HomeDocumentationThe early years of Opus Dei1928-1930: The birth of Opus Dei: social, economic and political background in Spain
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The early years of Opus Dei

1928-1930: The birth of Opus Dei: social, economic and political background in Spain

John Coverdale

Tags: Founding of Opus Dei, Spanish Civil War, History, Madrid, Isidoro Zorzano, Opus Dei name, Opus Dei's foundational charisma
Father Josemaria Escriva, born in Barbastro, north-east Spain, in 1902, was ordained a priest in Saragossa in 1925. In mid-April 1927 he moved to the capital, Madrid, to study for a doctorate in law while working as assistant priest at the church of St Michael. Having almost no contacts there, he first stayed in modest lodgings, but soon transferred to a residence for priests run by the Damas Apostolicas, a recently founded Spanish order. Ever since he was a teenager he had been convinced that God wanted him to do something very specific, but he still did not know what it was. This conviction led him to intense prayer and penance while he was searching for God’s will.

- Among the Sick and the Poor
- The founding of Opus Dei
- Social and Economic situation in Spain in the 1930s
- Political background
- Opus Dei’s foundational charism
- Initial obstacles
- First steps
- Women in Opus Dei
- Isidoro Zorzano
- The name Opus Dei

Among the Sick and the Poor
Father Josemaria’s duties at St Michael’s church, which were limited to saying Mass daily, were an inadequate outlet for his priestly zeal. A month or so after he moved to the priest’s residence, the foundress of the Damas Apostolicas community, Luz Rodriguez Casanova, asked him to serve as chaplain of the church connected with the Foundation for the Sick, opened by the community. Father Josemaria was happy to accept the offer. He received permission to say Mass, preach, and hear confessions there from the archbishop of Madrid, but only for one year at a time, renewable at the archbishop’s discretion.

Father Josemaria’s official duties as chaplain of the church of the Foundation for the Sick were simply to say Mass and officiate at other services in the church, but he soon began to help the Damas Apostolicas in other ways. The Foundation for the Sick, which the Damas had established, sought to remedy some of the deficiencies of the available health care. The government provided almost no medical insurance. There were a few public hospitals for the seriously ill, but they bore no resemblance to modern hospitals provided with elaborate equipment and highly trained staff. Instead, they were warehouses for the indigent dying who had no other place to go. No one who could afford a private clinic would think of going to a public hospital; but only the more fortunate among the poor could even gain admittance to a hospital. Inadequate numbers of beds meant that the poor often simply suffered in their hovels. The Foundation ran an infirmary with twenty beds, as well as a walk-in clinic.

The Damas Apostolicas also ran approximately sixty schools for poor children in the slums and other working-class areas of Madrid. There, 14,000 students received primary education and learned the rudiments of religion. Additionally, the Damas Apostolicas had established six chapels in the outskirts of Madrid, where poor immigrants from the provinces lived in destitution, often in makeshift shacks. However, none of these six chapels had a regular chaplain.

Father Josemaria soon found himself involved in many of these activities. He heard confessions, taught catechism, brought the sacraments to the sick in their homes, and helped prepare some four thousand children each year for their First Holy Communion.
From his contact with children, Father Josemaria drew lessons for his interior life. Considering the tasks God was asking him to carry out – which he still did not see at all clearly – he concluded that his strength had to come from knowing that he was destitute.

Although he had “nothing and less than nothing,” through prayer everything would work out as God wanted it. The life of spiritual childhood, he said on one occasion, “entered my heart through dealing with children. I learned from their simplicity, their innocence, and their candor. Above all, I learned from contemplating the fact that they asked for the moon and had to be given it. I had to ask God for the moon. Yes, my God, the moon!”

The most demanding and exhausting part of Father Josemaria’s work for the Foundation for the Sick was visits to the sick in their homes to hear their confessions, bring them Holy Communion, and administer the Anointing of the Sick. The Damas Apostolicas were in touch with thousands of poor people and received numerous requests – sometimes from the sick themselves, sometimes from a relative – for a priest to bring the sacraments to a sick person. At the time, the parish clergy brought Holy Communion only to the dying. The Damas Apostolicas obtained permission from the archbishop to have Communion brought to any sick person who asked for it, provided the parish clergy agreed.

Much of this burden fell on Father Josemaria, who traveled from one end of the city to another, usually on foot or by bus, to minister to the sick in shacks made of cardboard and old planks. Thanks to his friendliness and considerateness, but above all to his intense prayer and sacrifice, the young priest had a special gift for bringing people who were on their deathbeds, and perhaps had been long separated from the Church, back to the sacraments.

