To launch out into great undertakings
November 28, 2009
Fr Cesar Ortiz-Echague was born in Madrid in 1927. He started work as an architect in 1952. He had met St Josemaria in January 1945, and in October of that same year he asked to be admitted to Opus Dei. As from 1959, he provided direction and gave Christian formation as part of Opus Dei’s apostolates in Spain. This brought him into frequent contact with St Josemaria both in Spain and in Rome, which he often visited during this period, and where he worked side by side with St Josemaria. From 1975 onwards he worked in the central government of Opus Dei in Rome. He was ordained to the priesthood by Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Basilica in 1983. In 1984 he moved to Germany, where he was Regional Vicar of Opus Dei until 1996. He currently lives in Essen, Germany.
Interviewer: You knew the Founder of Opus Dei well. Can you describe his character?
Fr Cesar: He had a very rich personality, which it would be hard to summarize in a few words. He was very human, but his humanity was enriched by the supernatural virtues – especially his love and trust in God and his deep humility. I’ll give you an example of this by way of illustration. At the beginning of the 1970s, there were a lot of articles about Opus Dei in the press in Spain. They all included references to its founder, either for or against him. Before one of his trips to Spain he read some of those articles – of both kinds – and told us with a smile, “I can see that some people are writing that I’m a saint, and I know it isn’t true, because I’m a sinner. Others are writing that I’m a devil and that isn’t true either, because I’m a son of God.” I think that those words explain both the joy that he radiated, because he never took offence; and his apostolic zeal, which led him to launch out into great undertakings in the service of the Church, trusting fully in his Father God.
Interviewer: From those years working with St Josemaria, what have you found most useful?
Fr Cesar: No question – the way he helped me to know and love Jesus Christ more and more. From the time I first met him in 1945, I was struck by St Josemaria’s close relationship with our Lord. For me, as for all Christians, Christ is God, but in those days I felt that he was someone far-off, who had lived two thousand years ago, who is in heaven, but who didn’t belong to the circle of my close friends. In St Josemaria I met a priest whose best friend was undoubtedly Jesus Christ.
St Josemaria taught me to treat Jesus as a friend, using the happenings of everyday life. I was still an architecture student, and he asked me one day, “Cesar, tell me something you do often in the course of the day.”
At that time I had to draw a lot and we didn’t have propelling-pencils. I said, “Father, I spend many hours a day sharpening pencils.”
And he suggested, “Then make use of it! Every time you turn the pencil-sharpener, say a quick prayer to our Lord, offer him your work. He’ll be very happy!”
As well as that I learned from him that in order to offer up my work, the first condition is to try and do it very well and in a spirit of service to others. That is something I’ve tried to do all my life.
Interviewer: Did the fact that St Josemaria was Spanish have an effect on the spirit of Opus Dei? Can a German from Cologne understand it as well as a Spaniard from Madrid?
Fr Cesar: St Josemaria loved Spain very much and knew it very well because he constantly traveled from one end of Spain to the other. He knew its landscapes and people, and spoke and wrote the language to a very high standard. But despite all that, he had a catholic, universal spirit. His message about the universal call to holiness, which was later solemnly proclaimed by the Second Vatican Council, can be understood as readily by a German as by a Spaniard.
In order to pass on his message, St Josemaria preached and wrote a great deal. He almost always used Spanish, except for a few occasions when he used Italian. He gave very vivid examples, ones that a German can grasp as easily as a Spaniard. What is not so easy is for a German – even one who knows Spanish – to grasp all the richness of St Josemaria’s spoken and written language. A German professor, Professor Flasche, who is now dead, wrote a history of Spanish literature in which he compared St Josemaria’s style, especially in The Way, with that of the best Spanish classics, including some relatively recent ones like Juan Ramon Gimenez or Antonio Machado.
That is why it’s so hard to produce really good translations of his writings, or of his words when it comes to subtitling films. German and Spanish are very different, and apart from that, Spanish religious literature employs many allegories, which are hard to render into current German, whose usage is very objective. For many years now, in Germany, they’ve been working on improving the German translations of St Josemaria’s works, and judging from remarks I’ve heard by Germans themselves, they have achieved a real improvement. It is a similar problem to that of translating the works of St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross into German.
