Neither are the souls of the pious dead separated from the Church which even now is the kingdom of Christ. Otherwise there would be no remembrance of them at the altar of God in the communication of the Body of Christ. -- Saint Augustine of Hippo from “The City of God

Friday, February 23, 2007

Saint Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga


Alberto was born in 1901, in Vina del Mar, Chile. His father died when Albert was only four, and his mother moved with her two sons to Santiago after selling the family farm to pay off debts. Albert knew what was to be poor from an early age and remembered how frequently the family had to move. He was very acquainted with the struggles of the homeless and needy.

“It is good to put your hands together to pray, but it is better to open them in order to give,” were the watchwords of Alberto’s mother. He learned compassion from his mother and would share what little he had with the poor children. He attended the Jesuit school in Santiago on a scholarship. From a very young age Albert showed deep concern for the poor who lived in the slums. He spent Sunday afternoons helping serve the poor in the most blighted areas.

Alberto spent many hours in prayer and could feel a growing call to become a Jesuit priest. He postponed his desire to become a Jesuit until his mother and brother were better provided for. After leaving school, he worked afternoons and evenings to help support the family and also to support his law studies at the Catholic University.

Graduating at 22 years, with a law degree, he entered the Jesuit novitiate. His formation years in the Society of Jesus took him through South America and Europe. He was ordained in Belgium in 1933. Alberto was so happy and content and only wanted to live out his ministry wholeheartedly.

Albert returned to Santiago in 1936 to teach at St Ignatius School and gave adult classes in at the Catholic University. Young people were drawn to him through the retreats and missions he led. His passion for Christ was evident and it sparked young hearts to give themselves to Christ, to work in the vineyard for His glory.

The Eucharist was the central unifying force of Father Alberto’s life. The Mass was his life and he saw his life as a continual Mass.

Alberto had a heart for the poor. He worried about the poor and the orphans that roamed Santiago’s streets. They were ignored and forgotten but Father Alberto would change that. In the poor and homeless, Father Hurtado saw Christ. "Christ, in his mystical body, is dying of tuberculosis on the streets or under a bridge." and "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."

In 1944, a very sick homeless man knocked on Father Hurtado’s door looking for a place to stay. This encounter left him feeling very distressed. He voiced his concerns at a women’s retreat and suggested opening a shelter. The women were so moved that they responded by giving very generous donations of land, jewels and money. This was the beginning of El Hogar de Cristo, Christ’s Home which opened in May 1945. The hospice was open to anyone.

The hospices increased in number and not only did they offer the poor shelter for the night but also helped re-habilitate people and taught them true Christian values. He wanted them to respect their value as a person and more so as a child of God. Father Alberto would go out in the night in his green truck looking for children sleeping on the streets. People recall Father Hurtado in his green pickup truck picking up the poor and homeless and bringing them to the Hogar.

Father Alberto wrote a book, Is Chile a Catholic Country?, which criticized materialism and its toxic effects on the young and poor. He criticized the very unjust social structure and systems. His critiques were not well received. He was misunderstood and seen as a radical. Undaunted, he started labor unions whose foundations were based on Christian humanism and the Church’s social teachings. It was “a way to make the Church present in the area of organized labor.” He wrote many papers on social justice and the Church in the years that followed.

He encouraged the businessmen, employers and the rich to act as coworkers with Jesus for the betterment of the society. To the workers, he helped them to see their labor as a Christian activity, not something separate from their faith.

At fifty, Father Alberto had the symptoms of the disease that would end his life. He had a stroke and was then diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He received his prognosis as a gift from God. His most eloquent testimony was given during his last illness and death. The greatness of God and the depth of the man himself were revealed in the way he faced the moment of his departure.

Upon learning of his immanent death, he replied: “How can I not be overjoyed! How can I not be grateful to God! Instead of a violent death he has sent me a long illness so that I can prepare myself; He has not sent me pain but rather the pleasure of seeing so many friends, to be able to see them all. Truly for me God has been a loving Father; the best of fathers.”

Despite his great pain, he was heard to say, “I am content, O Lord, I am content”. He lingered for more than a year and died in 1951 surrounded by his Jesuit brothers. At his funeral, great crowds came to bid farewell to their beloved priest, Papa Alberto.

On October 16, 1994, Pope John Paul II beatified Father Alberto in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and Pope Benedict XVI canonized him in 2005.

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