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My First Meeting With St. Josemaria

Rome, December 11, 1966

There is a large chemical company that used to have as its slogan “Better things for better living through chemistry”, and as a chemist who loves his work, I have always subscribed to that slogan. And one of the reasons is that it was on a professional trip to Europe from Canada for my company (not the one of the slogan) that I had the great good fortune to meet our beloved Founder, Saint Josemaria Escriva, for the first time, in Rome.

The trip covered a period of three weeks, in the late fall of 1966, beginning with a week-long congress in Brussels, followed by visits to institutions which were clients of my company in various cities in Europe. I arranged my itinerary of visits in such a way that I was able to spend the weekend of Saturday and Sunday, December 10th and 11th in Rome, in the hope of being able to meet the then-Msgr. Escriva whom people referred to simply as “the Father”. And it indeed worked out as planned!

On Sunday, December 11th, I was praying in the oratory of the Holy Apostles in Villa Tevere (the Roman headquarters of Opus Dei) and about 4:45 p.m. someone came in and asked me to accompany him because the Father was expecting me! I am not absolutely sure, but I believe it was the Sala de Comisiones to which I was taken, and there I was told to wait.  Within two or three minutes he came in and immediately gave me a big embrace. I remember being struck by how cheerful and vigorous he was. He was so warm and obviously pleased to see this son of his for the first time that the gospel scene of the prodigal son being greeted by his father immediately came to my mind.

He was accompanied by Msgr. Alvaro del Portillo (now Blessed Alvaro, who became his first successor), Fr. Javier Echevarria (the prelate of Opus Dei after Msgr. Alvaro) and John Coverdale (an American), the latter to act as translator. But in such a close one-on-one situation, translation was a real hindrance to communication, and I very quickly by-passed John and started using my limited Spanish directly, considering it to be the lesser of two evils, and things worked out well. The following is an admittedly somewhat fragmented or disjointed account of our encounter, based on what I have been able to recall since. At this point I will put in a disclaimer regarding the literalness of the words of the Father quoted below. They are based on a few notes I made from memory that same evening, and are further limited by my understanding of Spanish at that time.

Our conversation

He said “Hay que pitar muchos canadenses de lengua ingles” (Many English speaking Canadians have to become faithful of Opus Dei.). He said we have to work hard to attract them and to help them to come closer to God. He mentioned three means: sanctity, prayer and good humor. And he emphasized the latter: “Con tu buen humor.

He asked if I had been shown around, if I had seen the Roman College. He also asked me how old I was.  When I said 31, he answered, “Oh, estas muy joven! (You are very young!) I will be 65 on my next birthday, the 9th of January.” I answered that my own father was almost exactly his age, having been born on January 17th, 1902.

A donkey

The Father gave me several pictures of Our Lady for the Region of Canada, including one of the statue of Our Lady in Pamplona which had been blessed by Pope Saint Paul VI.  Then somehow the subject of the donkey came up.  The donkey was one of his favourite spiritual symbols. (1)  He said very strongly, “Ut iumentum, semper ut iumentum!”  (Like a donkey, always like a donkey!)  He then told Fr. Javier to phone for a donkey for me.

Fr. Javier went to the corner of the room where there was a phone, and within minutes someone brought the donkey. The Father made it stand up in his hand, saying “Un borrico, un borrico” (a donkey, a donkey) and laughing as he did so, and then he gave it to me. It was stamped out of sheet metal and is about 2 mm thick and 8 cm tall and painted black. It is soldered to a metal base 5.5 cm long and 1.5 cm wide, has a piece of red and green felt glued on its back, and is on my desk in front of me as I write this. I point out here that, a few years earlier, not long after I had joined Opus Dei, in one of my letters to the Father I had asked him if there was any particular devotional aspiration which could be used in connection with a donkey. Not too long afterward, I had received the answer from him, via the Director of the Centre: “Ut iumentum!”, and now I had heard it again, this time directly from the Father.

His sense of humor

One thing that struck me on reflecting on our meeting was the Father’s constant good humor. Probably as much time was spent on “small talk” and his amusing comments as on “serious” conversation. One simple joke I remember was concerning the panettone he arranged for me to take with me. Panettone is a very popular Italian cake or sweetbread, somewhat like angel food cake. He told someone to phone Orsini and arrange to have one sent to the RUI (Residenzia Universitaria Internazionale) where I was staying. And indeed, there were two of them waiting for me, three hours later when I got back! He told me that the advantage of such a gift was that if I had trouble with it at customs, all I had to do was to step aside and eat it!

This was my first trip to Europe, and over the previous two and a half weeks I had been fortunate to be able to stay in centres of the Work in all but one of the cities I had visited. I remarked to the Father that in spite of the different languages and cultures that I was experiencing for the first time, I was struck by the unity of spirit and affection that I had encountered everywhere. He immediately answered: “Por supuesto, es una familia, una familia. Y ya esta.” (Of course, it’s a family, a family. And that’s it!).

He said that he would like to come to Canada, but was unable to do so at the time. It would cost a great deal of money and so would be inconsistent with a spirit of poverty. Continuing with the same idea, he said that what we are interested in is virtue. I told him that people in Canada were praying very much for him and his intentions, and that many there had made a point of asking me to give him their best regards and affection. He said that I should tell everyone that he remembered Canada very much in his prayers. Of course when I returned, I fulfilled his request.

At the end he made the sign of the cross on my forehead and gave me his blessing and a strong embrace; and so ended fifteen glorious and memorable minutes with Saint Josemaria.

 Joe Atkinson
Toronto, Ontario
February 21, 2020

(1)  For example, “Would that you could acquire, as I know you would like to, the virtues of the donkey!  Donkeys are humble, hardworking, persevering – stubborn! – and faithful, with a sure step, tough and – if they have a good master – faithful and obedient”  (#380, The Forge, St. Josemaria Escriva)

cfr. Ps. 73(72). 22: ut iumentum factus sum apud te.  (I was a donkey before thee.)