Today Chile and the Jesuits celebrate Father Alberto Hurtado, who is revered as a great advocate of the poor who lived from 1901 to 1952.
He knew poverty from his youth and though he had the fortune to get a scholarship at a Jesuit school he continued to spend Sunday afternoons in a poor barrio. He had thought of joining the Jesuits but put it off, studying law at the Catholic University in the mornings and working in the afternoons and evenings; but he still found time on Sundays to work with the poor.
He entered the Jesuits and was ordained in 1933. He continued to work among the poor and soon, with the help of some women, founded the Hogar de Cristo, the Hearth of Christ, for children.
As Father James Martin, S.J., notes in a blog entry on him, he told the women who helped him:
Christ roams through our streets in the person of so many of the suffering poor, sick and dispossessed, and people thrown out of their miserable slums; Christ huddled under bridges, in the person of so many children who lack someone to call father, who have been deprived for many years without a mother’s kiss on their foreheads…Christ is without a home! Shouldn’t we want to give him one, those of us who have the joy of a comfortable home, plenty of good food, the means to educate and assure the future of our children? “What you do to the least of me, you do to me,” Jesus said.
But helping the children was not enough for him. He insisted on the necessity of social change and justice. Charity is not enough:
Marx said that religion was the opium of the people. But I also know that charity can be the opium of the rich.
He established a publication that promoted Catholic Social Teaching, Mensaje.
He died at the age of 51, of pancreatic cancer.
In 1941 he had published a provocative work, Is Chile a Catholic Country? As José Comblin noted,
“Padre Hurtado asked himself how it [Chile] could be a Catholic country which leaves the masses of the people – campesinos and workers – in misery.”
A good question for all of us.