A Father and a Friend

An interview with Msgr Julián Herranz, President of the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. He personally knew the founder of Opus Dei, who was proclaimed a saint on October 6th, and shared twenty-five years of life with him. A phrase to describe Josemaría Escrivá? “In love with Christ and the world”


“At the time, I was rather distant from the Church. I was a third-year medical student and the editor of a student magazine. One day, at an editorial meeting, a boy came in with an article on Opus Dei, a reality that I did not know, in which he wrote that it was ‘Catholic Masonry,’ that they were mysterious people, practically ‘heretical’ Christians. When I had read the article I said to him, ‘We have to hear both sides. We have to talk to some of these people, because your article is very strong; it is slanderous.’ Since I was also a student representative and knew some students in Opus Dei, I went to see one of them and asked him why he was so mysterious about his belonging to this group. He answered me, very naturally, ‘The early Christians did not go around with a sign saying: I am a Christian, I am good, I want to be holy; they lived their faith in a natural way in society, and that is what we do.’ I liked that answer, which was very manly and simple as well. I went to one of their centers and began to get to know them.” This medical student, barely 20 years old, was Julián Herranz, now an archbishop and President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. He would never have been able to imagine what life had in store for him after that encounter, so casual at the time, which he recounts today in intense and lively tones. Soon after that, he met Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, and lived side by side with him for twenty-five years, sharing the things of every day and taking part for a time in the direction of the movement. When Josemaría Escrivá was canonized on Sunday, October 6th, Msgr Herranz saw “the man through whom Christ made Himself present in my life,” a father and a friend, proclaimed a saint.

Let’s start at the beginning, with the first time you met him.
It was in very special circumstances. A young member of Opus Dei had died suddenly, and St Josemaría came running immediately to the center where we were. “Where is Suso?” he asked as soon as he opened the door of the apartment. I was struck by the deeply saddened expression on his face–he was a father suffering for the loss of his son. In the little chapel where Suso was laid out, the Founder kissed him tenderly on the forehead, and reciting the responsory, remained kneeling for a long time in front of the tabernacle. Then he came to us in an adjoining sitting room, and there I saw him transformed: his face was now radiating joy and serenity. He looked at us affectionately, and I remember that he said more or less these words: “Our hearts are full of grief, but they must also be pervaded with joy, because we lovingly accept the will of God our Father, and because Suso has won his last battle: he remained faithful to the last to his divine vocation.” Then he added forcefully, “Suso has passed from life to Life, from love to Love.” What struck me in this first encounter was precisely this: seeing clearly in him something like an “image” of Christ, a “mirror” in which the perfect union between the human and the divine was reflected naturally, in a strong personality that pulled others along.

If you had to describe him in just a few words, what would you say?
I was asked a similar question when I gave my deposition at his process of canonization. After numerous sessions, the president of the tribunal asked me to give his life story in three words. I was full of amazement at the question. How can you sum up twenty-five years of living together in three words? Then the answer came to me, and I said, “I only need two: in love!” In love with Christ, with the incarnate Love of God, and in love with the world, seen in the original light of creation.

Following this “man in love,” your life changed so much that from Madrid you came to the Vatican…
It was not my intention to devote myself to Canon Law, but St Josemaría called me to the priesthood. Once I finished my theology studies and was ordained a priest, he advised me to pursue a degree in Canon Law, and I later became a professor of the subject. It was shortly before Vatican Council II. The Holy See asked the founder of Opus Dei for a canonist, and he asked me if I was willing to work in the Curia. I accepted, also because I intuited the special pastoral importance of the Council for the Church and the world. Thus, I have been in the service of the Holy See for 42 years–in Rome, of course, but with frequent trips abroad. I worked first on the long phase of preparation of the new legislation of the Church in light of the Council, and now I am working as president of the dicastery that helps to interpret and apply the universal laws of the Church in a pastoral spirit.

There is a big difference between being a physician and dealing with Canon Law, don’t you think?
Certainly, but aside from the anthropological affinity–medicine deals with the health of the body and Canon Law has as its supreme aim the “health of the soul”–something like this can be understood by using an image that St Josemaría liked very much and that I once recounted also to the Holy Father, which is the theology of the donkey. The donkey who warmed the Baby Jesus in the manger when men did not take Him in, and whom Jesus chose for His triumphal entrance into the city of men–a beast of burden that goes where the Lord takes him–is happy because he hears the shouts of “Hosanna!” to the Master on his back, and if he sometimes leaves the path, he is brought back onto the right road by the Master riding him; the donkey who does his job with love, whatever job the Lord asks him to do, whether it is to carry diamonds or firewood, because he knows that, after all, what he is carrying is always Christ.

Does the “theology of the donkey” echo St Josemaría’s exhortation: “We must transform–by love–the human labor of our usual day into the work of God, with an eternal dimension”?
Yes. He used to say that in order to be contemplatives in our daily tasks, we had to work like Martha, but with the heart of Mary. We must all work–the Lord created us “to labor,” we read in Genesis–but this work can be taken equivocally in a very pedestrian way, as an element of class struggle or a mere way of earning one’s bread, or it can be lived, like Christ for so many years in Nazareth, as an instrument of human and spiritual perfection, of fulfilling the Father’s will, of redemption. Work has to become an occasion and means of personal holiness and of apostolate, in order to grow in friendship with Christ and to bring Christ to everyone around us, in our family, in the university, the factory, the fields, the political party, the labor union, in art, and in any other noble human activity.

Stating that Christ has to do with daily life, these days, makes one unpopular, to say the least, or even the object of hostility.
Not always, but often the idea is accepted of God as confined to churches and history books, on the margins of human life, society, the family–living as though God did not exist. And so it seems that we have two options: either to camouflage ourselves in the slovenly cultural landscape of today, adopting the cult of the ephemeral, the fashionable idols, and in this case the Christian loses his identity; or to build our own ecosystem with the characteristics of a ghetto, and then we would have the self-marginalization of Christians. St Josemaría’s message is a different one, because he teaches that this is a false dilemma. Neither of these options corresponds to the essence of Christianity, to the essence of the vocation to holiness and apostolate intrinsic in Baptism. Our age needs to give back to material things, to temporal reality and the most common situations, their noble original meaning and put them at the service of the kingdom of God, making them the means and occasion of our daily encounter with Christ. St Josemaría loved to say that there is a “quid divinum,” something holy, something divine, hidden in the most ordinary situations, something that it falls to each of us to discover, sustain, and teach.

Is this what the Church reminds her faithful of by declaring a man like Josemaría Escrivá a saint?
Every saint is a gift that God gives to the Church. The Lord, after every Council and especially after those that deeply affected the life of the Church, has called forth saints and institutions to help what was written in the documents to become concrete reality. After the Council of Trent we had St Ignatius Loyola, St Charles Borromeo, St Teresa of Avila, and so many other saints who gave the Church a new strength of evangelization. In Vatican II, the fundamental theme–in my opinion–was the universal call to holiness and the apostolate, and I believe the Lord, with the figure of St Josemaría, wanted to offer an example of how this doctrine can become life, a lived reality. Other saints will come whose charism pursues the same aim, because the doctrine of Vatican II is very rich, but it has to become incarnate every day more and more in daily reality, in order to give a new youth to the Church and a new ability to have an incisive effect, with evangelizing force, in a prevalently pagan society, where it seems that many want to live by ignoring the fact that Christ came to save them.