One of the nuns who worked in the Foundation at the time recalled later: “When we had difficult cases, sick people who didn’t want to receive the sacraments, who were going to die without God’s grace, we entrusted them to Father Josemaria. We knew they would be taken care of, and in the majority of cases Father Josemaria would win them over and open the gates of heaven for them. I don’t recall a single case in which we failed to achieve what we were aiming for.”

Father Josemaria’s apostolic zeal was not limited to the poor and the sick. He was anxious to spread the fire of Christ to the whole world, including the members of several aristocratic families he had met. Christ’s words, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Luke 12:49) often overflowed from his heart into song.

To spread the fire of Christ’s love in the world. That was certainly part of what God had been asking of him since he was a teenager, and Father Josemaria continued to respond to that divine call with the words of the prophet Samuel, “Here I am, for you called me” (I Sam 3:5). One of his personal notes sums up much of his prayer while in Madrid in 1927 and 1928: “Fac ut sit!” (Make it happen!). In response to these ardent petitions, God frequently gave him insights and inspirations, sometimes in the form of words heard in his prayer. Father Josemaria took pains to write down these insights and inspirations, to meditate on them frequently, and to put them into practice. Nonetheless, they remained obscure and fragmentary, inklings of the still undefined “something” that God was asking of him.

The founding of Opus Dei
Tuesday, October 2, 1928, feast of the Guardian Angels, was the second day of a week-long retreat for diocesan priests being given in the house of the Vincentian Fathers in the outskirts of Madrid, Spain. The six priests attending the retreat had celebrated Mass, breakfasted, prayed part of the Breviary together, and read some passages from the New Testament. At 10:00 a.m., Father Josemaria went to his room.

Alone there, he immersed himself in reviewing notes he had brought to the retreat. These notes recorded a series of graces and inspirations God had conferred on him in answer to ten years of intense prayer, during which he had repeatedly make his own the response of the blind beggar who, when Christ asked what he wanted, responded: “Lord, that I may see.” He knew that God wanted something specific from him, but the insights he had were so fragmentary and incomplete that he could not make out what it was.

As the sound of the bells of the church of Our Lady of the Angels drifted through the window, pealing to celebrate the feast of the Guardian Angels, the missing elements were added, and the picture suddenly came into focus. Father Josemaria saw that God wanted there to be a portion of his Church made up of people who would dedicate themselves to incorporating into their own lives and to spreading to their friends, neighbors and colleagues the joyous message that God calls everyone to sanctity, regardless of age, social condition, profession, or marital status.

A private note taken by Father Josemaria in 1930 records, in almost telegraphic fashion, a series of ideas that may summarize the content of his October 2 vision: “Plain Catholics. The mass of dough being leavened, and rising. Ours is what is ordinary, with complete naturalness. The means: professional work. Everyone a saint!”
The French author Francois Gondrand has given us a poetic version of the same ideas:

"Thousands – millions – of souls, covering the whole face of the earth, raise their prayers to God. Generation upon generation of Christians, submerged in all the world’s activities, offer God their work and the thousand-and-one concerns of their daily lives. Hour after hour of hard, conscientious work: an offering that rises up like precious incense from the four corners of the globe… A multitude of people, rich and poor, young and old, from every country and of every race… Millions and millions of souls spread out in time and space, covering the whole surface of the earth with their invisible influx… Thousands – millions – of souls, like an unending peal of bells echoing toward heaven, the chimes mingling as they echo up and up."

Social and Economic situation in Spain in the 1930s
Spain made some economic and social progress during the early decades of the twentieth century. Nonetheless, by 1930 it remained a backward country, approximately at the level of England in the 1850s or 1860s, or France in the 1870s or 1880s in terms of civic culture, literacy rates and economic development.

Social tensions were acute. In the countryside, many peasants barely earned a living. In the south of the country huge tracts of unproductive land, owned by a few landowners, were cultivated by large numbers of landless laborers who were lucky if they found work during half the year. In some areas in the north, peasant-landowners struggled to make a living on tiny tracts of land that were insufficient to support them.

By the 1920s the situation of the urban working class had improved in comparison with the peasants, but was still very difficult. Workers were divided between the Anarchist union (the CNT), with about a million and a half members, and the Socialist union (the UGT), with about another million. There were a few Catholic unions, but they were small. The government had little real power and few economic resources with which to solve the country’s problems, and the political parties of the Right considered that the government should restrict itself to maintaining order. In the 1930s Anarchist and Socialist unions would often take matters into their own hands. In many cases, normal political processes were largely displaced by social movements.

