HomeDocumentationThe early years of Opus Dei1933-1934: A Background of Tension and Violence
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The early years of Opus Dei

1933-1934: A Background of Tension and Violence

John Coverdale

Tags: Spanish Civil War
- Founding the DYA Academy
- An island of study in a sea of politics
- DYA adds a residence

Political tension and violence continued during 1933 and 1934. Because Spain was only slightly industrialized and had never yet been fully integrated into the world economy, it was spared the worst effects of the depression that was ravaging the United States and many other countries. Nonetheless, some sectors of the economy were suffering from the depression, and the entire country was torn by social conflict.

Real wages were rising slightly for those who were employed, but unemployment was widespread. In the absence of social security or any effective system of unemployment insurance, the situation of the unemployed was often desperate. Strikes frequently disrupted the economy and affected ordinary services. In 1932, 660 strikes involved 250,000 workers and cost 3.6 million man-days of work. In 1933, there were more than 1,100 strikes involving 850,000 strikers and 12.5 million lost workdays. Many of the strikes were violent, especially because the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, the CNT, believed the situation was ripe for social revolution.

The climate of violence and uncertainty was increased for Catholics by new governmental measures directed against the Church, especially against religious orders. In the spring of 1933, the government introduced legislation to implement the new constitutional principles regarding religious orders. Debate on the proposed Law of Religious Congregations was long and acrimonious, and its echoes filled the press and private conversation during much of the spring.

The law that finally emerged from the parliamentary assembly decreed the confiscation of ownership of all churches and monasteries, although the Church would be permitted to continue using the buildings. The religious orders were subjected to severe governmental controls, and their members were prohibited from teaching anything except Christian doctrine. In many cases, Catholics found ways to keep open the schools formerly run by religious orders, often with little change other than in their legal status. Although the law was relatively ineffective in destroying Catholic education, it served to sharpen the hostility of most Catholics towards the government.

Founding the DYA Academy
Against this unpropitious background, Father Josemaria decided the time had come to establish the first center of Opus Dei. The apartment he had rented for his family in December 1932 provided a place to meet with students and others, but it was not suitable for the long term. The apartment was small, and it was unfair to expect his family to put up with a continuous stream of young people in their home, a stream that he hoped would increase with time.

Furthermore, due to the tense political situation of the time, the police were wary of unexplained meetings, especially of university students. Opus Dei needed a place where groups of young people could come together without arousing unjustified suspicions.

His experience teaching law at the Amado Institute in Zaragoza, and the Cicuendez Academy in Madrid had persuaded Father Josemaria that a private academy would be the best solution. It would be a professional, secular activity, in keeping with Opus Dei’s character. In addition to providing an appropriate location for classes and other gatherings of students, it would offer many opportunities for meeting both students and lecturers who might understand Opus Dei’s message.

Early in 1933, although he had no money with which to start an academy, Father Josemaria started speaking with potential teachers. Perhaps because his resources were so inadequate, he decided to name the future academy DYA, an acronym in Spanish for “God and Daring” (Dios y audacia), as well as for the two principal subjects in which it would initially specialize, law and architecture (Derecho y arquitectura). During the summer of 1933, Isidoro and Barredo took advantage of trips to Madrid to look for a place where DYA could open by the beginning of the school year in early October.

Finding a suitable locale at an affordable price proved difficult. On several occasions, it seemed that they had found something appropriate, but the deals fell through at the last minute. As the school year commenced, Opus Dei members were still busy looking at apartments that were either hopelessly inadequate or well beyond their means.

Finally, in mid-November, they found a four-room apartment at 33 Luchana Street, near the new campus of the University of Madrid, on the outskirts of the city. With great optimism, they felt that it would be suitable for their needs and that they would be able to pay the rent out of student fees and donations from well-wishers.
Isidoro, one of the few members of the Work with a steady income, came from Malaga to sign the lease. Ricardo, the architecture student who had joined Opus Dei early in October, began looking for furniture at second-hand furniture dealers and in Madrid’s large flea-market.

By early December, the few pieces of furniture Father Josemaria and the others had been able to gather had been moved into the apartment. The members of the Work, their friends, and students who had sought spiritual direction from Father Josemaria took on the task of cleaning, decorating, and preparing the apartment for its new use as an academy. They had no choice, as they could not afford to hire professionals. In any case, Father Josemaria welcomed this opportunity to involve the young men personally in the project. For those who were receiving spiritual formation in the Work of St Raphael, whom he called “St Raphael boys,” it was important for them to see the center as their own – not just an academy, but their home.

The members of the Work tried to give the academy a warm and welcoming air, often bringing knickknacks or pieces of furniture from their homes. Father Josemaria took so many things from the family apartment that his younger brother began asking him as he went out the door, “What are you taking to your nest today?” Those efforts were successful. DYA’s tone was not that of a barracks a monastery, or even an ordinary educational center. Rather, it evoked feelings of the home of a middle-class family with little money but good taste.

An island of Study in a Sea of Politics
Serious study characterized DYA. In addition to tutoring and review classes in law and architecture, the academy provided a study room that offered students a quiet place to work. Over and over again, Father Josemaria reminded the students who came there that they had an obligation to learn as much as they could and, if possible, to excel in their studies. One of the first members of Opus Dei recalls that his first recollections of the center were of being urged to outdo himself in acquiring an in-depth education and in developing apostolic zeal.

