Born in Barbastro (Huesca) of a textile merchant family, he was in danger of death at the age of two but recovered and joined a seminary at the age of sixteen. He was ordained priest in 1925 and began his doctoral thesis. This work occupied several years and he became chaplain to laypeople who cared for the sick and the poor. This gave him useful experience both of the widespread poverty and the care available, also of wealthy people who would be ready to help.
In 1928 during a retreat he had a religious experience which resulted in his foundation of a secular Institute called Opus Dei (the work of God). His followers, all men, lived in common, without rules or habit, but in total obedience to their founder, away from cumbersome ecclesiastical structures. In 1934 he wrote his Spiritual Considerations, republished and revised as The Way in 1939.
Meanwhile civil war had broken out in Spain in 1936: churches and monasteries were burnt and some thousands of priests and religious were killed (see Martyrs of the Spanish Civil War). Almost inevitably he supported General Franco, under whose regime Opus Dei, with its teaching of ‘National Catholicism’ grew rapidly. Opus Dei was especially prominent in the world of education, providing teachers at every level and hostels for students at universities. Meanwhile criticism of the movement had begun, both for its secrecy and for its apparent lack of accountability.
In 1943 Pope Pius XII changed its constitution, approved their training their own priests, and encouraged them to become an international movement in the post-war world. Spain's neutrality had helped its growth, but critics of the movement were not satisfied because they thought it was too reactionary.
Financial and political support however was considerable: it developed its own publishing houses and radio stations. It was placed under the jurisdiction of a ‘personal prelature’ which assured considerable independence of the bishops. This was the decision of Pope John Paul II, who also beatified Josémaria in 1992 and canonized him in 2002. It is fair to say that much criticism of Opus Dei concerns its current state rather than the life of its founder, and that he contributed strongly to restating for our own times traditional doctrines and practices. Feast: 26 June.
Lives by A. Vasquez de Prada (1983) and W. Keenan (1990). More critical view by M. Walsh, The Secret World of Opus Dei (1989) with response by W. Connor, Opus Dei: an open Door (1991). Other writings by Escriva include Friends of God (1977), Furrow (1985), The Forge (1988). See also B.L.S., xi. 202–7 (on which this entry is based) and N.C.E., x. 709–10.