In 1994, Blessed Alvaro, the closest collaborator of St. Josemaría, and his first successor, makes a trip to the Holy Land in order to make a pilgrimage that the founder of Opus Dei always wished to fulfil. It was this trip that later encouraged members and friends of Opus Dei to begin working on making the Saxum project a reality.
Blessed Alvaro arrives in the Holy Land
On March 14, 1994, Blessed Alvaro del Portillo, begins a nine-day pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
During the trip to Tel Aviv, he prayed and expressed his great joy for having the opportunity to visit the holy places and to be with his children who had gone to start the Work there. In words of the previous Prelate of Opus Dei, Bishop Javier Echevarría, that afternoon on the plane when they spotted the coast of Israel, Don Alvaro, following the example of St. Josemaria, said: “Let’s pray three Hail Marys for the Holy Land.”
Following that, he said a short prayer for all people they would meet in the land of Christ: “Sancta Maria Terrae Sanctae, ora pro nobis!”
Upon his arrival at Tel Aviv, at 8:30pm local time, he was welcomed by Fr Alberto Steinvorth and other members of Opus Dei, including the former Ambassador of Uruguay, Anibal Diaz, and his wife Laura.
Blessed Alvaro celebrates Mass at the Basilica of the Annunciation
On the morning of Tuesday, March 15, Don Alvaro and his companions went to Haifa by car. There they visited Mount Carmel and prayed at the Stella Maris Shrine and the cave of Elijah. Afterwards, they traveled to Nazareth.
In the afternoon they visited the church and the grotto of Saint Joseph. They also went to the “pond of the Virgin” where, according to tradition, the Virgin went to fetch water. Finally, they visited the Basilica of the Annunciation, where after a time of prayer, they celebrated Mass at the altar of the grotto. That was the place where the Archangel Gabriel visited the Virgin Mary. While giving the homily, Don Alvaro was moved remembering the “Hic Verbum caro factum est”, which is inscribed on the altar of the grotto.
Among some of the things Don Alvaro said during the homily, he commented: “In this cave, down there where the mark is, the Word became flesh. The Almighty God, infinitely great, takes human flesh. Where? In a home filled with poverty. And where was He born? In another cave, that nowadays is many meters below the ground. The Lord has been there. The Lord was born there. Why? To give us the life. He became mortal, living that way – and then dying as He died – so that we might live.”
Since beginning this journey through the Holy Land, Don Alvaro wanted them to read the Gospel texts related to the various holy places aloud, and so they did. All these visits were preceded or accompanied by the reading and meditation of the Holy Gospel.
After dinner, when planning the next day, Don Alvaro hinted he would like to pray in a boat on the Sea of Tiberias… “I myself with my 80 years will row if we need to”.
Blessed Alvaro visits the Holy Places in Galilee
On March 16, Blessed Alvaro visited the site of multiplication at the Sea of Galilee. There he prayed and placed his pectoral cross and rosary on the stone beneath the altar of the church. He paused to contemplate those fields and the lake surrounding the place. He started recalling the miraculous catch, the meeting of the disciples with Christ, and the words of Our Lord: “Simon, do you love me?…”. On these occasions, Don Alvaro always used to remember the comments he had heard from St. Josemaría throughout the years by his side. They entered the church, after making the sign of the cross with lake’s water. There, a Franciscan from Custody of the Holy Places brought a stole used by Pope Paul VI during his visit to that church and asked him to give his blessing to the pilgrims who were there. Don Alvaro did right away. He also wanted to recite the Creed there and say a short prayer for the Pope.
Then they went to the Basilica of the Beatitudes and prayed before celebrating Mass at the altar. Upon leaving, Don Alvaro admired, with great recollection, the lake and the fields where Jesus had passed. They later went to Capernaum, where they saw Peter’s house and the synagogue. He wanted to read the Gospel’s texts relating to this place. Then, before leaving, he recited the Creed once again and prayed for the Church, asking for St. Josemaria’s intercession.
Don Alvaro had the desire to return to the Lake in the afternoon and to have a good time of prayer in a boat on the lake. At the end of the morning they tried to rent a boat but they were unable to. During this time, their car ran out of battery and they had to wait a while, until a passerby helped them. However, they returned in the afternoon to the lake shore in Tabgha. And there, on the shore, they sat on a log and had a time of prayer, reading the Gospel texts relating the passages of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.
After that, he thought about something that he would later repeat: that the Lord, after the miraculous catch, said to the Apostles: now you shall be fishers of men, and they left everything and followed Jesus.
When one of those who accompanied him asked if he wanted to try again to hire a boat, he said: “No, my son, it was just a whim.”
Blessed Alvaro arrives in Jerusalem
On March 17, Blessed Alvaro and his companions made the journey from Nazareth to Cana of Galilee, where they visited the church where the wedding feast took place. There they read the corresponding passage from the Gospel of John. Then, they continued on their way to Mount Tabor, where they celebrated Mass in the chapel of Moses. Earlier, in the car, they had read and meditated on the Gospel texts of the Transfiguration of the Lord. Getting out at one moment, Don Alvaro wanted to pick some wild flowers in order to take them back to Rome.
They made their way to Jerusalem on the road in the Jordan Valley. Before passing through Jericho, they read the Gospel texts of the healing of the blind man (the ‘Domine, ut videam!’ that St. Josemaria would repeat since he felt the calling of the Lord) and the one of the encounter with Zacchaeus. In fact, they stood at the entrance of Jericho next to a sycamore.
This also serves to remind us that, like Zacchaeus, we must make efforts to treat the Lord; and if we make that effort, we never cease to hear His call.
