Alberto Hurtado, SJ, (1901-1952), in his brief (just 19 years as a priest) but eventful life, won many young souls for Christ. He is known as the one who built “Hogar de Cristo” (Christ’s Home). For him home for the homeless of Chile was home for Christ.
Even seven decades after his death, all of Chile remembers Hurtado as a rare, multifaceted personality – a social reformer, theologian, journalist, inspired preacher, union activist, youth leader, educator, and a revered public figure.
For Hurtado prayer was ‘to realise the needs and miseries of the poor.’ It is ‘to find ways to help the poor as you would help the Master’… He said, “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.” Having looked up to God, he was able to say, “I’m content, Lord, content.”
In the words of Chilean Bishop, Juan Ignacio Gonzalez, 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 by a deep life of prayer.
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas Kempis and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola impelled him to be truly a contemplative in action. Within the Spiritual Exercises, St. Alberto’s favourite was exercise §104, “ask for interior knowledge of our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely.”
Alberto evolved into a tireless crusader – one whose empathy led him to acting out the sermons that he preached. He said that “the great bitterness which our time brings to the Church is the isolation of the poor, whom Christ came to evangelize preferentially.” Hurtado famously proclaimed, “I hold that every poor man, every vagrant, every beggar is Christ carrying his cross. And as Christ, we must love and help him. We must treat him as a brother, a human being like ourselves.” Thus, he followed the advice of his mother, who used to tell him, “It is good to hold hands together in prayer, but it is better to open hands in giving”.
Hurtado was loved and revered by millions, but, on the other hand, he was chastised by vested interests, who were opposed to his efforts to bring the succour of Christ to those who needed it the most. In his book titled, Is Chile a Catholic Country?, he highlighted the pathetic situation of the peasants in Chile. “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.”
Hurtado’s views did not please everyone. There were those who denounced him as a radical, as “the Communist virus inside the Catholic Church!” Still, undeterred, Alberto Hurtado went about doing all he could for the poor, for the homeless, for the workers. Alberto Hurtado was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on 23 October 2005. He was the second saint from Chile.
The author is Research Director, Environmental Scientist, and Professor at St. Joseph’s University, Bengaluru.