AMERICA/CHILE - Pope Benedict XVI canonises Chile’s first male Saint: Alberto Hurtado, “a contemplative in action” who devoted his life to helping the poor, promoting vocations and forming the laity

Monday, 24 October 2005

Santiago (Fides) - Saint Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga was a priest for only 15 years, but those were years of intense spiritual and apostolic activity, the expression of his love for Christ. He dedicated himself to helping the poor and the abandoned, and to the formation of the laity with a profound sense of social justice. Beatified by John Paul II on 16 October 1994 he was one of five saints canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on Mission Sunday October 23, a special Mass in St Peter’s Square which closed the Synod of Bishops and the Year of the Eucharist. Saint Alberto Hurtado is Chile’s second Saint after Saint Teresa de los Andes, canonised by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, on 22 January 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, therefore, he experienced what it meant to be poor, to be without a home and at the mercy of others. He was given a scholarship to the Jesuit College in Santiago. Here he became a member of the Sodality of Our Lady and developed a lively interest in the poor, spending time with them in the most miserable neighbourhoods every Sunday afternoon.
When he completed his secondary education in 1917, at the age of 16 Alberto wanted to become a Jesuit, but he was advised to delay the realisation of this desire in order to take care of his mother and his younger brother. By working in the afternoons and evenings, he succeeded in supporting them; at the same time, he studied law at the Catholic University. In this period, he maintained his care for the poor and continued to visit them every Sunday. On 14 August 1923 he entered the Novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Chillán, being formed in Argentina Spain and Louvain in Belgium. He was ordained a priest there on 24 August 1933, at the age of 32. He returned to Chile in January 1936. Here he began his activity as professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He frequently directed retreats and offered spiritual direction to many young men, accompanying several of them in their response to the priestly vocation and contributing in an outstanding manner to the formation of many Christian laymen. In October 1944, while giving a retreat, he felt impelled to appeal to his audience to consider the many poor people of the city, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets of Santiago. This request evoked a ready and generous response. This was the beginning of the initiative for which Father Hurtado is especially well-known: a form of charitable activity which provided not only housing but a home-like milieu for the homeless: “El Hogar de Cristo”. By means of contributions from benefactors and with the active collaboration of committed laity, Father Hurtado opened the first house for children; this was followed by a house for women and then one for men. The poor found a warm home in “El Hogar de Cristo”. The houses multiplied and took on new dimensions; in some houses there were rehabilitation centres, in others trade-schools, and so on. All were inspired and permeated by Christian values.
In 1945 Father Hurtado visited the United States to study the “Boys Town” movement and to consider how it could be adapted to his own country. The last six years of his life were dedicated to the development of various forms in which “El Hogar” could exist and function. In 1947 Father Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association (ASICH) to promote a union movement inspired by the social teaching of the Church. His apostolate was the expression of a personal love for Christ the Lord; it was characterised by a great love for poor and abandoned children, an enlightened zeal for the formation of the laity, and a lively sense of Christian social justice. Pancreatic cancer brought him, within a few months, to the end of his life. In the midst of terrible pain, he was often heard to say, “I am content, Lord.” On 19 May 1952 he celebrated his last Mass and after having spent his life manifesting Christ’s love for the poor, Father Hurtado was called to the Lord on 18 August 1952.
After his death, ‘Los Hogares de Cristo’ spread rapidly and extended their field of action. In 1955 they existed all over Chile and in 1957 spread to other countries. The first Home for the Elderly was opened in1964 followed by many more. Activity extended in 1973 to include assistance to terminally ill patient rejected by hospitals. In 1984 attention focused on Down children and those with mental disabilities. In 1993 Chile decided to Hold Solidarity Day every year on October 18, the day of the death of Saint Hurtado. (R.G.) (Agenzia Fides 24/10/2005, righe 45, parole 662)