing up in a society in which even modest middle-class families had one or more servants and in which housekeeping was strictly women’s work.

Despite these efforts, by December 1934 the financial situation was already becoming desperate. In February 1935, DYA had to give up the third-floor apartment and move the academy into one of the second-floor apartments. After putting so much prayer, sacrifice and effort into getting it started, this was a serious setback for them. Father Josemaria urged them not to be discouraged: they were drawing back only to spring forward further in the future.

Opus Dei and the DYA Academy: criticisms and relations with the Spanish hierarchy
Because of the changes occasioned by the end of the monarchy, Father Josemaria’s position as chaplain of the nuns of the former Royal Foundation of St Elizabeth remained uncertain. Although he had been serving as chaplain since summer 1931, he had only a temporary appointment. During the summer of 1934, the prioress of the convent learned that the rector planned to retire soon. The position of rector involved few official duties, because the chaplain ministered to the nuns on a day-to-day basis. Nonetheless, the rector received a respectable stipend and had the use of an apartment. Furthermore, the position could be a springboard to important diocesan posts. Father Josemaria was reluctant to apply for the position, but the prioress applied for him. In December 1934, he was officially appointed rector of St Elizabeth’s in a decree signed by the President of the Spanish Republic. At the same time, he was given permission to say Mass, hear confessions, and preach in Madrid until June 1936.

In Father Josemaria’s home town of Zaragoza, some priests, who thought it inappropriate for a priest to have any dealings with a government they considered an enemy of the Church, criticized Father Josemaria’s acceptance of an appointment conferred by the Republican government. When he heard rumors of this, Father Josemaria wrote to the bishop of Cuenca, who was a relative, asking him to explain to the archbishop of Zaragoza that he had not solicited the position, that he had the approval of the vicar general of Madrid, and that he stood ready to renounce the position at any time should the archbishop of Zaragoza so desire.

This was not the first time that Father Josemaria had found himself the object of criticism. The opening of the DYA Academy had stirred up a number of rumors among some priests in Madrid, who were not used to seeing a priest involved in an activity that was not officially Catholic. Some talked about an “apostolic sect.” Others called it a “white masonry”, because they considered secretive the fact that the students who attended DYA did not parade their Catholicism or wear lapel pins or badges identifying themselves as connected with the academy. Others who had heard something about Father Josemaria’s message that lay men and women were called to holiness and apostolate dismissed him as crazy.

Opus Dei still had no legal status, either in the eyes of the Church or of the government. All that existed was an informal group of young people who were receiving spiritual direction from Father Josemaria, some of whom had started the DYA Academy. Father Josemaria knew that eventually Opus Dei would need some legal structure, but for the moment he was content with a merely de facto existence.

- New Members
One day towards the end of January 1935, Pedro Casciaro, an architecture student from a small town in southeastern Spain, went to DYA at the insistence of a friend. Pedro was not enthusiastic about meeting Father Josemaria or any other “dog collar,” as he usually called priests. He had been baptized and had received some rudimentary religious instruction from his mother. He shared, however, the attitudes of his father, who accompanied his wife to Mass on Sundays but wanted nothing to do with the clergy. Pedro agreed to go to DYA mostly out of curiosity and with the firm resolution not to discuss any personal matters with Father Josemaria.

He was agreeably surprised by the tasteful decoration of the academy and its warm, welcoming air. He was completely disarmed by Father Josemaria’s infectious cheerfulness and good humor and by the personal interest the young priest took in him. After a few minutes, he found himself pouring out his soul, and by the end of their conversation he had asked Father Josemaria to be his spiritual director, although he had only the vaguest ntion of what a spiritual director was.

As the months went by, Father Josemaria encouraged Pedro both to practice the natural human virtues and to develop an interior life of prayer and sacrifice. He also needed to remedy serious gaps in his knowledge of the Church and its teaching. In his first visit to the DYA chapel in January, for instance, Pedro had not even noticed that there was no tabernacle. When Father Josemaria pointed this out to him, Pedro asked whether the Blessed Sacrament was normally kept overnight in churches.

