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Note:  The author of this article has asked that his name remain anonymous. 

The Many Names of Opus Dei’s Founder

But if they ask me what his name is, how shall I answer?

 Exodus 3:13

            Honors, distinctions, titles: things of air, puffs of pride, lies, nothingness.

                                                                                               Maxim 677, The Way

            To understand Opus Dei, one needs to study the Founder.

                                                                                                     Alvaro Del Portillo

Baptismal name

Opus Dei’s founder changed his name many times over the course of his life. He was born on January 2, 1902.[1] Four days later, he was baptized in the Cathedral at Barbastro, Spain with the baptismal name recorded among Church records as José María Julian Mariano.[2] “According to the entry in the baptismal register of the Church where he was christened, his surname was spelled Escribá[.]”[3] He was given the same first name as his father, José Escribá; his mother was named María de los Dolores Albás y Blanc.[4]

Adding the aristocratic “y Albás” 

            Some time after his father’s textile business failed in 1915, he studied for the priesthood and was ordained in 1925.[5] Before the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), he began joining “y Albás” to his surname; it appears in the published memento of his first Mass.[6]

In Castilian Spanish, use of the conjunction “y” (“and”) joining father’s and mother’s surnames is associated with aristocratic families.[7] Use of a modified conjunctive surname would not have been socially acceptable by someone not belonging to the aristocracy; since Escribá did not come from an aristocratic family, he may have been subjected to ridicule: as late as the 1960s, Father Escribá rarely experimented publicly with the use of “y Albás”.[8]

From Escribá to the more distinguished Escrivá

On May 24, 1941, Bishop Leopoldo Eijo Garay of Madrid sent a letter that systematically has been cited in Opus Dei literature as the first document written by a member of Church hierarchy in defense of Opus Dei and its founder. [9] In his letter, Bishop Garay refers to the founder, whom he says he knows very well, as Dr. Escribá—three times.[10] 

But as early as his school days, José Escribá had “adopted the rather more distinguished version spelled with a “v” rather than a “b,” which in Spanish sounds exactly the same.”[11] His name is spelled Escrivá in the memento of his first Mass.[12] In 1943, when he was 41, Church records were altered on June 20 to memorialize the change: the registry book of the Barbastro Cathedral and the baptismal certificate of José María were annotated to reflect “that the surname Escribá was changed to Escrivá de Balaguer.”[13] None of the official Opus Dei biographies reference this spelling alteration.[14]

Adding the distinguishing “de Balaguer”

            On June 16, 1940 [age 38], the Spanish Boletín Oficial del Estado records that Father Escrivá requested of the government that he be permitted to change his “first surname so it will be written Escrivá de Balaguer.”[15] He justified the petition by claiming that “the name Escrivá is common in the east coast and Catalonia, leading to harmful and annoying confusion.”[16]

One of the earliest members of Opus Dei, architect Miguel Fisac, describes reasons why Father Escrivá may have chosen to modify his name. First, Fisac describes that Escrivá may have suffered a childhood trauma as follows:

When he was still a child, his father and a partner had a cloth business in Barbastro, the founder’s birthplace. The firm went bankrupt and the founder was embarrassingly forced to leave.

His father was reduced to the position of simple shop assistant[.][17]

            Fisac describes Escrivá’s embarrassment at his father’s failure, and reflects on the likely motivation for Escrivá’s name changes:

I suppose that his interest in giving importance to his surname was related to his childhood trauma which I have mentioned before. Living in close contact with Monsignor Escrivá, it was easy to appreciate the great affection he felt for the aristocracy: Marquises, Counts[,] etc. As some of these personages were related to some of the nuns in the Royal Foundation of Santa Isabel, and he was its rector, whenever the nuns introduced him to any of these aristocrats and they heard his surname was Escrivá, they would at once ask casually, “Escrivá de Romaní?” (a well known aristocratic family). When he answered that he wasn’t, they made their feeling of rejection obvious and deeply upset him. This is not my imagination; I heard Escrivá himself tell how he decided to add the name of the Catalan town where his family possibly originated from: “Balaguer.” This he did. I was present when the documents were gathered for presentation in the Ministry of Justice for approval. [18]

The leader of an organization known for proclaiming to be composed of common Christians claimed that confusion caused by having a common name is annoying.[19] None of the Opus Dei biographies comment on the official 1940 petition for the name change or its justification.[20] And as to the claim of confusion with the names as alleged in the official petition, it has been pointed out that Escrivá de Romaní is not “exactly ‘common in the east coast and Catalonia.’”[21]  

From José María to Josemaría 

Monsignor Escrivá also modified his first name. From the common José María, he changed it to the original Josemaría. Biographers state, that around 1935 [age 33], “he joined his first two names because his single love for the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph were equally inseparable.”[22] Though there had been many Saint José’s, there had never been a Saint Josemaría.