Political background
After a brief interlude of republican government during 1873 and 1874, known in Spanish history as the First Republic, the constitution of 1876 established a moderately liberal parliamentary monarchy, with the right to vote for all male citizens. Elections were so corrupt, however, that universal male suffrage made little difference. For decades the two major parties – Liberal and Conservative – alternated in power, not by defeating their rivals in honest elections, but because their leaders agreed that it was time for a change of government and rigged the elections to produce the desired result. Spain’s defeat in the war of 1898 with the United States brought to the surface a widespread demand for in-depth reform of the country. The political system was unable to respond to that demand, and during the first two decades of the twentieth century it entered into a profound crisis.

Although Spain did not take part in World War I, the strains caused by the war contributed to the final collapse of the constitutional monarchy established by the 1876 constitution. In 1923, General Primo de Rivera declared a state of war and demanded that King Alfonso XIII dismiss the government and turn over all powers to him. The general had no political background and few political plans other than a desire to resolve the crisis of the moment. The dictatorship he established was unusually mild and at first had considerable popular support, even from the Socialist Party. Primo de Rivera developed harmonious relations with the Catholic Church hierarchy and provided financial assistance to Catholic schools. Spain made considerable political progress during this period, due in part to the general economic growth in Europe. However, its social problems persisted. The political situation grew more complicated because the king’s support of the dictatorship undermined the political legitimacy of the monarchy. By the time the great depression of 1928 hit the country, Primo de Rivera had lost almost all popular support, facing growing opposition from the general population and the army. In January 1930 the king asked him to resign to avoid a military coup, and he quietly left for France.
He was replaced by General Berenguer, one of the more broad-minded of Spain’s military leaders. With no political experience or skill, Berenguer was ill-equipped to enable the country to find a new political consensus.

Opus Dei’s foundational charism
Opus Dei (“the Work of God”), founded in October 1928, was therefore taking its first steps in this environment of external calm but of serious underlying social, economic and political problems.
At the time of Opus Dei’s foundation, many Catholics were trying to find ways of making society more Christian. From Rome, Pope Pius XI was promoting Catholic Action. In Spain, many Catholics were working to develop Catholic Action and other groups aimed at promoting social and civic action inspired by Christian principles.

The message Father Josemaria Escriva received focused not on how to change social structures, but on encouraging Catholics to make a serious effort to achieve holiness in their daily activities. As can be seen in what Father Josemaria wrote in The Way, the central point is the sanctification of individuals, while the transformation of social structures and the development of a more just society are expected, welcome and desired consequences of that essential point. “A secret, an open secret: these world crises are crises of saints. God wants a handful of men ‘of his own’ in every human activity. And then… pax Christi in regno Christi – the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.”

What God inspired Father Josemaria to see on October 2, 1928, required a group of people within the Church, starting with Father Josemaria himself, to dedicate themselves to incorporating this message – the universal call to holiness through ordinary work – into their own lives, and helping others to do the same. They would form a part of the Church at the service of that message. The role of this part of the Church, which would come to be called Opus Dei, would be both to spread the message and to help people to put it into practice. As Pope John Paul II wrote: “From its beginnings, [Opus Dei] has in fact striven not only to illuminate with new lights the mission of the laity in the Church and in society, but also to put it into practice.”

As Father Josemaria saw it on October 2, 1928, Opus Dei was not to be a mere association to which people would dedicate part of their time and energies during a certain period of their lives. Rather, belonging to Opus Dei would involve a complete personal commitment in response to a specific divine vocation.

The foundational grace that Father Josemaria received on that day was intended for people of all walks of life, both married and single, and his earliest efforts to develop Opus Dei were directed to a wide range of people. Soon, however, he realized that if Opus Dei was to take root in all sectors of society, it first needed to develop a core of people who would be free to dedicate substantial amounts of time to its apostolic activities, and who would have the educational background needed to give theological and spiritual formation to others. He began to focus, therefore, on college students and recent graduates, to whom he presented the ideal of a life of apostolic celibacy in the middle of the world. It was from among these young men that the first faithful of Opus Dei came. For this reason, during its early years, the members of Opus Dei were all celibate, and a large majority had university degrees. Thanks to their dedication and efforts, in later years Opus Dei would spread to much wider circles of society, so that today a large majority of its faithful are married, and many are workers, clerks and others who have no degrees.

Initial obstacles
In spreading the message of the universal call to sanctity and developing Opus Dei, Father Josemaria faced two great obstacles: an utter lack of money or any other resources except prayer, and the novelty of what he was trying to do.