At a time when the university was torn by political conflict and many students neglected their studies to attend political rallies, DYA offered an oasis of Christian charity and understanding. Its first director, Ricardo Fernandez Ricardo, said its tone was one of “peace, love of God, and serenity despite the adverse circumstances of the social and political environment.”

A framed parchment hung on one wall of the study room. It contained the Latin text of Christ’s words at the Last Supper: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. In this will all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). In an environment of mounting political tensions, Father Josemaria encouraged the young men who came to DYA to put this commandment into practice in their daily lives, no matter how difficult. He repeatedly warned them against the danger of sectarianism and urged them not to let political differences degenerate into hatred. “We may differ on political issues,” he said, “but that is no reason why we can’t walk arm in arm down the same side of the street.”

Students who came to DYA were asked to leave their political differences at the door and to avoid political arguments. This made it possible to welcome students of different political opinions, avoiding the prevailing atmosphere of intense political polarization that often made it difficult for students to live and work harmoniously with anyone who did not fully share their political views.

DYA’s emphasis on study and its prohibition against political arguments were not the result of lack of concern for the society and its problems. On the contrary, Father Josemaria and Ricardo urged the young men to came to DYA to cultivate a sincere concern for others and for society. They stressed that the students had an obligation to contribute to the peace and progress of society by bringing to it Christ’s message of love, rather than the spirit of division and hatred that seemed to be spreading in Spain. But they insisted that the students would not be able to build a better society without solid professional training. “Study. Study in earnest,” Father Josemaria said. “If you are to be salt and light, you need knowledge, ability.” Outside DYA, the students were free to take part in whatever political organizations they wished; but Father Josemaria and Ricardo tried to help them see that if they spent the better part of their university years in political rallies they would not acquire the professional competence and standing they would need to make a valuable contribution to society.

Although DYA was open to students of all political persuasions, it is not surprising that those who attended the academy did not represent the full spectrum of political opinion in Spain. Few university students were militants of working-class movements of the Left – principally the Spanish Socialist Workers and the Anarchists. In addition, those groups were hostile to the Church.
Therefore, the rare Socialist or Anarchist student would hardly be interested in an academy that had a chaplain, where classes of Catholic doctrine were offered, and where a small picture of the Blessed Virgin hung on the wall of the study room along with Christ’s New Commandment.

A large number of university students belonged to the center-left parties, such as the Radical Socialists. Bitter opposition to the Church and a desire to eliminate Catholic influence in education and culture were central factors in those parties’ political programs. A student who had embraced their ideology was unlikely to have any interest in an academy that encouraged students not merely to live a life of piety but also to spread Christ’s doctrine throughout society. Consequently, students interested in what DYA had to offer were, almost inevitably, either apolitical or members of the parties of the Center-Right and Right.

DYA adds a residence
To keep in touch during the summer months with students who had been involved in DYA’s activities during the school year, the members of Opus Dei published a newsletter on a primitive mimeograph machine. They also wrote many letters to their friends, to which Father Josemaria often added a few words encouraging the recipients to keep up their prayer life and to let him know how they were doing. In August 1934 the flow of outgoing letters from DYA increased sharply. After weeks of searching, they had found a suitable new place for the academy and a students’ residence, but they needed to make a deposit of 25,000 pesetas, which they did not have. Father Josemaria sent out short notes to many friends requesting prayers. The campaign of prayers was a success, and soon they were able to make the deposit.

In September, they occupied two apartments on the second floor and one on the third floor of a building located at 50 Ferraz Street, near the campus that was being constructed for the University of Madrid. The third-floor apartment would house the academy, and the two second-floor apartments would be the residence. Isidoro and Ricardo depleted their bank accounts to help pay the deposit and the first month’s rent, but where were they to find the money to convert the apartments to their new use and to furnish them? Father Josemaria decided to ask his family to give DYA part of the proceeds of some property they had recently inherited.

He had not yet explained Opus Dei to his mother, sister or brother. It is not known why he waited almost six years to talk to his family about what had happened on October 2, 1928, and to explain to them what he had been doing since then and why. Part of the explanation may lie in the fact that for a long time he had nothing external to show for his efforts. The only thing he could have told them about was the vision of October 2, and throughout his life he was very reluctant to talk about that experience or other supernatural experiences of his life, even to members of Opus Dei.

Whatever the motives for his reticence, Father Josemaria decided that now the time had come to tell his family about Opus Dei. On September 16, 1934, after praying ardently for his family, he traveled to northern Spain where they were staying and explained, in general terms, what he had been doing since October 2, 1928.
Then he asked them to put part of the money they had recently inherited into the student residence. At the same time, he told them that he planned to move to the new residence as soon as possible. They all agreed.

But even with the Escriva family’s money, and stretching their credit to the limit, the members of Opus Dei did not have enough to furnish the whole residence. For the moment, they could only set up one “model” bedroom, in the hope of purchasing furniture for the rest of the house when the new residents paid their deposits. The plan might have worked had it not been for the political turmoil that engulfed Spain in October 1934.