THEIR KINGDOM COME -- INSIDE THE SECRET WORLD OF OPUS DEI
IN 1902 -- THE YEAR OF JOSE MARIA ESCRIVA'S BIRTH -- THE SIXTEEN-year-old Alfonso XIII ascended the Spanish throne. Brought into the world six months after his father's state funeral, the young Alfonso suffered a wholly inadequate upbringing for a future monarch. His mother, a religious hysteric, chose as his tutor an ultra-traditionalist priest, anti-Liberal to the hilt. Under Spain's existing constitution, the king, not the electorate, was the sale arbiter of governments. Alfonso made and unseated them as he pleased. In the first twenty-one years of his reign -- from 1902 to 1923 -- he ordered thirty-three changes of government. 
The Liberals' concern to free education from Church control did not make them popular with the clergy. However, when Jose Maria began his schooling something like 60 per cent of the Spanish population was illiterate. The Liberals gradually forced the introduction of universal primary education and unfettered the universities, while the religious orders shifted their teaching efforts to secondary schooling. The working classes regarded this as proof that the Church was intent on educating the sons of the wealthy, while those of the poor were condemned, if they were lucky, to the drudgery of child labour.
The pope of Jose Marfa Escriva's childhood, Pius X, had been born the son of a village postman and seamstress from near Venice. He was credited with working miracles while still alive, and was made a saint forty years after his death. But because of his war against 'Modernism', he instigated an anti-Liberal reign of terror inside the Church. In 1907 he published the encyclical Pascendi, declaring that anyone tainted by Modernism would be excluded from holding public office or teaching. Secret informer networks were established. Anyone who opposed Pascendi was excommunicated.
That same year King Alfonso XIII appointed a strong Conservative, Antonio Maura, as his prime minister. Maura was described as a man of integrity, but unfortunately for Spain his home secretary Juan de La Cierva was a master of malicious, murderous Machiavellian statesmanship. Though claiming to be a devout Catholic, La Cierva believed that maiming and killing people, guilty or innocent, was a permissible political expedient.
Fed up with Madrid's incompetence, in the regional elections of 1907 the Catalan people overwhelmingly elected the Lliga Regionalista, a newly formed nationalist party. As Catalan nationalism posed a threat to Spanish federalism, this presented Madrid with a problem. La Cierva's answer was to provoke a wave of bombings in Barcelona so that the Home Office could assume direct control over the province. Within weeks some 2,000 bombs exploded in the Catalan capital. The local authorities asked an English detective to investigate; in most cases he found the bombings were the work of agents provocateurs in the pay of the Home Office. This did not prevent La Cierva from placing Barcelona under martial law. The Church, meanwhile, made no attempt to prevent the slide towards social upheaval and frequently hurried the process along.
Intent on countering Liberal influence at all levels of national life, a Jesuit priest, Father Angel Ayala, founded the Asociacipn catolica nacional de propagandistas, better known as the ACNP. Ayala hoped that by infiltrating the key sectors of national life, his hand-picked ACNP militants would influence public opinion against Liberal reform. The Propagandistas, as they also became known, were graduates of Jesuit colleges, laymen with an apostolic bent, but who were not required to make vows of a religious nature. Their president for the next twenty-five years was a young lawyer, Angel Herrera Oria. The Propagandistas never counted more than 1,000 members, but they became immensely influential behind the scenes.
The Propagandistas quickly masterrd the techniques of news management, founding in the process a national press empire whose centrepiece was the daily newspaper El Debate. Herrera was a brilliant tactician who in the final analysis was probably more Liberal than Father Ayala might have liked. However the ACNP concept of deploying a secular elite to defend Church interests was something that appealed to Escriva. When he first learned of ACNP's existence is not recorded. But the Propagandistas provided him with a model for the organization that he came to create twenty years later.
In the meantime, the Escriva family business was foundering. In August 1914, Escriva's father discovered that his partner had been embezzling funds from the partnership while trading losses went unrecorded.  The company went bankrupt. The event left Jose Maria -- already marked by the death of three younger sisters deeply upset.
Some Barbastrians hinted that the confectioner of bonbons knew all along what his partner was up to and had assisted in bleeding the business dry. Jose Maria must have heard these rumours. 'Failure is not forgiven lightly in small towns, and gossip is free,' one of his disciples later remarked. 
