A conversation with José Manuel Almuzara, president for the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudí
José Manuel Almuzara is the president of the Association for the Beatification of Antoni Gaudí . The Association is the petitioner of the canonical process of the cause for beatification of Gaudí , begun in April of 2000 and solemnly closed in May of 2003. Since July 9, 2003, the process has been officially open in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
In October, Almuzara participated in the Gaudí First World Congress in Barcelona. Almuzara spoke about the Gaudí that few people know—a man who lived with his eyes on eternity, a saint, a model of Christian virtues.
Is there a miracle yet for his beatification? A date?
We have presented several miracles, but for the moment nothing has been proven. God willing, it will happen next year. Before going to see the Pope in March, I was with the relator of the cause for beatification and with the postulator. I asked her, “When do you think he could be declared venerable?,” and she told me that it would probably be in 2015, before or after the summer.
She asked me what date I would like. I commented that the date of his birth and the date of his death are both in June. Later in the year, November 3, is the day that Gaudí took charge of the design of the Church of the Holy Family. To declare him venerable is to declare that this man is worthy of veneration in private devotion due to his life and the facts that have been studied about him.
Is Antoni Gaudí a local architect, or a creator who can be promoted world-wide?
I can summarize it with a phrase from Pope Benedict XVI: “Creative architect and practicing Christian.” Just exploring this title would be enough. The creativity of an architect is of interest to the whole world. And what can I say about there being a practicing Catholic among the 1.2 billion people in the world? The more of us who practice our faith, the better…
From a professional point of view, we can offer him as a model for architects—as a man and as a Christian, a universal man. From an architectural perspective, his architecture is original, and is based on nature. He is also a pioneer from a human perspective, in the way he treated his workers, how he cared for his family, and in the coherence of his character and personality.
Gaudí said that work is the fruit of collaboration: and this collaboration should be based on love. An architect has to know the qualities of each of his collaborators. In this way, what matters is to discover what each person is good at, as no one is useless.
And so, if Joseph was taller than Jack, he would be better at certain things. That particular worker would be happier using his personal resources, his way of being, apt for that specific kind of work, and the final result will be better.
As a consequence of this way of thinking, Gaudí pays homage to the workers in the Holy Family, in a place where it will go unnoticed, between the cloister and the lateral naves of the church. There, some patios are formed and in the keystones of the arches, Gaudí installs a sort of upside-down isosceles trapezoid. In the lower part, he places the tools used by each of his workers.
With this detail, he tells us that without them he could not have carried out the work. Thus, he unites the human with the divine. Exemplary, isn’t it? And it is an indicator of who he was, just like his [habit of] carrying a Rosary in one pocket and hazelnuts in the other.
Hazelnuts? What were the hazelnuts for?
To feed the body, and the Rosary was for feeding the soul.
Did Gaudí have a mission? He went on spiritual exercises before beginning his masterpiece.
Before beginning the Holy Family, in the manuscripts that he writes in Reus shortly after graduating with his degree in architecture in 1878, he already says that for an
architect, the most marvelous thing in the world is to be able to build a church, because it is for God.
And so, of course, when at the age of 31 he is given the project of directing and constructing the Holy Family cathedral, substituting for Villar [Francisco de Paula del Villar, the original architect], the first thing he does is continue with Villar’s project. He continues to construct the crypt in the excavated area. But later he is faced with his idea and his project, and that is when he goes on a spiritual retreat because he thought, “If I want to imitate Jesus Christ, I have to follow his path, according to the Gospel passage.”
He behaved this way so much that Torres i Bages [Catalan bishop] had to reprimand him to keep him from putting his health and his life in danger. But his only desire was to imitate Christ.
And so, Gaudí begins to imbibe God’s work: he considers himself a collaborator in creation because he did not consider himself like Subirachs [Josep Maria Subirachs, the sculptor at Sagrada Familia] who says, “I am a creator.” Subirachs only set one condition when he took charge of his part of the work: to be able to develop his own project. By contrast, Gaudí considered himself just a collaborator: Creation is God’s work.
He submerges himself in studying nature, analyzing it and applying its laws to his architecture. Then he collaborates, and as a collaborator he feels like a lucky man, who has certain virtues that he humbly recognizes, as a good collaborator with God.
