By Fr. John Swope, SJ
Luis Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga (1901-1952) is known to all in Chile as Padre Hurtado. He was a Jesuit priest, lawyer, social worker, and writer. He founded the Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ) in 1944 and the national review entitled, “Mensaje”. He was beatified in 1994 and canonized on October 23, 2005, by Pope Benedict XVI, becoming Chile’s second saint. Only fifty-three years had passed between Padre Hurtado’s death and his canonization. The shortest time to canonization of any Jesuit saint. His feast day is August 18th, and the Chilean Congress declared that day the National Day of Solidarity.
After the death of his father when Alberto was four years old, the family suffered a serious financial setback. Now impoverished, they were forced to live with a succession of relatives. From an early age, Padre Hurtado experienced what it meant to be poor and without a home. Thanks to a scholarship, he was able to attend our Colegio San Ignacio (1909–17). During those years, the seeds of his vocation were sown. Later he earned his law degree at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.
Padre Hurtado entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in 1923. After philosophy and theology studies in Spain and Belgium, he was ordained a priest there on August 24, 1933, and in 1935 he obtained a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology. He was the first person to earn the Doctorate in Pedagogy at Catholic University of Louvain.
Before returning to Chile, Padre Hurtado visited social and educational centers in northern Europe. He returned to Chile in January 1936 and took up his post as professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Chile. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students (which later became the Christian Life Communities), and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He was a dynamic person, full of life, and lived these first years in ministerial activity typical of recently ordained Jesuits.
Conservative Catholics in Chile had difficulty accepting the church’s social teachings. As late as 1931, the official position of the party aligned with the church hierarchy refused to publish the papal encyclical Quadragesimo Anno and considered it “an orientation directed to other parts of the world but not Chile.” Padre Hurtado was greatly influenced by Fr. Fernando Vives, SJ, a Chilean Jesuit known as one of the foremost advocates of Catholic Social Teaching in Chile. Fr. Vives had a great influence on Padre Hurtado and many others.
In 1940, Padre Hurtado was appointed diocesan director of the Catholic Action youth movement and he served as its national director from 1941 to 1944. He served as a confessor to the Falange Nacional, the precursor to the modern Christian Democratic Party. To disseminate the social teaching of the Catholic church and help Christians reflect and act on the serious social problems faced by Chile, he founded in 1951 the periodical, Mensaje, which continues to flourish today. He published numerous articles and books on labor issues in relation to the Catholic faith.
Also in 1941, Padre Hurtado authored Is Chile a Catholic Country? In the book, Padre Hurtado published the results of a 1939 survey of Chilean religious practices and reported that only 9% of Chilean women and 3.5% of Chilean men regularly attended Mass. The book was heavily criticized by more conservative Catholics, who accused Padre Hurtado of being a Communist.
Keeping in mind his own origins, Padre Hurtado was led to active social involvement. The specific direction of that involvement was a result of a mystical encounter with Jesus Christ. Returning home on a rainy winter evening, he ran into a homeless man, sick and shivering from the cold. They spoke together. “The shelters are full because I was late getting there.” Padre Hurtado embraced him and then put his overcoat on the man. The man stepped back a pace or two and stopped. The man looked intently at Padre Hurtado for several minutes. The man’s countenance was calm and serene. He then stepped back into a shadow … and was gone from sight. Jesus had visited him.
A few days later, while directing a women’s spiritual retreat, Padre Hurtado began to draw meaning from that mystical experience of a few days before:
“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. If we were to start a campaign of love for the poor and homeless, we would, in a short time, do away with depressing scenes of begging, children sleeping in doorways and women with babies in their arms fainting in our streets.”
This profound experience and his strong faith was transformed into action with his founding of an organization similar to Boys Town in the United States. His shelters, called Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ), took in all children in need of food and shelter, abandoned or not. He also purchased a 1946 green pickup truck and monitored the streets at night to help those in need that he could reach. His own charisma brought him many collaborators and benefactors. The movement was a huge success. In the last six years of his life, the shelters multiplied throughout Chile and by 1951 more than 850,000 children received some help from the movement. Today, the Hogar de Cristo is flourishing with many innovative programs, thousands of volunteers and tens of thousands of men, women and children served everyday.
Deeply spiritual, Padre Hurtado was untiring in his work for the workers and the youth, combining intellectual reflection and practical actions. Ever optimistic and joyful, he had also an attractive personality that brought many people to Christ and the Catholic Church, young and old, intellectuals and laborers.
In 1952, Padre Hurtado was stricken with intense pain and rushed to the hospital. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Day after day the media kept the country informed of Padre Hurtado‘s state of health. Before his death, he had become a national hero. After a brief battle with the illness, he died in Santiago on August 18.
In 1992, forty years later on the same date, I found myself recovering from surgery in the same room where Padre Hurtado had passed away. We organized a small prayer service in the open area outside of my hospital room. Patients from the men’s and women’s wards, plus medical staff joined together to pray for Chile on the National Day of Solidarity.
Saint Alberto Hurtado, pray for us!