Saint Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, Priest

Saint Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, Priest, SJ

Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga was born on 22 January, 1901, in Viña del Mar, Chile. With his father’s death in 1905 when Alberto was only 4, the family found itself in financial difficulties, forcing his mother to start selling off land owned by the family. Thanks to a scholarship, Alberto was able to study from 1909-17 at the highly respected Jesuit school of St Ignacio in Santiago. From 1918 to 1923, he attended the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile as a law student and doing his thesis on labour law.

However, rather than becoming a lawyer, Alberto entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1923. He was sent to Barcelona in Spain for his philosophy and theology studies. In 1932, he was banished together with Spanish classmates, and completed his theology studies in Leuven, Belgium from 1932 to 1934. He was ordained priest there on 24 August, 1933. While pursuing his theological studies, he also worked on a doctorate in Psychology and Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Leuven.

From the early days of his studies in labour law and even before becoming a Jesuit, Hurtado was keen on tackling social issues and problems. Before returning to Chile, he visited social and educational centres in Germany, France, Belgium and The Netherlands.

After returning to Chile in 1936, Alberto turned to serving the poor of Chile, concentrating on disadvantaged children, teenagers and young adults. He was a teacher of religion and formed future teachers in the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He was also active in spiritual direction and gave retreats according to the Spiritual Exercises, helping people in the process to discover their vocation in the service of Christ.

In 1940, he was appointed diocesan director of the Catholic Action youth movement and in the following year became its National Director (1941-44). Also in 1941, he produced a book entitled: Is Chile a Catholic Country? Laying open a number of unpleasant realities, the book was heavily criticised by more conservative Catholics, who even accused Hurtado of being a Communist.

Mindful of his own origins and the help his family received in times of difficulty, Hurtado became very active in social issues. He set up an organisation called Hogar de Cristo (Christ’s Home). His shelters took in children in need of food and shelter, whether they were abandoned or not. He bought an old green van and checked out the streets at night on the lookout for young people who could be helped. His special charisma drew many helpers and benefactors and the movement was highly successful. In time, the shelters multiplied all over the country. It is estimated that between 1945 and 1951, more than 850,000 children received help from the movement.

In 1947, Hurtado entered the labour movement to give support to Chilean workers. Inspired by the social teaching of the Catholic Church, he set up the Chilean Trade Union Association, whose aim was to train union leaders in Christian values. To this end, he wrote the three books: Social Humanism (1947), The Christian Social Order (1947) and Trade Unions (1950). To spread the social teaching of the Church and help Christians reflect and act on the serious social problems faced by the country, in 1951 he founded a periodical called Mensaje (Message). He himself published numerous articles and books on labour, issues seen from the side of the Catholic faith. His attractive personality and consistently optimistic and joyful attitudes attracted people of all kinds – young and old, intellectuals and workers alike.

In 1952, after being rushed to hospital in great pain, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. His last days were monitored by the national press and, even before his death, he had become a national hero. True to his nature, he gracefully accepted the inevitable. He died in Santiago on 18 August, 1952, just 51 years old.

Alberto Hurtado was beatified on 16 October, 1994, by Pope John Paul II and canonised by Pope Benedict XVI on 23 October, 2005. He was one of the first to be elevated to sainthood during the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI and is the second Chilean saint, after Saint Teresa of the Andes.

An indication of his enduring popularity was the presence on the day of his canonisation of a very large contingent of Chileans in the Vatican’s St Peter’s Square, led by President Ricardo Lagos and a number of high ranking Chilean politicians who had been Alberto Hurtado’s students.

The Hogar de Cristo he founded still exists and, through its fight for social justice, it has become one of the biggest charity groups in Chile.

Alberto Hurtado is remembered as deeply spiritual and untiring in his work for workers and the young, combining intellectual reflection and practical action.

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