It is a fruitful humility…
I always use the case of Etsuro Sotoo as an example. Etsuro Sotoo is a Japanese sculptor, the head sculptor of Holy Family. He begins to work here in ‘78. He was a Buddhist until ‘91, when he converted to the Catholic faith. What was his philosophy? To look wherever Gaudí is looking.
If you look where Gaudí looks, you are humble, you are simple, you are like a child. You don’t settle sit back with your arms folded when faced with negative things. You are a fighter. You motivate people. You collaborate with others. We are all important. No one is useless, everyone is able to contribute somehow, both architects and artisans.
What is the specific character of the church of the Holy Family?
It is a templo expiatorio (a church where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed in perpetual adoration for the expiation of sins). Gaudí knows why a templo expiatorio of the Holy Family is being built. I like to remember that it is a templo expiatorio because sometimes people forget.
We have to remember the record of when the first stone was laid, because there it clearly states that the Holy Family is a templo expiatorio, later dedicated to the Holy Family, although initially dedicated to St. Joseph. The Association, and Fr. Manyanet [Josep Manyanet y Vives, founder of the religious congregation Sons of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph] who inspired the Association, decide to dedicate the church to the Holy Family.
Gaudí knows as an architect that taking on this project means having God as his client, and at one point he says, “el meu Client no té pressa.” [My Client isn’t in a hurry.] What difference does it make if it is finished it in 2000 or in 2050? If it is for God, it is based on donations, on love and on charity, and love is eternal; so he works to ensure that the project attracts people.
And it managed to attract many.
That is the key to the association, which is founded in 1866 and by 1878 reaches the number of 500,000 members: to build a templo expiatorio dedicated to the Holy Family, to make amends for the excesses of people in society in general and in Catalan society in particular.
Five hundred thousand people represent something very serious. And always, whenever I speak to a group of young people, I say that if we say that 500,000 fans of the soccer star Messi, or Ronaldo before him, who pay to watch soccer, is a substantial number, it is even more significant that there are 500,000 people who want to ask St. Joseph for help in those difficult times. Very much so!
How is it possible that someone first builds a crypt, then an apse and a façade? This is atypical; we architects build horizontally, not vertically. Why does he make a facade? It is a sort of marketing strategy, to make them say “Wow, how beautiful!”— “fa goig.” [“Beautiful” in Catalan.]
As a consequence, there are more and more donations. Then, before he died he predicted that “people will come from all over the world to see the Holy Family.” Today if you walk around here for a while, and you see all these people, you ask yourself, “Where do all these people come from?” It’s spectacular; it’s a prophecy.
The Holy Family challenged Catalan society back then, and also today. The fact that it is a catechesis, a theological compendium in stone, challenges you about your response to all of this, about whether or not you talk to your God.
But this church is made by the people. This Barcelona which is so cold and indifferent, so almost anti-Christian, sees how the Holy Family rises in the geographical center of Barcelona: what was previously far from the center is now at the same distance from the north, south, east, and west of the city. It has become the new cathedral of Europe. We are the first to say it.
In this church, many people see a catechism in stone, a theme park of faith.
Gaudí was the fifth of five brothers, the son of a mother who was very devoted to the Virgin of Mercy of Reus. They baptized him as was the tradition, one day after being born; he was educated by the Escolapian fathers in Reus.
Although some authors say that he could be cold in his dealings with the Church on some occasions, I don’t believe it has been demonstrated. The proof is in the fact that, in his writings from Reus, he talks about how marvelous it is for an architect to build a church for God and about beauty of ornamentation in the liturgy.
In conclusion, we can be sure that theologically speaking, the meaning of his architecture will be given more and more value.
The most surprising part of the church of the Holy Family is the interior. It is simply spectacular. It is a stone forest. And the friezes are in trouble. Birth, Glory, and Sorrow. Following the mysteries of the Rosary, the Birth, to the east, following Jesus’ birth.
On the secondary facades, which are to the east and west, the Lord’s birth and his passion, Gaudí places three arches, three inverted parabolas, which represent the three theological virtues. Gaudí is making us think, “If you and I want to enter the church and stay there, with freedom, then faith, hope and love are important.” And think: There will be seven doors here.
If we analyze the three secondary facades, we realize that he places love in the middle; the parabola is also greater, because love is eternal; the other two theological virtues, faith and hope, will come to an end.
