Saint of the Streets

In the catholic understanding, a saint is somebody who is all-out for God, full of faith, hope and love. Such a person, decidedly, was the Chilean Jesuit Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga. Hurtado, born in 1901, was four years old when his father died, leaving his mother saddled with heavy debts and forced to entrust her two sons to the care of one relative after another. This did not affect the friendly and buoyant spirit of Alberto, for which he was known all his life, though it did acquaint him firsthand with the life of the poor.

Hurtado was able to attend a Jesuit secondary school, Colegio San Ignacio, on a scholarship. There he fell under the spell of Fernando Vives Solar, S.J., a proponent of social justice whose outspokenness twice earned him exile from Chile. “To him,” Father Hurtado said later, “I owe my priesthood and my social vocation.”

Alberto wanted to enter the Jesuits after the Colegio, but instead he had to work to support his mother. Meanwhile, he attended law school at the Catholic University, where he wrote two theses for his degrees, both focusing on his interests in social justice: one on the regulation of child labor and one on domestic labor. As he later told the Jesuit superior general, John Baptist Janssens, “Ever since my university years, a strong inclination to social action guided my vocation.”

After entering the Society of Jesus in 1923, Hurtado studied in Argentina, as well as Barcelona, Spain, and Louvain, Belgium, where he was ordained and earned his doctorate in pedagogy and psychology. In 1936 he returned to Santiago as a high school and university teacher. He excelled during this time as a director of young people in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

During a retreat for adults in 1941, Father Hurtado made an appeal on behalf of the many homeless street people in Santiago. The retreatants responded by funding the project with which his name has ever since been identified in Chile, Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ). The original Hogar is a huge, rambling building that houses activities for youth, workshops, an infirmary and a refuge for the homeless. This concept was later replicated elsewhere in the country. Hogar de Cristo eventually spun off a project called Viviendassimilar to Habitat for Humanity—which has spread to other countries and been tended for decades by Josse van der Rest, S.J.

Padre Hurtado was steeped in the papal social encyclicals. Their teachings impelled him to found a labor union based on their principles, the Asociación Sindical Chilena. His studious reflections upon ethical and social questions are recorded in 11 books, especially the provocative ¿Es Chile un País Catolico? (Is Chile a Catholic Country?), which expressed his indignation at finding so little echo of papal teachings among his fellow Chileans.

Whether in writing or during retreats, Father Hurtado could put his convictions trenchantly. “It is easier,” he wrote, “to be benevolent than to be just.” Individual charity, he told retreatants, “is a patch, an aspirin, whereas society requires an operation.” This concern led him, a few months before his death, to found a monthly magazine, Mensaje, addressing the social and cultural, as well as religious, state of his country. Mensaje is today one of the pre-eminent Catholic publications in Latin America.

Father Hurtado prayed long and hard. He had a strong eucharistic piety, which gave him eyes for the Lord’s presence in the mystical body. He saw Christ wandering the streets of Santiago. “He himself, in his mystical body, is dying of tuberculosis on the street or under a bridge.” This was his continuous theme. “If we don’t see Christ in the person we rub elbows with every moment, that is because our faith is tepid and our love imperfect.”

Alberto Hurtado died of pancreatic cancer on Aug. 18, 1952. Amid terrible pain he was heard repeating, “I am content, Lord.” He will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Oct. 23.

During a time when the social gospel seems rather in eclipse, we call upon him: San Alberto, pray for us.

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