Afterwards, they headed to Jerusalem and from the car spotted the mount of temptation. Upon reaching the Holy City, Don Alvaro wanted to visit and pray at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre. With emotion, he touched, knelt and placed his forehead on the stone of the Holy Sepulchre. There was a time of prolonged silence. He also visited the place of Calvary and, despite his age and physical difficulties, knelt and leaned his head forward to kiss and put his hands into the hole that tradition considers to be the place where the Holy Cross was.
One of his companions during this trip, Mgr Joaquín Alonso, recalls an anecdote that day:
“That day, Don Alvaro wrote several postcards to send as a souvenir from the Holy Land to his children of Rome and to people from the Holy See. My surprise was that the day after arriving in Rome when the Lord had already called Don Alvaro to eternal life, I realized that I had kept one of the postcards he wrote in my briefcase.
It was addressed to Bishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the Pope’s personal secretary at the time, so he could transmit Don Alvaro’s constant remembrance and prayers from Jerusalem to the Holy Father. I read it and I was shocked: Don Alvaro asked to transmit to the Pope his desire to be ‘fideles usque ad mortem’. Therefore, I could not resist photocopying the text before getting the postcard to Msgr. Stanislaw. These were the last words that Don Alvaro addressed to the Pope.”
Blessed Alvaro prays at the Mount of Olives
On Friday March 18th, they returned to the Holy Sepulcher to have a time of prayer and to celebrate Mass at the altar of Mary Magdalene. Once again, Don Alvaro knelt at the tomb of the Lord and in the place of the Crucifixion.
Then, they went to visit Dominus Flevit. There, he was approached by a young boy from Spain, from Valencia, who asked Don Alvaro for his blessing and said he would like to take a picture with him since he had a brother in Opus Dei who would be delighted to know they met. He immediately let him take the the photo and gave him his blessing. In the car, while praying the Rosary, they toured the Mount of Olives. In the afternoon they reached the Garden of Gethsemane and had thirty minutes of prayer in the Basilica of the Agony: he knelt before the stone, and after kissing it, he passed his cross and rosary over the rock.
Blessed Alvaro visits Bethlehem
On the morning of March 19th, 1994, Solemnity of St. Joseph (patron of Opus Dei), Blessed Alvaro and his companions made their way to Bethlehem. In the car, they began reading the Gospel texts about the Nativity of the Lord. They passed through the Shepherds’ Field where they had a time of prayer. Then, they continued their way to the Church of the Nativity, where Don Alvaro concelebrated Mass at one of the altars of the grotto. These are some of the words he pronounced during the homily:
Saying yes to the Lord is worth it. We must behave like St. Joseph. When he received indications from God: through an angel, in a dream or in any way; he immediately put them into practice, without hesitating at all. Even if it meant a huge change in his life. We, as Christians, should try to imitate this wonderful model.
After the Mass, Don Alvaro knelt to kiss the star which marks the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Afterwards, the returned to Jerusalem and visited the Western Wall.
Blessed Alvaro visits Ein Karim
On March 20th, 1994, Blessed Alvaro and his companions visited Bethany. On their way, in the car, they read the Gospel’s texts regarding Lazarus, Martha and Mary. They also passed by the tomb of Lazarus and had a time of prayer at the local church.
In the afternoon, the group visited Ein Karim, where The Church of the Visitation is. In the site of the Visitation, Blessed Alvaro said: The Virgin came through these valleys carrying the Child to visit Elizabeth, surely it was not easy.
Blessed Alvaro visits the Old City of Jerusalem
On Monday 21st, they went with Don Alvaro to visit the church of St Anne and had a time of prayer in the crypt of the Nativity of the Virgin. Then, they walked to the pool of Bethesda, where they read the text of the Gospel of John which speaks of the healing of the paralytic.
Next, Don Alvaro celebrated Mass in a center of Opus Dei in Jerusalem. During Thanksgiving he said: The Lord has given us this delicacy to feed our souls so that we can be faithful, so we can seek Him every day. Quid retribuam Domino pro omnibus quod retribuit mihi? Lord: how can I pay for what You do for me? With nothing… But, Lord, You know that I love You, because Tu omnia nosti, your quia scis amo te (Jn. 21, 17), You know everything. You know that despite my misery, I love You, I want to be faithful, and I apologize for the offenses I commit. Lord, help me more.
In the afternoon, they prayed in the Church of the Flagellation, read the Gospel of the judgment of the Lord before Pilate, the flagellation, and condemnation of Jesus. Afterwards, they visited the Lithostrotos, the Ecce Homo arch, and the Via Dolorosa. Then they went to the church of St Peter in Gallicantu where they read the texts of Peter’s denials.
Blessed Alvaro’s last Mass
On Tuesday, March 22, 1994, Blessed Alvaro visited the Dormition Abbey in Mount Sion. On his way, in the car, he read the Gospel texts of the Last Supper. Upon arrival, Don Alvaro knelt and prayed, deeply recollected.
After this time of prayer, Blessed Alvaro and his companions went to Franciscan Church of the Cenacle, where Don Alvaro celebrated his last Mass. The concelebrants were Bishop Echevarría, Don Joaquin Alonso and the two priests of the Prelature residing in Jerusalem at that time.
After Mass, Blessed Alvaro decided to visit the two centers of the Opus Dei in Jerusalem to say goodbye to his children before taking the plane back to Rome. During the flight back, he said with great emotion: I’m happy to have been able to make this pilgrimage; I consider it a gift from the Lord.
On his arrival at Ciampino airport, at 21:15, he was met by several couples who wished to greet him and receive his blessing. After spending a brief amount of time with them, he returned home.
Early in the morning of March 23, God called to Himself His good and faithful servant.