As a recently ordained priest who had just arrived in Madrid, he knew few people in the city and held no position that would facilitate his work. He had no money. He would say in later years that at the beginning his only resources were his “twenty-six years of age, good humor, and the grace of God.” The novelty of Opus Dei’s message was a far more serious obstacle than the lack of resources.
It is true, as he would later point out, that the message was “as old as the Gospel”. Christ himself had challenged all his followers to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48), and St Paul had told the first Christians at Thessalonica: “This is the will of God: your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3). At least since the publication of St Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, in the early seventeenth century, Catholic theology had recognized that, in theory, lay men and women can lead an intense spiritual life that will bring them to the fullness of the love of God and neighbor that is sanctity.

Yet the message was, in Father Josemaria’s words, also “as new as the Gospel”. Few would have denied that it was theoretically possible for laymen to achieve holiness, but fewer still proposed sanctity in the world as an achievable ideal. A more intense spiritual life in a young man or woman, or even a desire to serve God seriously, was normally taken as an unequivocal sign of a vocation to the priesthood or the religious life. Most priests never encouraged lay men and women to make a serious effort to achieve sanctity in their ordinary lives. This habitual failure to present the ideal of holiness in all its fullness reflected a practical conviction that the best that could be hoped for from lay men and women was the fulfillment of their basic spiritual duties. Sanctity in the middle of the world might be an interesting topic for theological speculation, but it was rarely preached about and even less frequently was it actively pursued.

Two priests who knew Father Josemaria in the early years of Opus Dei, both of whom later became bishops, testify to the novelty of his message. Fr Laureano Castan Lacoma recalls that in the early decades of the twentieth century “people spoke little about the universal call to sanctity”. Even among those who had studied theology, the topic was virtually unknown. Fr Pedro Cantero Cuadrado, who was later archbishop of Zaragoza, says that his conversations with Father Josemaria in 1930 and 1931 were “naturally, the first time I heard about sanctification in ordinary work”. If the idea of complete personal dedication to sanctity in the middle of the world through the sanctification of work was foreign to priests, it was even more unknown among lay people.

It was therefore difficult for people to understand Father Josemaria when he said: “Sanctity is not only for the privileged few.” The message he now began to preach tirelessly was that “Our Lord calls all of us, and he expects Love from all of us. From all of us, wherever we may be. From all of us, whatever our state in life, our profession or job. Because ordinary daily life, that has no special luster, can be a means of holiness.” Although the words were plain and easily comprehensible, people who heard Father Josemaria talk about a serious commitment to sanctity and apostolate instinctively thought he was talking about becoming a priest or joining a religious order. They found it hard to believe that he was suggesting they make such a commitment without leaving behind their jobs and the rest of their daily lives.

First steps
Neither on October 2, 1928, nor in the days and months that followed, did Father Josemaria call a meeting of potential members, prepare statutes, issue a press statement, or publish an article explaining the goals of the new entity or his message of the universal call to sanctity in the world. He did not even call together his family, friends and acquaintances to explain to them what he was about to do.

Rather, he began to work quietly, but tenaciously, to spread his ideal to people with whom he came into contact. His approach was practical and pastoral, and took the form of what he called an “apostolate of friendship and confidence”, based on personal relationships and conversation. He started with the people he already knew through his teaching at a small tutorial college, his ministry at the Foundation for the Sick, and through hearing confessions and giving spiritual direction.

As the months went by, Father Josemaria gradually put together several small groups of people whom he was forming in the spirit of Opus Dei, without as yet explaining to them what Opus Dei would be. One group was composed of university students and recent graduates. A second group was made up of priests. A third consisted of workmen and clerks whom Father Josemaria met at a talk he gave during a mission organized by the Foundation for the Sick in June 1930.

Father Josemaria encouraged all these people to come to him for spiritual direction, and began to look for possible members of Opus Dei among them. When he felt that a particular individual had reached a position in which he could understand, Father Josemaria would explain to him the ideal of sanctity and apostolate in the middle of the world, through work done conscientiously and for love of God. He did not talk about joining Opus Dei, but rather about being and doing God’s work. One reason for this was that Opus Dei did not even have a name until the summer of 1930.

It is clear that he suffered many disappointments. A number of university students and recent graduates became enthused about the ideals he proposed to them, but after a while they grew tired and drifted away, at times cutting off their contact with him without even saying goodbye. Two of the priests responded positively when they heard about the possibility of forming part of Opus Dei, but neither seems to have understood very well what it involved.

