St. Josemaría Escrivá was born in Barbastro, Spain, on January 9, 1902. He died on June 26, 1975. He was canonized by Pope St. John Paul II on October 6, 2002. His personal holiness was so well known that many people requested his canonization shortly after his death. He is best known for being the founder of a movement for the laity, called Opus Dei. He is also known for writing a number of books on spirituality. Among these books are: The Way, Holy Rosary, Conversations with Msgr. Escrivá, Christ is Passing By, Friends of God, Love for the Church, The Way of the Cross, Furrow, and The Forge.
St. Josemaría strongly promoted the conviction that holiness is for everyone, long before this was taught by the Second Vatican Council. He consistently taught that people are called to holiness in the midst of their daily labors and their family situations. It is in the midst of their everyday tasks and responsibilities people respond to God’s call to holiness of life. This awareness of the call that each person receives to grow in union with God, to grow in holiness of life, shows the great dignity with which he held the human person. As would be seen later in the writings of Pope St. John Paul II, especially The Theology of the Body, we are called to intimate communion with God. This intimate communion is foreshadowed in the intimate communion of man and woman in the bond of Holy Matrimony.
His spirituality was deeply rooted in the Holy Eucharist and in devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It manifested in a burning zeal to lead others to personal holiness. It was his God-given vision that the sanctification of a person can take place in the midst of the world that led him to the founding of Opus Dei. Following closely upon the ordination of three members of the Opus Dei Movement, the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross was founded. This is a spiritual movement for priests and candidates for the priesthood, which is intrinsically united to Opus Dei. A priest can be a part of the Society without changing his relationship with his respective diocese.
St. Josemaría had a very clear understanding of priestly identity. The identity of the priest is Christ himself, ipse Christus! All Christians have this identity, but it is conferred on a priest in virtue of the Sacrament of Holy Orders. In a sermon entitled, “A Priest Forever”, our saint amplifies his expression of a priest’s identity. A priest is “a direct and daily instrument of the saving grace which Christ has won for us.” In virtue of this great grace given to a priest, the life of a priest cannot be seen as a renunciation but, instead, as a great gain. He explains this gain as follows: “Our mother Mary, the holiest of creatures—only God is holier—brought Jesus Christ into the world just once; priests bring him on earth, to our soul and body, every day: Christ comes to be food, to give us life, to be, even now, a pledge of future life.”
A priest is ordained to serve. He is to give of himself in the service of all souls. While simply stated by St. Josemaría, this reflects the principal that is fundamental concept of Theology of the Body. We are created to be a gift—to give of ourselves in loving service of others. A priest will find fulfillment in his ministry to the extent that he is willing to make of himself a gift out of love for others. This self-giving must be in keeping with his mission as a priest. St. Josemaría taught that married persons are called to give themselves totally to their spouse. Likewise, priests are called to a spousal relationship to the Church in which they make a total gift of themselves to their bride, the Church.
St. Josemaría sees prayer as essential to the lives of all Christians whether they are ordained clergy or laity. In The Furrow, he writes: “Prayer has to come before everything. If you understand this and do not put it into practice, don’t tell me that you have no time: it’s simply that you do not want to pray!” He continues: “Prayer is not the prerogative of monks; it is a Christian undertaking of men and women of the world who know themselves to be children of God…. A Catholic, without prayer? It is the same as a soldier without arms.” St. Josemaría could not conceive of anyone in the lay apostolate fulfilling their mission without a serious life of prayer. Much less could he conceive a priest carrying out his mission if the priest is not a man of deep prayer.
Prayer is especially important for a priest because of his call to be “in persona Christi capitas“-in the person of Christ the head. Speaking in the first person, St. Josemaría wrote: “When I celebrate Mass…I am Christ at the altar! I am renewing in an unbloody manner the divine Sacrifice of Calvary and I am consecrating, in persona Christi, in the person of Christ…I am lending him my body, my voice, my hands and my poor heart, so often stained…” In spite of the dignity of the priesthood, the priest must be deeply humble. The dignity of the priesthood is not the result of the priest’s personal holiness or efforts. This dignity is the dignity of Christ, a dignity which the priest shares in a special way in virtue of his ordination.
This emphasis on the priest as a man of prayer underscores a theme enunciated by Cardinal Ratzinger. This is the theme of the Marian mystery. Like the Virgin Mary, the Church must be fertile soil in which God’s word can grow and ripen. Each priest is called to live this mystery in his own life. It is in silence and prayer that God’s word will take root in his heart and bring about the good fruit of his ministry.
It is very clear in St. Josemaría’s writings that the priest has a mission that demands an intense focus of his time and energy on the priestly apostolate. A priest could have many talents which could be useful and beneficial in the secular world, but those must be set aside in favor of the priestly mission. Two sacraments, Holy Eucharist and Penance, are central to the mission of the priest. Everything else that a priest is called to do, such as preaching, giving instructions, hinge on these two sacraments. He states: “In the mystery of the eucharistic sacrifice, in which priests fulfill their principal function, the work of our redemption is continually carried out.” The celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is always an act of Christ and His Church. Later in his homily, “A Priest Forever”, St. Josemaría states: “…the most important part of the priestly ministry consists in trying to get Catholics to approach the Holy Sacrifice with growing purity, humility and devotion.” No other activity should take precedence over this task of teaching people to love and venerate the Holy Eucharist.
St. Josemaría Escrivá was not focused on developing a theology of the priesthood. His focus was on calling all people to holiness of life. He views priests as participants in that call to holiness and as instruments in the sanctification of their fellow Christians. Just as a lay Christian cannot carry out their mission without personal holiness, neither can a priest fulfill his mission if he is not a man of holiness. The following lines from “A Priest Forever” seem a fit summary of his understanding of priestly life and mission: (Priests) “…will devote their whole day and find that they still have not enough time to do all that has to be done. They have constantly to study theology; they must give spiritual guidance to very many souls, hear many confessions, preach tirelessly and pray a great deal; their heart must always be focused on the tabernacle, where He who has chosen us to be his own is really present. Their life is a wonderful self-surrender, full of joy, though like everyone they will meet up with difficulties.”
As priests, we would do well to imitate St. Josemaría’s zeal for the salvation of human beings, his quest for personal holiness and his awareness that whatever personal resources we bring to ministry it is God’s gift to us. We must humbly acknowledge Him who works in us and through us in spite of our weaknesses and our sins. The Sacred Priesthood-a wonderful gift to us priests and to the entire Church.
Father Ted Skalsky, a priest of the Diocese of Dodge City, was ordained to the priesthood in 1972. He has served in parish ministry most of his priesthood and is currently pastor of three small rural parishes. He has attended Theology of the Body Immersion Course I and II and the Priestly Identity Retreat.