Today one of the foremost goals pursued by the Society of Jesus is social justice. Saint Alberto Hurtado is revered in his home country of Chile for his work on behalf of the poor and workers there.
Alberto Hurtado was born in Viña del Mar, Chile, in 1901. His father died when he was just four years old, leaving only his mother to care for him and his brother, and forcing the family to sell their house. He was accepted to the Jesuit College in Santiago on a scholarship, where he volunteered in a poor parish and school on weekends. After graduating in 1918 he attended the prestigious Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where he studied law. He obtained his degree in 1923, having put his studies on hold for obligatory military service, and then joined the Jesuit noviciate rather than pursue a career in law.
As part of his studies to become a Jesuit, Hurtado took courses first in Cordoba in Argentina, then in Barcelona and Belgium, before he was ordained a priest in 1933. Returning to Chile in 1936, Hurtado took up the position of professor of religion at Colegio San Ignacio and of Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago, as well as becoming involved in teaching catechism to the poor. That same year he published an article outlining the problems in the Church in Chile, due to lack of priests, and poor religious education of catechists. He took this further in his book Is Chile a Catholic Country? released in 1941, the same year he was appointed national director of the Catholic Action youth movement.
As well as critically assessing the role and the Church and how it operated in Chile, Hurtado had long been an active worker in the area of social justice, and indeed this is what he is best known for. In 1944, he established a shelter for homeless children wandering the streets of Santiago, called Hogar de Cristo, or ‘Home of Christ’. This proved successful, and was followed up by a home for men and for women, before developing further again, with the founding of rehabilitation centres. Hurtado purchased a green pickup truck with which he patrolled the streets in search of people in need.
Continuing his campaign for social justice, in 1947 Hurtado set up the Chilean Trade Union Association, in order to train union leaders and instil a Catholic ethos in the labour unions of the country. He continued his work until he fell ill from pancreatic cancer, and died in 1952 a national hero. Still cherished in his home country, Hurtado’s works are being continued long after his death. He was beatified in 1994 and canonised in 2005, by Pope Benedict XVI.