THEME: GOOD USE OF TIME
You are invited to a monthly day of recollection, organised by the Southcreek Centre.
TIME-LINE OF EVENTS
SHORT - VIDEO: 03:50Pm
Meditation: By Father Elo.
SPIRITUAL READING: 04:25Pm
Alvaro Del Portillo by Bernal: Childhood
Alvaro completed his elementary education, both secular and religious, at Our Lady of the Pillar, a school run by the Marianists. (This school was at 46 Castello Street, in Madrid.) On the basis of what specific character trait, I do not know, but his teachers generally regarded him as a rather spirited child. On one of his report cards, for instance, the teacher wrote, “His drawings of himself are a bit rough.” And his father’s comment was, “What do you mean, drawings? He’s sculpting himself!” So well did he know his son’s strength of character!
One time Alvaro must have done something really bad at the school, because his teacher, Don Genaro, grabbed him by the feet, turned him upside down, brought him to a window, and said gently (for he was a kind man), “If you do that again, I’ll throw you out this window.”
Always when I heard Don Alvaro speak of his school days, he expressed his gratitude toward the many teachers who had contributed to his intellectual growth and to his practice of the faith which he had received at baptism. But the only one whose name I can recall was his handwriting teacher, Eduardo Cotelo. He was the author of several textbooks that were widely used during the first few decades of the twentieth century. In fact, years later, Don Alvaro was happy to learn that the founder of Opus Dei had also used in his school days some of Cotelo’s books.
Old friends of his still remember, after all these years, the Alvaro with whom they shared so many experiences in the classrooms and on the playground of Our Lady of the Pillar, which was both an elementary school and a secondary school. Some of them find it hard to understand why they have not forgotten him—they realize this is somewhat surprising, since they knew him only during their years at school. They think the main reason must have been that his integrity, his authentic goodness, made such a strong impression on them.
Among those former classmates is Alberto Ullastres, an economics professor who became Secretary of Commerce in 1957. Later, in Brussels, he did even more far-reaching diplomatic work as Spain’s ambassador to the European Community. He remembers Alvaro del Portillo, even though Alvaro was a year or two behind him. Usually it happens only the other way around: the younger students notice the older ones. Anyway, for quite a while the schedules of Alberto and Alvaro were such that they had recess at the same time. Alberto almost always played soccer on one side of the school yard. On the opposite side, others played handball. And on the sidelines, more or less in the center, there were the “intellectuals,” who—though this term did not imply any disdain for sports—preferred to spend their free time talking… Ullastres believes that there were about ninety students in Alvaro’s class, but he has forgotten almost all the others. I spoke with him on February 6, 1995, and this is what he said: “All of this was more than sixty-five years ago, so you’ll have to excuse me for not being able to give you more details. But for some reason that I can’t explain, I still have in my mind a very clear picture of Alvaro chatting with the others, with great composure and tranquillity, while I’m out on the field kicking the ball.”
Another schoolmate vividly remembers the day that he and Alvaro first met each other. It was in October of 1922; he had just arrived at Our Lady of the Pillar, and had never been to school before. “They put me in the most elementary class (the one before first year), and I sat down timidly in the row closest to the window—in the second to last desk, I think. To my left was a fellow about eight years old, like myself. He was somewhat chubby, he was smiling, he seemed nice and friendly. His name was Alvaro del Portillo.
“I was given a reader, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. I hesitantly opened it up and then looked over my shoulder at Alvaro to see what he was reading. It was a description of a lion, by the famous French naturalist Buffon. Since this was my first day in school and I didn’t know how things were run there, I thought I was obliged to read this, so I launched into these detailed descriptions by the famous naturalist. Well, they were far too detailed to appeal to the average child; within a few minutes I was bored out of my skull. But, no matter what, I continued to follow the example of my neighbor, who was a ‘veteran’ in the school, and I kept on reading.”