Doctor Escrivá

For a while, Escrivá tried on the title of Doctor, but eventually he abandoned this adventure. His doctoral degree from the university appears to be surrounded with mystery.[23] Of the alleged doctorate in theology obtained at age 53, nothing is known, not even the topic of the thesis, which was never published.[24]

According to Antonio Perez, one of Escrivá’s principal collaborators, ordained in 1948 and a former Opus Dei general manager, “Father Escrivá was not a great jurist, as we were later led to believe. I even have serious doubts about whether he studied law at all. I never saw his bachelor’s degree, and the way things were in the Work, if he had it, he would have put it in an impressive gold frame. But he might have lost this document, like so many others during the war.”[25]

Monsignor Escrivá

In 1947, Father Escrivá was nominated to be “Prelato Domestico di Sua Santita.” This title conferred the right to be addressed as Monsignor. Official biographers claim that before accepting Father Escrivá hesitated, “since he wanted nothing for himself. If, in the end, he accepted, it was so as not to anger those who had nominated him.”[26]

However, it turns out that the honor had been proposed by one Alvaro del Portillo, then number two man at Opus Dei, we are asked to believe without the knowledge of Father Escrivá. According to biographers, Monsignor Escrivá “rarely wore the showy prelate’s robes, or wore the buckled shoes. He felt the weight of the purple vestments as a hair shirt; but on notable occasions, knowing how much the color entertained his children, he followed the path of good humor.”[27]

On the other hand, according to many who have left Opus Dei, Escrivá was especially fond of luxury, aristocratic refinements, honors, titles and symbols of prestige.[28] One need only visit Opus Dei properties to observe the conspicuous display of wealth.

The Marquis of Peralta

In January 1968, The Official State Bulletin in Madrid published the following Ministry of Justice announcement:

Don José María Escrivá de Balageur y Albás has requested the rehabilitation of the title of Marquis, granted on 12 February 1718 by the Archduke Charles of Austria to Don Tomas de Peralta, the interested party having chosen in grace the distinction of Marquis of Peralta. The provisions of Article 4 of the Decree 4 June 1948 for granting the request having been satisfied, a delay of three months from the publication of this edict exists for any persons wishing to be made known their opposition. Madrid, 24 January 1968.[29]

The notice was signed by the Ministry’s Under Secretary, Alfredo Lopez, an Opus Dei supernumerary.[30]

Opus Dei supporters have maintained that this was not a “puff of pride,” but rather the just exercise of a fundamental right. Monsignor Escrivá insisted that he had not made the request for his own benefit, but that the title was intended to benefit his nephews. He claimed he merely was compensating his family for the sacrifices they had made to permit him to carry out The Work. Official biographers portray it as “a matter of filial piety and justice.”[31]

According to researchers, the Marquisate of Peralta was bestowed upon one of Escrivá‘s more distant ancestors who had been Minister of Justice in Naples following the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Monsignor Escrivá had in recent years accepted awards of the Spanish Gold Cross of St. Raymond of Penafort, the Grand Cross of Alfonso X the Wise, the Grand Cross of Isabel the Catholic, and the Cross of Charles III. But to show his modesty, his biographers assure that he never wore them.[32]


[2] Hutchison, Robert, Their Kingdom Come: Inside the secret world of Opus Dei, 1999, at p. 20

[3] Walsh, Michael, Opus Dei: An investigation into the secret society struggling for power within the Roman Catholic Church, 1989, at p. 13.

[4] Hutchison, at p. 19.

[6] Estruch, Joan, Saints and Schemers: Opus Dei and its paradoxes, 1995, at p. 32.

[7] Id.

[8] [8] Walsh, at p. 14.

[9] Estruch, at p. 32.

[10] Id.

[11] Walsh, at p. 14.

[12] Estruch, at p. 32.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at pp. 32-33.

[16] Id. at p. 33.

[17] Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc., An Interview with Miguel Fisac, 2000, at p. 9.

[18] Opus Dei Awareness Network, Inc., An Interview with Miguel Fisac, 2000, at p. 12.

[19] Estruch, at p. 33.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Estruch, at p. 34, citing references.

[23] Id. at p. 35.

[24] Id. at p. 36.

[25] Id. at p. 37, citing references.

[26] Id. at p. 38, citing references.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Hutchison at p. 150.

[30] Id.

[31] Id. at p. 151, citing references.

[32] Id. The author goes on to state that after the announcement in the state bulletin that Monsignor Escrivá would adopt the title of Marquis of Peralta, the obvious irony was noted by those unwilling to make excuses for the duality of his message and practice. One joke going around Madrid at the time suggested that “The Way” would be republished as “The Super Highway” by the Marquis of Peralta.


Posted June 9, 2006