Later you start to realize that Mary is a woman of faith and hope, whereas Jesus directly incarnates love: the love of a God who becomes Man. It is not a sculpture placed as such. As a consequence, and also because Gaudí is always consistent in his criteria, the facade of the Passion is arranged so that Love is in the middle. And we have lost that direct message.
Subirachs set aside Gaudí’s original project?
Gaudí designs a project after being sick in Puigcerdá for two months, at death’s door. In that project he includes in detail the order in which he will place the statues. I agree that Subirach, Sotoo or any other world famous sculptor make the sculptures; but the placement, and the reason for the order, should not be changed. And the difference between the current placement and that which Gaudí planned cries out to heaven.
When we contemplate Subirachs’s sculptures–and I am not going to go into whether you like them or not, if they are rigid, hard, cubist or expressive–the visual journey across the facade takes the shape of an S. They are no longer Gaudí’s Faith, Hope and Love, in the parabola, in the focus, in the most important place. If we see the birth of Jesus on the main facade, here Gaudí has totally logically thought to place the death on the cross. It seems pretty basic and fundamental, doesn’t it?
In his life, Jesus, who says with the washing of the feet that we have to be servants, also adds, “But do not worry, I am not leaving you.” There he leaves us the institution of the Eucharist. Later, he teaches us the most important thing, which is our prayer. The scene of Jesus praying in the garden is the vertical axis of God’s love for humanity.
What does Subirachs do? He puts an S and in the middle you run into the flagellation. Not only that, but in the Last Supper, which is the first scene in which there will not physically be space for the 13 people because they simply don’t fit, he puts a rock on which he carves, “What you do, do quickly.”
This phrase is a bomb, isn’t it? That thing about “do it quickly” goes against the thought of Gaudí, who was precisely avoiding the idea of rushing, because he insisted that his “client” was not in a rush. It doesn’t transmit Gaudí’s message. And besides that, the Biblical phrase doesn’t say “what you do,” but “what you are going to do.”
The most transcendent part of the Last Supper is the sacrifice of the body and blood, “take and eat,” “take and drink.” Subirachs nonetheless summarizes what happens in the Last Supper in with this secondary phrase.
Did Gaudí have a personal vision of the anthropology of the human person?
By the time he is 27 years old, his four siblings and his mother have died. Rosa, his oldest sibling, is the last to die; she passes away after her husband left her and her daughter, Rosita, Gaudí’s niece. She takes care of Gaudí and his father. Gaudí tried to get married a couple of times, but it seems that on both occasions his love interests chose other holy men.
This spurs him to analyze his virtues, and so he cultivates his love for creation and studies the laws of nature in order to apply them.
One aspect of this is that he designs things to be useful and beautiful. He doesn’t create anything that is only beautiful; he wants it to be beautiful and useful. Why make a chair that is beautiful but isn’t useful for sitting? He also makes lamps, or chairs for priests in the sanctuary.
One of his disciples told me that these chairs were made of pure wood. On the armrests there was a split so that the priests’ arms could rest more comfortably. In this way, the priest was better disposed, and didn’t start to fall asleep if he was too tired.
And behind, he engraved the words Jesus, Mary and Joseph; alpha and omega. Beautiful but austere. Just this little convenience.
And with the confessional that he built 100 years ago, he showed that he was ahead of his time. There is space for the penitent to sit, there was a partition so that a woman would not be right in front of the priest, and other details that characterize him as a man in love with God.
From the end of 1925 to June of 1926, Gaudí lived in the church of the Holy Family. He was already elderly, and his friend Matamala was sick and couldn’t accompany him. So, in order not to be alone in Güell Park, he decided to stay on the grounds of the Holy Family.
Well, imagine, one June 7, a 73-year-old man, an architectural genius, fully dedicated to designing a lamp, says to his helper, “Very early tomorrow we will make very beautiful things.”
When you analyze this you realize that for this man, even a lamp motivated him to get up early and encourage his helper.
Then he goes and says to him, “We will continue later; I have to leave you now because I am going to St. Philip Neri.” This from a man who makes incredible things like the Batlló House and the Pedrera!
Where do we see his holiness? It can’t be because he is an architectural genius or because he makes these marvelous buildings.