Soon Pedro also began to attend the circles given by Father Josemaria. In his memoirs, he describes them:

"Week after week, Saturday after Saturday, circle after circle, he urged us to carry out an intense apostolate with our peers, showing us how to love God and fostering in us the desire to live a truly Christian life. It was obvious that what he said to us did not come solely from study or from his wide experience of souls but also from his own deep interior life and prayer… In his talks, the Father often referred to the “fire of the love of God.” He used to tell us that we had to spread that fire to all souls by word and example, without worrying about what people would think of us. He also asked us if among our friends we would not find a few who would understand the formation that was being given in the residence".

Among the things that struck Pedro about Father Josemaria were “his cheerfulness, his constant good humor, his extraordinary way with people, and his love of freedom.” This last point was especially important to Pedro, because as he says in his memoirs,

"I was very independent. My self-reliance was due both to my character and to the way I had been brought up. Perhaps that was why the Father’s teaching on valuing people’s freedom of conscience was so dear to me. He was always reminding us that love of freedom consists above all in defending other people’s freedom. The Father revealed the demands of the Christian life to me little by little, without forcing it into a straitjacket, nor smothering it under rigid norms or a predetermined mind-set. He helped me to live an increasingly devout life without ever diminishing or submerging any of my legitimate human aspirations. On the contrary, he made it more possible for me to achieve them".

By the time summer vacations rolled around, Pedro had made significant progress in developing an interior life of prayer and sacrifice and in trying to help his friends and fellow students to live a more Christian life. Toward the beginning of the school year, another architecture student, Francisco Botella, who like Pedro was combining his architectural studies with a degree in mathematics, asked Pedro to introduce him to Father Josemaria. Soon afterwards Francisco (or “Paco”) began to attend the circles at DYA and to receive spiritual direction from Father Josemaria.

The November day of recollection in DYA focused on the Christian calling. Father Josemaria based the first meditation on the passage of the Gospel about the rich young man Christ invited to follow him, who went away sad because he was unwilling to give up his possessions. Paco recalls that Father Josemaria spoke “about sacrifice, about our Lord’s cross, and about mortification” and urged the students to seek support and courage in our Lady.

After the day of recollection, Pedro asked to be allowed to join Opus Dei, but Father Josemaria advised him to wait a month or so and, in the meantime, to deepen his spiritual life further. Pedro was unwilling to wait that long and gradually bargained Father Josemaria down to nine days. Father Josemaria advised him to make a novena to the Holy Spirit asking for light to discern God’s will.

Even nine days was too long for Pedro, who eventually got Father Josemaria to agree to three days, during which Father Josemaria urged him to “commend yourself to the Holy Spirit and act in full freedom, because where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” At the end of the three days, Pedro wrote a letter to Father Josemaria asking to join Opus Dei.

In the intervening days, Pedro had asked his friend Paco what he thought about his desire to join Opus Dei. Paco, who had long had the sense that God was calling him to something, refused to give him any advice, but a few days later he himself also asked to join Opus Dei.

A few months before Pedro and Paco joined Opus Dei, another civil engineering student, Alvaro del Portillo, had joined. Del Portillo was a handsome, athletic young man from a well-to-do family. Father Josemaria had been praying for him ever since 1931 when his aunt, who was a volunteer at the Foundation for the Sick, had mentioned her nephew Alvaro when Father Josemaria asked her if she knew of any good student who might be interested in some apostolic activities he hoped to organize.

Unlike Pedro, Alvaro had received a thorough religious education, and he went to Mass and said the rosary almost every day, although he showed little interest in the highly politicized religious associations of students that abounded in Madrid during the early years of the Second Spanish Republic. Alvaro and a number of other students had gotten involved, during the 1933-1934 school year, in the activities of the St Vincent de Paul Society in Vallecas, an extremely poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Madrid. They went there regularly to teach catechism to children and to try to alleviate the sufferings of the sick and the poor.

Another student involved in the St Vincent de Paul Society introduced Alvaro to Father Josemaria in February 1935. Their conversation lasted only a few moments, but, before it ended, Father Josemaria made an appointment to see Alvaro a few days lataer. When Alvaro arrived for the appointment, Father Josemaria was not in and had left no message.