Women in Opus Dei
The vision of what would be Opus Dei that Father Josemaria had seen on October 2, 1928, did not explicitly include women. During the next year and a half, he was convinced that an essential feature of what God was asking of him was that it involved only men.

On February 14, 1930, Father Josemaria went to say Mass in a private chapel. His personal notes record what happened. “Immediately after Communion: the entire women’s branch of the Work! I cannot say that I saw, but yes that I grasped intellectually, in detail, what the women’s branch of Opus Dei was to be. Later I added other elements, developing the intellectual vision.”

Isidoro Zorzano
The first person to persevere in Opus Dei, Isidoro Zorzano, did not join it until almost two years after its foundation. Isidoro was born in Argentina but his parents had returned to Spain when he was three. He had been a high school classmate and friend of Father Josemaria’s, and had gone on to study civil engineering. After graduation he worked briefly for a company that built railroad rolling stock. In December 1928, he began working for a railroad in Malaga, a city on the southeastern coast of Spain. In addition to his work for the railroad, Isidoro taught evening classes of mathematics and electricity in Malaga’s trade school.

Over the years Isidoro and Father Josemaria had run into each other a few times and exchanged occasional letters, but were not in close contact. Shortly after the foundation of Opus Dei, Father Josemaria began to pray more for Isidoro as someone who could understand the spirit of Opus Dei. In August 1930 he sent him a postcard inviting him to stop by to visit the next time he came to Madrid, and promising to tell him “very interesting things.”

When he received Father Josemaria’s note, Isidoro was in a spiritual crisis. Although his professional work was going well, he felt unsatisfied. He found himself thinking more and more frequently that he should give himself completely to God. In his mind, that could mean only one thing: to enter a religious order. On the other hand, he not only loved his profession, but also felt that God did not want him to give it up. What he really wanted to do was to harmonize his professional work with complete dedication to God, but that seemed impossible.

On August 24, 1930, Isidoro had come to Madrid for professional reasons. Although he had not made an appointment, he went to meet Father Josemaria, both to find out about his friend’s “very interesting things” and to see if he could help resolve his spiritual crisis. They had barely said hello when Isidoro said point-blank to Father Josemaria: “I want to give myself to God, but I don’t know how or where.” They agreed to meet later in the day to talk more calmly. Father Josemaria wanted to make sure that neither of them was rushing into things that needed due prayer.

Later that afternoon, after talking about Isidoro’s concerns and aspirations, Father Josemaria explained that he had recently begun an undertaking whose goal was precisely sanctity in the middle of the world. Isidoro, he said, could dedicate himself fully to God in apostolic celibacy, developing a deep spiritual life, and doing apostolate without leaving his job or his place in the world. Isidoro responded immediately that this was exactly what he had been searching for. Back in Malaga, he wrote to Father Josemaria: “What you showed me was precisely the ideal that I had forged for myself, but that I thought could not be carried out because it involved such disparate factors. I have thought about it, and each day it seems to me more beautiful.”

From the beginning, Father Josemaria encouraged Isidoro to build up little by little an intense interior life of prayer and sacrifice. In a letter dated November 23, 1930, he wrote: “To be what our Lord wants and what we want, we have to build a solid foundation on prayer and expiation (sacrifice) before all else. Pray. Never, I repeat never, fail to do your meditation when you get up. And each day, offer as expiation all the disagreeable things and sacrifices of the day.” Patiently, but insistently, Father Josemaria urged Isidoro to go to daily Mass and regular Confession, and especially to receive Holy Communion more frequently, daily if possible. He did not discourage Isidoro from participating in the activities of the various groups he had joined, but gradually helped him see that he should give priority to genuine piety and a more personal apostolate at work with his friends, colleagues and relatives.

The name Opus Dei
During close to two years, Father Josemaria had no proper name for the apostolic activity God had shown him on October 2, 1928. In the early months of 1930, he sometimes spoke of it as “God’s work”, but he used the phrase as a descriptive term rather than a proper name, and without special reference to the sanctification of work. It was as a result of a conversation with his spiritual director, the Jesuit Father Valentin Sanchez Ruiz, that he decided to adopt the Latin phrase “Opus Dei” (the “Work of God”) as the name of his undertaking. At the end of one of their meetings, Father Sanchez had asked, “How is that work of God going?” “After I left,” Father Josemaria recalled in 1948, “I began to think: ‘Work of God. Opus Dei! Opus, operatio... work of God.’ That’s the name I was looking for. And from then on it was called simply Opus Dei.” By the end of 1930, Father Josemaria had begun using the name “Work of God” both in Spanish and in Latin as the proper name of his new apostolic work.