Last August 18th the Catholic Church celebrated the Feast of Saint Alberto Hurtado. This feast is important in Latin America and particularly in Chile, when thousands of people (15000 this year), mostly young people, walk 8 kms to the Sanctuary and Grave of St Alberto, located in the heart of Santiago. In Chile, that day is known as the “Day of Solidarity”, because that was probably his main legacy.
St Alberto was born in Vina del Mar, Chile in 1901. He became a Jesuit priest after studying Law. He died very young, at the age of 51. The people who were alive at that time say that at the moment of his death, a big cloud with the shape of a Cross was alone in the sky. He was canonized in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI.
I want to share the life example provided by the life and ministry of this Saint, not only because he was Chilean, but also because he is a modern life saint and his legacy may be very meaningful for us. Two main insights explain his work: The first, to see Christ in your neighbour, primarily in the one who is suffering, no matter who, he or she is. Before he died he said: <As I leave to return to God, my Father, permit me to confide to you one last desire: that you strive to create a climate of true love and respect for the poor because the poor man is Christ. “What you do to the least of my brothers, that you do to me” (Mt 25,40)>. The other key motto of his life and Ministry is to ask, in every situation “What would Christ do in my place?” Probably this last phrase is what explains all what he did and why he did it.
He spoke loud in the context of a very conservative, classist and unequal society. His discourses about social justice and the ideas and data presented in his book “Is Chile a Catholic Country?” were considered communist by some people at his time and he had to face many painful moments because powerful people consider him a social activist. He was very patient and every time he felt tired he said to himself “happy, Lord, happy”. In the long term, he contributed to change the minds of Catholics in Chile and other countries of South America, considering social justice one of the main task of Christianity and Christian life.
During those years, many poor, abandoned and homeless children were in Santiago. St Alberto built a house thanks to donations and looked after those children in order to give them shelter, nutrition, hope and an education. This home was called Hogar de Cristo “The home of Christ” because Christ lived there in the shape of those kids. Hogar de Cristo expanded very soon across the whole country and is still, by very far, the main charity in Chile, and one of the largest charities in Latin America, now sheltering also old people, sick people, and other disadvantaged people.
He also knew that charity was not enough, so he also worked through social justice by other means. He founded a Christian oriented Trade Union Association in a moment when workers had very little rights and also created the foundations for the later “university of workers” (INFOCAP), where workers can complete their school and learn a new profession. He said that “the workers have the right to a place of honour in society”.
He was also involved in intellectual work, being part of the founders of the Theology Faculty of the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, which is still one of the most important Theology schools in Latin America. He also founded Mensaje magazine, the magazine of the Jesuits, which is still very influent and relevant. He was not only concerned by the situation of poverty and inequality in Chile, but also about the horrors of the War in Europe , Africa and Asia, and the raising of materialism and lack of meaning of life in western society. After his intellectual legacy, also present in his books, the Jesuit University in Chile is called Universidad Alberto Hurtado.
He also was very commited to the pastoral activities of his priesthood. He was one of the founders of the Jesuit House of Retreats, close to Santiago (Now located in the town Padre Hurtado), where he gave spiritual exercises and retreats on a regular basis. His homilies were famous. He was also a teacher in Colegio San Ignacio and spiritual director of several young people.In addition, he was, thanks to his personal charisma, the leader of the Youth of Catholic Action and also spoke on the radio from time to time. His personal spiritual life was great, praying many hours every day, even when he was very busy doing his several works, finding in prayer new directions, consolation, discernment, Grace, and meaning for his life and works. He was very important for bringing new vocations to the Church, to encourage lay people to involve directly in social justice and to change the mind of good part of the Chilean Church, and in long term the Latin American Church.
St Alberto taught us that “charity starts where justice finishes” and the task of the Christian is to love and give “until it hurts”. His example of patience, true love for the neighbour, humility and bravery could be very important for us in the moment of history we are in, when is very difficult to leave our comfort zone, to think outside the box and give ourselves to help. St Alberto was able to identify the task of the Christians of his time (in many different fields), do them and encourage others to do them as well, no matter what it cost and how painful that should be. That is why during his funeral he was described by the Bishop as "a fire who lights other fires".
Most of his works are still there. He found his way always asking himself what would Christ do if He would face the situations and decisions he found in his life. And, even when he was a real man of action, he always stated that everything is useless if is not oriented by prayer. If any of you are interested in knowing more about his thinking, here are some writings translated to English
I highly recommend this writing, is really beautiful.