When I get in touch with Rosa Pich by Skype during Holy Week, I discover that she is on holiday with 12 of her children in Torreciudad, a shrine dedicated to Our Lady in northern Spain. “We are trying to return to normal life,” she says, following the death of her husband, Chema, of liver cancer little more than a month earlier. “We have cried a lot, we have prayed a lot, but life continues,” she says. “I have come to see that when God gives you a cross to carry, he always gives you the grace you need to bear it.”
Rosa is a supernumerary member of Opus Dei and is the ninth of 16 siblings. Chema Postigo, who also belonged to Opus Dei, came from a family of 14. They got married young and aspired to have a family as large as those they came from. Their first child, however, was born with a congenital heart defect and was not expected to survive for long (although she actually lived till the age of 22). The second and third children died in infancy. It was then that a doctor advised the couple not to have any more children.
But after much prayer and discernment they decided against this advice. “Nobody other than the spouses should enter the marriage bed,” she explains, “not the doctor, or one’s mother or mother-in-law, or the priest.” Rosa and Chema resolved not to give up on their dream of a large family and went on to have 15 more children, all alive to this day, aged now from 25 down to seven. They became the parents of Spain’s largest family and have appeared in documentaries in several countries including one made by the BBC.
How did they manage? They lived in an apartment in Barcelona with five bedrooms: two for boys, two for girls and one for the couple. In one of the boys’ rooms, there is a four-level bunk bed and another two-level bunk bed with a spare bed for guests, since their children are positively encouraged to bring their friends home to play and to stay the night.
Each of the older children is assigned a younger sibling to look after, ensuring that they make their bed, eat enough, do their homework, clear their toys and get their clothes ready for the next day. Chores in the house are distributed monthly according to a schedule which is agreed by all. This allowed Chema to have a full-time job and Rosa to work part time in the mornings, while they spent many weekends travelling the world to help other couples make their families a success through a programme developed by the Family Development Foundation (FDF).
Rosa’s daily schedule entails getting up early to go to Mass, then on to work as a sales executive in a textile firm, getting back home for lunch. Meanwhile, the children help each other to get up, have breakfast, and travel to school and university.
Their dining table is round, with room for 20 people. This allows everyone to see and hear everyone else as the conversation around the dinner table is always very animated.
“We have three rules about our meals,” Rosa tells me. “First, you need to ensure the person to your right and to your left are served before you start eating. Secondly, when you get the tray of food, you should choose the worst for yourself, leaving the better portions for your siblings. And third, all of us, including Mum and Dad, should aim to do one small sacrifice in each meal.”
This sacrifice could be as simple as taking a bit more of what you don’t like or a bit less of what you like, or delaying drinking the glass of water till the end of the meal – something small that shows solidarity with those who don’t have enough to eat or are otherwise suffering.
These and many other experiences are collected in a book that Rosa wrote in 2013 and has now been translated into 10 languages, including Chinese. It was published in English by Scepter Publishers in New York this year, with the title Rosa, What’s Your Secret?: Raising a Large Family with Love.
But isn’t it very expensive to have such a large family? The Postigo-Pich family consumes 1,300 biscuits, 420 pints of milk and seven lots of a dozen eggs per month. But they are extremely careful where they buy their provisions, searching for the biggest discounts they can get. Every day one of the children walks to a bakery 15 minutes away from home because each loaf is 20 cents cheaper. This adds up to a saving of many euros per month. Sometimes the fridge becomes empty before the end of the month, so they have to skimp and make do with the basics until the next salary comes in.
In the last four months of Chema’s life the couple were able to travel to six countries in three different continents to promote FDF courses: South Korea, China, Ivory Coast, Portugal, Italy and Belarus. In the latter they had the distinct feeling they were being followed by KGB-type secret police who were about to deport them. But all was fine, and in fact they appeared in the main news programme in Minsk.
Chema felt ill during these months, losing almost two stone in weight. Eventually he went to hospital to have a number of tests. In late February, he was diagnosed with aggressive liver cancer with a metastasis in the lungs. Clearly he was not going to live much longer. He then called all his children together.
“Jesus is very good. He loves us a lot,” he told them. “He took Javi and Montse to himself when they were young and Carmina when she was 22. Now it is my turn.”
He then spoke to them one by one. Less than two weeks later he died.
The funeral was held in the largest church in Barcelona and was attended by more than 4,000 people from all over the world. At least 30 people told Rosa that Chema was their best friend. Each person who attended was given a rosary in a little pouch prepared by the children the day before. One of the people who came to the funeral said that “in the midst of the pain, these days we have touched heaven.”
Their son Gaby, 17, went to Rome for Holy Week and was able to greet Pope Francis personally after the Wednesday audience. Chema had written to the Pope, who had answered by sending his prayers and blessings. Gaby told the Holy Father that his father had died recently: would he have a message for his mother? Pope Francis said: “Tell your mother to always look up to heaven, as your father looks at her from there.”
How can Rosa cope as a young widow with so many children? Yet it is precisely having so many children which allows her to live surrounded by love. The week after the funeral there was a family meeting at which all the jobs done by Chema up to then were distributed among the family members. Rosa admits that dealing with banks is not her forte and is happy that one of the older children has taken that on. As she puts it: “In a large family, joys are multiplied and sorrows are divided.”
Recently she spotted her 10-year-old reading the newspaper, something he had never done before. When she asked him, he said that dad would always explain the news to him every night but that now he had to find it out by himself.
Rosa knows she will never be alone. “The problem today in developed societies is loneliness,” she says, “something we have never known in our families.” She adds that, although having small children takes a lot of time and effort, the years of looking after them pass quickly, and then you have around you “these wonderful human beings, who will exist forever, forever, forever”.
Each child was a gift of God and there was nothing like it: “I have many friends,” Rosa says, “who later in life have one regret: not having had more children.” She believes this is the best present parents can give to their older children.
At school, many of the boys and girls want to be friends with her children because they are used to being generous and sharing their lives with others. “I believe in this house they are getting the best possible training to run multinationals,” she says, “because they learn to negotiate, to spot the needs of others, to make the case for their suggested course of action, to give in when needed, to ask for forgiveness when they make a mistake.”
What is the most important thing in a family, I ask her as we are finishing our conversation. She does not hesitate: “That the Mum and Dad love each other. Everything else comes from that.”
Jack Valero is the press officer of Opus Dei UK and a founder of Catholic Voices. This article first appeared in the May 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald.