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On October 23, 2005, nearly eight thousand Chileans stood cheering in St. Peter’s Square as Pope Benedict XVI canonized their country’s second saint. The Jesuit priest, whose rugged features smiled down at them from a tapestry on the basilica’s façade, was “truly a contemplative in action,” said the pope.
Many in that crowd could testify to the “in action” aspect of St. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga. Some were homeless kids when they first met him; he plucked them off Santiago’s streets and gave them a new life in his Hogar de Cristo (“Christ’s Home”), now Chile’s largest charity. Indeed, fifty-four years after his death, virtually all of Chile remembers Hurtado as a man of prodigious activity—a social reformer, theologian, journalist, inspired preacher, union activist, youth leader, educator, and revered public figure.
And yet, this man of action was “truly a contemplative” whose actions were simply the outward expression of his intense relationship with Christ. “He lived in an act of love of God, which translated constantly into one or another act of love for his neighbor,” said a priest who knew him well. “His zeal overflowed, his heart was like a boiling cauldron that needed an escape valve.”
Struggles and Hopes. Alberto Hurtado was born in 1901, in Viña del Mar, a port city in central Chile. By the time he was five, his father had died and his mother had moved to Santiago with her two sons, after selling the family property to pay off debts. Having no home of their own, they lived with different relatives—an experience that acquainted Alberto with the struggles of the homeless and needy.
He learned compassion from his mother, too. “It is good to put your hands together to pray, but it is better to open them in order to give,” she used to say. Young Alberto did this by sharing with poor children the coins his uncle gave him. Later, as a student, he devoted Sunday afternoons to helping serve the poor in Santiago’s most blighted areas.
He also prayed. In fact, as he sensed a growing call to be a Jesuit priest, he prayed long and hard that doors would open and that his mother’s financial situation would improve. Eventually, his prayers were answered in the form of a court-ordered settlement that ensured his mother a decent income.
In 1923, with a law degree in hand, Alberto entered the Society of Jesus. His long years of formation took him to Argentina; Spain; and Louvain, Belgium, where he wrote a doctoral thesis on the art and science of education. Upon being ordained a priest in 1933, he wrote a friend that he felt “completely happy” and wanted only “to live out my ministry with all the fullness of my inner life and my outer activities.”
A Heart for the Poor. Once back in Chile, Hurtado lost no time putting his dreams into action. He taught high school and university students, seminarians, and lay people. Young people were drawn to him through the retreats he preached and the mission trips he led; it seemed that no matter what activity he was pursuing, he fired young hearts to give themselves to Christ and work for his glory.
But in the midst of all these outreaches, Alberto was most concerned for the poor. He worried about the orphans who roamed Santiago’s streets and climbed onto city buses to sing for money, to beg, or to steal purses. Where others ignored them, he was keenly aware of the homeless youths who spent nights around bonfires under bridges and in parks. Some, he knew, were addicted to drugs or drink and stole to support their habits; some had done jail time.
What he saw broke his heart. “Every poor person, every vagrant, every beggar is Christ himself who is carrying his cross,” he often said. “As such, we ought to love him and care for him.”
A Home for Christ. In October 1944, a sick, shivering man came to Hurtado looking for a place to stay. He was the very picture of misery. Days later, still shaken by the encounter, Alberto spoke of the man’s distress at a women’s retreat. His heartfelt account of the poverty on Santiago’s streets was like seed falling on good soil. When he spontaneously suggested opening a shelter for the neediest and the street children, the women responded with generous donations of money, jewels, and land.
“Christ’s Home,” the Hogar de Cristo, opened its doors the following May. Everyone was welcome, the only requirement being that they have a real need.
Alberto was directly involved in the project, recalled Maria Opazo, whose husband often accompanied him when he went out at night looking for children in need. He drove a green truck and drove it fast, slamming on the brakes when he saw a child lying on the ground. Stopping briefly on the bridge over the Mapocho River, he would blow the horn, “and the children would come out yelling, ‘It’s Papa Hurtado!’ “ When the truck was full, he took the children to the Hogar and then started all over again. “This would go on almost every night from 10 p.m. to about 3 a.m.,” said Mrs. Opazo.
Fr. Hurtado opened more houses, some of them rehabilitation centers and vocational schools that offered people the skills they needed to earn a living. Above all, he wanted everyone served to come to respect their “value as a person and dignity as a citizen, and more so, as a child of God.” Today, the Hogar de Cristo and its many affiliates carry on their founder’s vision by caring for thousands of children, teens, and adults throughout Chile.
Champion of Justice. In 1941, Hurtado wrote a provocative book—Is Chile a Catholic Country?—that denounced materialism and its poisonous effects on the young and the poor. In that book and in other writings and talks, his critiques of unjust social systems and structures often had an edge:
We, the rest of society, are directly responsible for the existence of beggars, vagrants, and anti-social behavior. We pay them salaries of misery, we close the doors to their education, we keep them in promiscuity—sleeping in human heaps, like bundles, together with dogs, chickens and pigs, scarcely covering themselves with indecent rags.
Not surprisingly, Hurtado’s views did not receive a universal welcome. In certain political parties and circles of the church’s hierarchy—even among his brother Jesuits—there were those who misunderstood his intentions or denounced him as a radical.
Undaunted, Fr. Hurtado started an association of labor unions based on Christian humanism and the social teaching of the church. He felt moved to take up this work in response to the thousands of laid-off factory workers who were joining labor unions with Marxist leanings. Hurtado’s new association was a way “to make the church present” in an area that he saw desperately needed the guidance of the gospel. It gave people an opportunity to work for decent wages and working conditions without compromising their Catholic faith.
“Just what we needed,” some of his detractors said in alarm. “The Communist virus inside the Catholic Church!” Still, Alberto worked on.
Like a Rock. Alberto Hurtado’s work for justice and charity showed a rare breadth of vision and a seemingly boundless reservoir of energy. And yet, as Chilean bishop Juan Ignacio Gonzalez observed, Hurtado is not a saint for what he did: “He is a saint because he loved God with heroic virtue.” Everything he did stemmed from that love, nurtured in a deep life of prayer.
At the center, unifying every aspect of Hurtado’s life, was the Eucharist. “My Mass is my life, and my life is a prolonged Mass,” he liked to say. “I am often like a rock that is beaten on all sides by the towering waves. There is no way out but up. For an hour, for a day, I let the waves thrash against the rock. I do not look toward the horizon, I only look up to God.” Thus, no matter what the challenges, Alberto would repeat a saying that became his trademark—”I’m content, Lord, content.”
From his own experience of transformation in Christ, Alberto offered others the same hope. In retreats, he called Christians to become light and salt to the world, agents for renewal. In his dealings with the rich, with businessmen and employers, he urged them to act as coworkers with Christ for the improvement of society. In his dealings with workers, he helped them to see their labor as an authentically Christian activity, not something separate from their life of faith. Long before Christians began wearing WWJD bracelets, he taught people to ask, “What would Christ do in my place?”
To all, whether rich or poor, Hurtado proposed a high and demanding ideal: “Either Christianity means an entire life of giving, a transformation in Christ, or it is a ridiculous parody worthy of laughter and scorn.” As his own life showed, the goal was attainable—but only through reliance on God.
No Sleep for Us. Alberto was only fifty years old when he experienced the first symptoms of the disease that would cut his life short. A year later, after suffering a stroke, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The illness meant a reduction in the amount of work he could accomplish and, ultimately, an early death, but he received the news as a gift from God.
Wanting to make the most of his last days, Hurtado kept his door always open. His room became a place of pilgrimage for people of all social conditions. He said his farewells, thanked everyone for “such evidence of love and devotion”—and never forgot the poor.
In his last letter, written only days before his death on August 18, 1952, Alberto charged his friends to continue his work: “As the needs and miseries of the poor show themselves, find ways to help them as you would help the Master… . I confide the poor little ones to your care, in the name of God.” In a similar spirit, Nobel Prize-winner Gabriela Mistral wrote of her friend and countryman:
He sleeps now after all his labors,
But sleep is not for us,
no, as enormous debtors,
fugitives who turn our faces away from what surrounds us,
what he has done hems us in
and impels us like a shout.
Her words stand not only as a memorial to Alberto Hurtado, but as a mission for us all.
Luis E. Quezada is a Chilean Spanish translator, catechist, and lector. He is also editorial director of La Palabra entre Nosotros, the Spanish edition of The Word Among Us.