Interviewer: When St Josemaria was young he wanted to be an architect. I think you were working with him when he got going on what he called “a madness of love” – the shrine of Torreciudad. Why did St Josemaria want to undertake a project like that? How did he follow it through?
Fr Cesar: Yes, I was very much involved with that project and its fulfillment, in close contact with St Josemaria. Back in the 1950s I heard him say that he didn’t want to die without having built a big, beautiful church dedicated to our Blessed Lady, in gratitude for the continual favors that he personally, and Opus Dei, had received from her hands. And also to help many people receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation, with our Lady’s help, in that church. But the first time I had any idea that this desire of his was going to be fulfilled in Torreciudad was in September 1962, when I went to Barbastro with the then Counselor of Opus Dei in Spain, Msgr Florencio Sanchez Bella, to buy from the Bishops the shrine where the statue of Our Lady of Torreciudad was venerated – the shrine where St Josemaria’s parents had taken their baby son to thank our Lady for his cure.
The project was awarded to an architect who was much younger than me, Heliodoro Dols, who did a fantastic job, as everyone will agree. As I was at that time the only architect who was working in the governance of Opus Dei in Spain, I got the job of coordinating the whole thing, including not just architects but sculptors, painters, artists, etc. Every time I had to go to Rome, I took the opportunity to update our Founder about how the project was shaping up, and later on, how the construction work was going. Heliodoro also went to Rome several times to talk the project over with St Josemaria. Both of us knew how much our Founder had always loved architecture, ever since he was young. He’d acquired a lot of practical experience of it with the building of the central house of the Work in Rome.
For that very reason we were amazed at the way he gave us complete freedom with regard to the style and the way we tackled things. He never imposed his own ideas in that area. On the other hand, he gave us lots of ideas and suggestions about how to foster the piety and devotion of the pilgrims who came to Torreciudad, and about how to ensure they were well looked after spiritually.
There are lots of things I could talk about – lots of conversations and work sessions with St Josemaria during the years of the planning and building of Torreciudad, but I’ll restrict myself to just one. Although we’d often suggested that on one of his trips to Spain he should come with us to Torreciudad and see the place where he’d first been taken in his mother’s arms, he would always answer that he’d go when the building work began, to bless it and pray to our Lady that there’d be no accidents while it was being built. At the end of 1969 the building work was at last able to start in that mountainous, inaccessible location, and in April 1970 we went there with St Josemaria.
We stayed overnight in Saragossa and the following day, after praying at the shrine of Our Lady of Pilar, we continued on to the building-site. I was driving. In previous conversations with our founder I’d told him that after seeing the location of Torreciudad, in a very poor, sparsely-habited area, a long way from any large city, I couldn’t really understand his desire, which we had implemented in the project and which was beginning to be built, that under the church there should be a crypt with forty confessionals. Besides, the falling-off of the practice of the Sacrament of Reconciliation was beginning to be felt. I wondered how we could find priests for all those confessionals, and where the people would come from to use them.
St Josemaria hadn’t answered me at the time, but during the drive from Saragossa, as we approached Torreciudad, he could see what I meant about the scarcity of inhabitants in the area. In the middle of our conversation in the car, he asked me, “How many confessionals did I ask you to prepare in Torreciudad?” “Forty, Father,” I answered. And he said, “You must think I’m crazy. Forty confessionals in a district like this, in the middle of nowhere! OK, let’s be sensible. Start with twenty. But leave room for the other twenty. I’m sure that in time lots of people will come to Torreciudad and our Lady will move many of them to come to the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
So that is what we did. When our Founder went to Torreciudad in May 1975, he was the first person who received the Sacrament of Reconciliation in one of those confessionals. A month later, God took him to heaven. The following October I moved to Rome to work in the General Council of Opus Dei. I was convinced that it would be many years before we would need to add the other twenty confessionals. But after just a short time I heard they had had to put the other twenty in place, because the weekends of the pilgrimage season there were sometimes large numbers of pilgrims; and so many of them, after praying before the statue of our Lady, were moved to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, that the people in charge of the shrine realized twenty more confessionals were needed. And there was no difficulty in finding the priests to hear Confessions there, because priests studying at the Faculty of Theology in Pamplona were only too pleased to go to Torreciudad in a coach and hear Confessions at the weekends.