The two did not meet again until the beginning of summer. Alvaro was preparing to leave Madrid for the summer vacation, and he decided to say goodbye to Father Josemaria before leaving. This time they were able to talk at length, and Father Josemaria suggested that he put off his departure in order to attend a day of recollection scheduled for the next day at DYA. Alvaro had never heard of a day of recollection and had no real desire to attend, but he agreed to come. Although they had only talked at any length once, Father Josemaria saw in Alvaro someone who could understand Opus Dei. During the day of recollection, one of the other members of the Work explained Opus Dei to Alvaro, and he immediately decided to join.

Up to this point, people had joined Opus Dei by simply asking Father Josemaria to be admitted. Father Josemaria, however, asked Alvaro to write him a brief letter asking to be admitted as a member of Opus Dei, and from this point on that would be how people joined Opus Dei. Alvaro’s letter was short and to the point, saying little more than that he had learned about the spirit of Opus Dei and wanted to be part of it.

To learn more about his new calling, Alvaro decided to remain in Madrid for the summer. To accommodate him, Father Josemaria cancelled his plans to take a few days off at the summer home of the vicar general of Madrid. He badly needed a rest after a year of non-stop eighteen-hour days. In addition to his duties as the rector of St Elizabeth’s and visiting the sick, he bore the brunt of the apostolate of Opus Dei. He preached meditations and days of recollection, gave circles and personal spiritual direction to the many people who came to see him, and worked constantly at fostering a family spirit in the academy and residence. He frequently visited people to ask for money for DYA. He also served as jack-of-all-trades at DYA, teaching a class for a sick lecturer, washing dishes, and sweeping floors. On top of all of this, he wrote extensively: personal letters, internal instructions for the members of the Work, and books for a wider public. By the beginning of the summer he was so evidently worn out that the vicar general had insisted that he should take a few days off, but he decided to stay in the city to give Alvaro his first formation in the spirit of Opus Dei. Since Alvaro had not attended the circles that had been given during the year, Father Josemaria decided to repeat them during the summer for him.

Jose Maria Hernandez Garnica soon joined the circle. He had been coming regularly to DYA since his first visit in the fall of 1934, when Josemaria had promptly put him to work helping install the oratory. During the year, he had attended circles and received spiritual direction from Father Josemaria. On July 28, 1935, he too joined Opus Dei.

By the end of the 1934-1935 school year, DYA had overcome its initial difficulties. All the resident rooms were taken, and the academy’s classes were full. With a total of 125 students enrolled in various classes, the challenge was to find a free room in which to have a circle or simply to talk privately. Father Josemaria frequently gave spiritual direction walking around Madrid, not so much because he liked to walk as because there was no room in DYA.

Undaunted by the near disaster of the previous year, when the whole project had nearly collapsed at the outset for lack of any kind of funds, DYA decided to expand. No more space was available in the building, but they found an apartment a few doors down on the same street. With the help of another infusion of money from the Escriva family’s dwindling inheritance, they rented the apartment at 48 Ferraz Street and moved the academy there in September 1935, thus freeing up all the space in the old locale for the residence.

By the end of 1935, Opus Dei seemed finally to be poised for significant growth. More important than the success of DYA was the fact that the number of solid members of Opus Dei was growing slowly but steadily. Among the students and young professionals who had joined Opus Dei, there was a solid core who understood well what God wanted Opus Dei to be. They were men of talent and character, many of whom could become leaders in their professions.

They had great faith in God and in the Work and were prepared to sacrifice themselves for it. Most important: they were rapidly becoming the men of prayer who fit Father Josemaria’s description of the members of Opus Dei as “contemplatives in the middle of the world.” This was what made it possible for Father Josemaria to begin planning Opus Dei’s expansion to other cities in Spain and to other countries.

The early years of Opus Dei: Historical, political and social situation in Spain. Condensed from the book written by the history expert John Coverdale, Uncommon Faith, chapters 1 and 3-18