Deep friendships were forged. Many remember Alvaro’s smile, and describe him as a good fellow who liked to help others. But it was all very normal. One teacher jotted down on Alvaro’s report card, “A clown.” Though no one knows what he did to earn this epithet, the consensus seems to be that it was some childish prank which one of the strict Christian Hometer teachers did not appreciate. Alvaro, according to one of these old friends, “was a happy, affectionate, friendly boy who could be a bit naughty and clownish, like all boys.” But “those of us who knew him in school,” wrote Jose Maria Hernandez de Garnica (another student who was a year or two ahead of him), “remember him as a wonderful fellow with a great nobility of character and great courage.”
Alvaro had a natural aptitude for languages, so his father hired tutors who came daily to their home. Many years later, Don Alvaro made mention of his English teacher (Mrs. Hodges), his French teacher (Mlle. Anne), and his German teacher. (Bishop Javier Echevarría, the present Prelate of Opus Dei, gave me the names of the first two, but I haven’t been able to find out the name of the German teacher.)
From an early age, as his sister Pilar recalls, it was obvious that Alvaro had a very good mind. But he did not call attention to any of his talents. For instance, she says, “he could draw very well, but he didn’t brag about it. On the contrary, he was extraordinarily simple and humble.”
He earned good grades; he spent many afternoon hours studying, usually in the room he shared with his brothers Pepe and Angel. He began secondary school in 1924 and finished in 1931.
All who knew him as a youngster agree on three aspects of his character: he was normal, he was friendly, and he basically stayed the same throughout his life. In fact, as regards his outward behavior, those who later came into contact with Alvaro the engineer, the priest, the monsignor, the bishop, and so forth, all say they found in him the same naturalness, the same open and frank look, the same interest in them that he had shown so long ago.
The look of his blue eyes, scarcely hidden behind the transparent lenses of his glasses, was deep and welcoming. Even as he grew older, we could all see this. Sometimes while we were talking in a family-style get-together, he would momentarily raise his eyes toward the skies, as if he were silently communicating with our Lord his feelings about what we were saying, or as if he were praying for the people, or for the success of the apostolic works, that we were talking about. But then he would pass his hand over his face, and once again we would see in it that wonderful warmth. When it came time for prayer, whether his private prayer or his celebrating of Mass, the light in his eyes seemed to turn inward, but it never went out; rather, it took on a special glow, as of a fire burning serenely.
Alvaro was not only intelligent but also very orderly. He did not like to do things on the spur of the moment. Or at least he always came across as very thoughtful and prudent. A cousin of his on his father’s side, Isabel Carles Pardo, says that he never made up his mind on the spot. If he was asked for something or about something which he couldn’t take care of right away, he would say, “Well, I’ll think it over.”
But this was not an attempt to excuse himself, nor was it a sign of indecisiveness or simply a way to buy some time. It indicated, rather, a capacity for reflection and a serene activity. He didn’t forget about the matter; sooner or later he did act on it, but with great peace of mind. As soon as he saw clearly what needed to be done—and sometimes he did see this immediately—he got going with it. But always he did this very calmly and with a smile on his face, in such a peaceful way that it gave peace to all those around him.
He was transparently friendly, warm, and personable. The current archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Angel Suquia, met him in 1938 and remembers him as “a young university student who was very elegant and pleasant, an obviously good young man who spoke from the heart. He impressed me as being at the same time very prudent, very courageous, and very cheerful. Come to think of it, I don’t remember one visit with him when I didn’t feel more cheerful at the end of it than I did at the beginning.”
Alvaro received his first Holy Communion on May 12, 1921, while he was a student at Our Lady of the Pillar. But the ceremony took place not in the school chapel, but in the nearby church of La Concepcion, on Goya Street. That day one hundred and ten boys and two girls received Holy Communion for the first time.
From then on, Alvaro received our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament quite often, despite the hardships involved in keeping the strict Eucharistic fast of those days. He had to take off for school without having eaten anything. Only after Mass would he eat breakfast—having wrapped it up in a piece of paper and carried it in his pocket. It should be noted that although Mass was celebrated daily at Our Lady of the Pillar, no one was obliged to go; the only ones who did were those who wanted to.