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Jose María Arizmendiarrieta was born in Markina (Bizkaia province), in the Barínaga quarter, on 22 April 1915. His parents were José Luis and Tomasa and he was the eldest of four brothers and sisters. He attended the rural school annexed to the local church, which was financed by the residents of the district and its neighbouring country houses, until the age of 12.
From the age of 12 onwards, he attended the Castillo Elejabeitia Lower Seminary. He had literary inclinations and was encouraged in this field by his mother. He discovered a whole new world at the seminary school, although he was always loyal to his origins in the countryside he grew up in, and where he had discovered the unfathomable horizons of his faith.
He later attended the Conciliar Seminary in Vitoria, where he studied Philosophy and Theology and became immersed in the spirituality of the Vitoria Priests’ Movement. His principal tutors were Joaquín Goikoetxeandia, Juan Thalamas and Roberto Aguirre, and he assumed the maxim of the former: "Be a priest, a priest at all times and in all things". Guided by this motto, in March 1936 he dedicated himself to God and the Virgin Mary, a personal precept of life as a priest.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936 he was only 21, and the young seminarian had acquired a profound love of his native Basque Country but without animosity towards any other nation. He found a job with "EGUNA", a Basque language newspaper created in October 1936 and which was the voice of the Basque Government. In 1937, after being informed against, he was thrown into jail, although the outcome of his Court Martial enabled him to continue attending the seminary. At around this time José Miguel de Barandiarán and Manuel Lekuona gave him wise guidance on the revival of the Basque-speaking culture, which was open to the modern world and, particularly, to faith in the Gospel, and the young Father José María made a reality of his aspirations by organising and running the initiative of the “Kardaberaz” School.
Father Rufino Aldabalde was a priest who had a profound influence in his life, with messages that forged his spirit: "Life should be a continuous mass" and "all that is within us is God, it is for the souls, we are not priests for ourselves". Fr José María made his own contribution to these maxims: "I must give thanks to God for the great benefit of our vocation". Or, when he returned to the Seminary after the Civil War ended, pursuing sanctity through faith: "It is of little consequence what those around me will think. All that matters is what Christ will think of me".
In February 1941 he became a curate in Mondragón and was appointed Chaplain of Catholic Action. He dedicated all his efforts to bringing society together from a Christian perspective and he threw himself into his pastoral activity by mobilising a numerous group of young people who were keen to follow his attractive message, “Give yourself to Christ, mirror it in your person and do good”. He set up the Professional School in 1943 and in 1947 he arranged for 11 young people to go to the city of Zaragoza to study Industrial Engineering. The School itself and this group of young people were later to form the basis of the Mondragón Cooperative Experience.
His life as a curate demanded hard work and little rest. He worked at the Church, at the Catholic Action Centre and at the Professional School, captivating his audience in all three places with his persuasive messages: “No-one can speak about the dignity of work with so much right and propriety as we ourselves can, as Christians". Crowds flocked to hear him speak his mind as he gave his daily talks at the School. He quoted the words of social thinkers of the likes of Gregorio Ruiz de Yurre, Herrera Oria and Enrique y Tarancón, members of the British Labour Party such as Attlee or Beveridge and other figures including Maritain and Mounier. His small library, still conserved, contains texts by Jacques Leclerq, with statements such as "the priest belongs to his congregation: he no longer belongs to himself. He works to no timetable, he has no place where he can hide away from untimely visits...".
The basis of the Christian endeavour he founded was "a group of young people, who are very good Christians, and I would even go so far as to say they are good apostles”. He wished to fulfil the dictate made by Pope Pious XI in his encyclical "Quadragessimo Anno". The result, following on from the Professional School, was the creation of ULGOR, the San José cooperative society (which would later become Eroski), the Caja Laboral savings bank and other cooperative enterprises. He considered that “the workers will not believe in the Church’s social doctrine if they cannot see it put into practice through work for society”. And he added “The cooperative formula requires human activity in order to share and implement higher human values, and work, capital and organisation are therefore not its ends in themselves, but means for better serving human interests".
The priesthood as a vehicle for sanctity is a philosophy that Father José María reflected through admiration of Pope John XXIII: "We seek to be builders of a new society, a new order, granting man his true station, that designated to him by creation...". A faithful follower of this maxim, he would later write in the Pope’s obituary: "God wants us to be saints, He wants to see us on the path to sanctity." Fr José María’s workload increased considerably in the 1960s and he began to feel progressively weaker, but in spite of the ailments he was suffering he still wanted to be “the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep".
The demands and commitment of the Mondragón cooperative movement, which had now grown to enormous proportions, were no grounds for personal pride for Fr José María, who said: "I was born to do more than just live for myself. All I want to be is the last man." By the mid-1960s the curate sensed that the life of sacrifice he was leading was reaching its limits. He had his first episode of heart failure at this time. However, he took this first setback as a mere stumbling block, picking up the cross of his wounded heart once more and courageously forging ahead. In 1974 he underwent another heart operation, but his tenacity and optimism shone through: “If someone falls they can get up again...".
The pain and suffering of his final demise prompted him to say: "With the perspective our vocation obliges, we know our sacrifice and suffering are rewarded, both in this life and in the next.” “Pain is yet another trial that proves our love of God.” In the afternoon of 29 November 1976, as rain fell on the windows, he prayed the "Magnificat" in a faltering voice, barely audible, in the company of those around him. It was the last prayer of a man who had been "eaten up by others".
DON JOSE Mº ARIZMENDIARRIETA
Copyright © 2011. Cause for canonisation of Fr Jose María Arizmendiarrieta.