Reputation ruined, Don Jose was obliged to take a job as sales clerk in a clothes shop in Logrono, 220 kilometres away. The shop was called The Great City of London. Logrono was reasonably wealthy for its size. It was a textile and food processing centre as well as the capital of the Rioja wine-growing region. In 1915 it was almost four times the size of Barbastro.
The next five years were unhappy ones for Jose Maria, during which he would form but one lasting friendship. The family was living in a small rented apartment in near poverty. The official biographers portrayed them as following the counsel of Saint Paul, being patient in tribulation and constantly at prayer. The father was said to be nearly as saintly as the son.
'One could see he was a happy man, and extremely methodical and punctual. He dressed very smartly,' one of them quoted Manuel Ceniceros as saying. A colleague of Don Jose, Ceniceros remembered the dapper Escriva with bowler hat and walking stick taking his family for Sunday strolls through the centre of town. Opus Dei numerary Salvador Bernal gives so sweet a picture of the noble shop attendant as to be almost treacly. 'He ... learned to live with the sobriety that circumstances had imposed upon him. For his afternoon break, he had just one sweet ... And Don Jose smoked little: six cigarettes a day, which he carried in a silver case ... He rolled them himself. 
Jose Maria was enrolled at the Logrono Instituto, a state secondary school, where over the next three years he completed his Bachillerato. The Opus Dei literature described him as an exceptional student. Others, including some classmates, claimed he was average. Exceptional or not, Jose Maria was never quite the model that his biographers made out. He was given to pouting and occasional outbursts of anger. In one incident he threw the chalk and duster at the blackboard because his maths teacher had scolded him.  The boy had character. Girls found him attractive. And, everyone agrees, even at the age of thirteen or fourteen he was meticulously neat. In the afternoons he received private tutoring at St Anthony's College, where he became friends with Isidoro Zorzano, who had been born in Argentina. Like Jose Maria -- they were both the same age -- Isidoro was concerned about his future career. Being good at maths, Jose Maria was considering architecture. But his father suggested law. Isidoro, on the other hand, would become an engineer.
Repudiation of the father, identification with his mother and a nagging uncertainty about the future became the motivating forces of Jose Maria's growing spirituality. Gradually he laid aside the objects of his childhood to experiment with those of his manhood -- the cilicio, a barbed metal bracelet attached around the thigh, and the discipline, a braided whip-like instrument of penance. Convinced that God had chosen him for a mission, though as yet he did not know what that mission would be, shortly after his sixteenth birthday Jose Maria decided to tell his father about his vocation.
'It was the only time I saw my father cry. He had other plans in mind for me, but he didn't reject my idea. He said: "My son, think it over carefully ... A priest has to be a saint",' Escriva later recalled. 
Meanwhile the family's financial situation remained desperate. Jose Maria and Carmen spent the summers with their uncle at Fonz. In Russia, the Romanovs were murdered, causing Winston Churchill to remark that their massacre had unleashed a new kind of barbarism upon the world. It was called Communism. Countering the spread of Communism would become one of Escriva's principal goals in life, but for the moment he focused on entering Logrono's Minor Seminary as an external student, which he did in October 1918.
A month later, the First World War ended in an armistice of relief and hope. Soon after, Jose Maria's mother announced that she was pregnant. The future cult figure had prayed so intensely for the Lord to grant his parents another son to take his place in the family that he was certain the Holy Spirit was about to unveil for him another sign. 'With this news, I had actually touched the grace of God. I saw the Lord's hand in it,' he said. 
Jose Maria's brother, Santiago, was born in February 1919. For the seminarian it confirmed that he was destined for a career as a servant of God. But for many, God was one of the first casualties of the changing world order. Friedrich Nietzsche had written thirty years before: 'The greatest event of recent times -- that "God is Dead", that the belief in the Christian God is no longer tenable -- is beginning to cast the first shadows over Europe.'  In fact Spain was about to begin a long journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death when Jose Maria decided that, henceforth, he would dwell in the House of the Lord.
1. Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth, Cambridge University Press, Canto edition, 1993, p. 23n.
2. Vazquez de Prada, Op. cit., p. 56.
3. Gondrand, Op. cit., p. 31.
4. Bernal, op. cit., pp. 26, 28.
5. Gondrand, Op. cit., p. 36.
6. Bernal, Op. cit., p. 62, citing RHF 20164, p. 219.
7. Vazquez de Prada, Op. cit., p. 75.
8. Paul Johnson, History of the Modern World, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1983, p. 48.