The person who realized that Gaudí more than fulfilled the conditions to be considered a holy man was Reverend Ignacio Segarra. It seemed that holiness was something just for people in religious life, people in convents and monks or priests.
Following the line of thought of the Second Vatican Council and its teaching regarding lay people, which is no different from that of the first Christians, and to which St. John Paul II contributed enormously with his constant preaching throughout the world. and in his encounters with millions of young people in the World Youth Days, we see that holiness is not only possible in the midst of the world, but that daily life is a path to holiness.
Mosén Ignasi was my spiritual director. He knew about my past with Esturu Sotoo, who decides in 1991, specifically in November, to be baptized in the Catholic Church. In Holy Week of that same year, Ignasi went to preach spiritual exercises accompanied by Josep María Tarragona. At that point, I did not know Josep María Tarragona, who had written a book about Gaudí.
Dr. Segarra read that book in his free time. He calls me and says, “José Manuel, how is it that nobody has had the idea of starting a process of beatification? This man is clearly holy.”
I was impressed by the anecdotes about how he spoke with Unamuno, with the king, with his workers, with his clients. I decided to start an association in which Segarra and Josep María Tarragona would be members. And on my part I invited Sotoo and another architect whom I had known from earlier, while still a student. The five of us established this association: a non-profit organization, and not a canonical one.
At the beginning, people were surprised: Gaudí was an architect, and a genius, but this about being a saint! In fact, Martí Bonet [author of a book on Barcelona’s cathedral] then wrote an article that reflected his idea that this was a presumptuous pipe dream. Later on we invited him to present a book containing the writings that came to light after Gaudí’s death.
He read it in one sitting just the day before he had to present it, and he publicly–he wrote it in El País and in other news media–offered his mea culpa because, as if following the rite of Confession, he wished to confess his sin and fulfill his penance. From that moment on, he admitted that he had come to be convinced that Gaudí should be declared a saint.
There is something which is not public, which some of us know—one of those things that impressed me deeply. I knew the father of Martí Bonet and Jordi Bonet very well: Lluís Bonet. He was like a grandfather to me, in that he introduced me to the world of the Holy Family. Jordi Bonet is the chief architect, the architect who gave the keys to the Pope.
Jordi Bonet is now 87 years old and his brother is a priest and the pastor of the Holy Family. Jordi Bonet, chief architect of the construction of the Holy Family, the son of a disciple of Gaudí, said, “això és una bogeria.” [“This is crazy.”]
So one day on an airplane coming from Milan, where the two of us went to give a conference, I said to him, “Jordi, how is it possible for you to say that beatification of Gaudí is ‘crazy’?” He also told me that perhaps he had made a mistake, not regarding Subirachs and his work, but regarding the placement of the scenes, in which the symbolism that Gaudí wanted to include in the construction has been lost.
Someone who only sees art, doesn’t see beyond the appearances, and so he doesn’t care whether the flagellation is here or there. But if we think about what I just told you about the virtues, the love of God, the ideal of the human person that Jesus proposes, it changes things.
Some less-known details about Gaudí?
One could be his work schedule: after getting up and preparing himself, he went to morning Mass. Afterwards he had a café con leche and a pastry. He would walk down to the Holy Family, and pray on his knees on the floor in the crypt before the Blessed Sacrament before starting to work. Then he worked, stopping for a moment to pray the Angelus, until 5:30 pm. At that moment he went to the oratory of St. Philip Neri and participated in vespers.
From time to time he would talk with the rector and have profound conversations about liturgy. He went to confession, and got on the trolley.
Another important detail was how important it is to be like children. Imagine a dignified man like Gaudí, who was an architect, a genius, and elderly, at the side of a young architect who admires him, who takes notes, being surprised when half-way through the afternoon Gaudí stops him and says, “I am going to La Merced to say beautiful things to the Virgin.” That is enough to knock you down!
The first Sunday of October is the Gaudí first world congress in Barcelona. What are the scientific and educational goals of the congress?
In this Gaudí First World Congress we want to each people Gaudí’s work method. It may be the beginning of all of us who like Gaudí, or learn from Gaudí, finally joining forces; because until now, everyone is trying a bit to be the protagonist, to win the medal. This should become a meeting point where what matters is Gaudí.
Article originally published in Religión en Libertad. Translated from the Spanish by Matthew Green.