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I can still picture the late Father Bill in this very same common hall at Harvard I am visiting sixty years later. As the Chaplain of the Harvard Catholic then, he was at the head of a reception line for Catholic students then entering Harvard University in the autumn of 1959. A very cultured and refined person, he fitted to a T his role as the Chaplain of the Catholics studying at Harvard, an educational institution that started as a Divinity School in 1636 but was, when I entered Harvard in 1959 and up to now, a thoroughly secular university. He warmly welcomed me and mentioned the names of some Filipinos whom he had met during the preceding school year. Having graduated from De La Salle University, a school run by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, I asked him the usual question: “To what Order to you belong, Father?” His reply was prompt: “I don’t belong to any Order.” Having been accustomed to dealing with priests and brothers belonging to all types of religious orders and congregations in the Philippines, I fired back with “Then what are you?” He replied with a smile: “I am a priest of Opus Dei.” When he saw the puzzled look on my face, he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll get to know us sooner or later.”
True enough, it was sooner than later when I started to get to know about the institution that was founded on October 2, 1928 in Madrid, Spain, by a secular priest named Josemaria Escriva (now St. Josemaria Escriva, canonized on October 6, 2002 by St. John II). A Filipino friend and dorm mate of mine at the Perkins Hall of the Harvard Graduate School, the late Dr. Roberto Paterno (who became a famous historian), invited me the very next day to attend Holy Mass in a small chapel within walking distance from our dorm. The chapel (better called an Oratory) was located in a newly installed student center in the middle of the Harvard campus. It is known today as the Elmbrook University Residence. That first visit led to many other visits during which I participated in a variety of professional, human and spiritual means of formation. My exposure to Opus Dei opened my mind to new horizons. In the Philippines of the 1950s and 1960s, it was still common for Catholics to think that one could attain the fullness of Christian life only by becoming a priest or a religious, abandoning the world and dedicating oneself completely to God. If one had decided to start a family or remain in the world, he or she would have been relegated to a second-rate type of Christianity. Sanctity or holiness was supposed to be beyond the reach of ordinary persons.
Throughout my four years at Harvard, I and many others among my friends—of Filipino and many other nationalities—learned from Opus Dei what St. Josemaria had been preaching since that fateful Autumn day in Madrid: “Your ordinary contact with God takes place where your fellow men, your yearnings, your work and your affections are. There you have your daily encounter with Christ. It is in the midst of the most material things of the earth that we must sanctify ourselves, serving God and all mankind…I have taught this constantly using words from holy Scripture. The world is not evil, because it has come from God’s hands, because it is his creation, because Yahweh looked upon it and saw that it was good. We ourselves, mankind, make it evil and ugly with our sins and infidelities Have no doubt: any kind of evasion from the honest realities of daily life is for you, men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God…On the contrary, you must understand now more clearly that God is calling you to serve him in and from the ordinary, material and secular activities of human life. He waits for us everyday, in the laboratory, in the operating theater, in the army barracks, in the university chair, in the factory, in the workshop, in the fields, in the home and in all the immense panorama of work. Understand this well: there is something holy, something divine hidden in the most ordinary situations, and it is up to each one of you to discover it.”
True enough, I and a handful of other Filipinos who were then studying in the various schools of Harvard, decided to respond to what is now called “the universal call to sanctity” as already preached by St. Josemaria even before it was reiterated by the documents of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. Encouraged by St. Josemaria (who was still alive then, having passed away only on June 26, 1975), this handful of Filipinos, reinforced by a few members of Opus Dei from Spain and the U.S., started to carry out a request of St. Josemaria to spread the spirituality of Opus Dei based on the sanctification of ordinary work to all our relatives and friends through what he called the personal apostolate of friendship and confidence. Our “marching orders” were clear: more than building institutions and implementing projects, we were to teach through word and the personal examples of our lives, despite our many weaknesses and limitations, what St. Josemaria taught university students and workers who were with him in the thirties “that they had to know how to materialize their spiritual life.” He “wanted to keep them from the temptation so common then and now, of living a kind of double life. On one side, an interior life, a life of relation with God; and on the other, a separate and distinct professional, social and family life, full of small earthly realities.” (To be continued).