St. Alberto Hurtado: A Priest of Prayer and Action

St. Alberto strove to see Christ in people he saw daily … He sought to balance the spiritual life with the apostolate, realizing that action could be harmful if not united with God.

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes by Harold Copping

On October 23, 2005, a Jesuit priest from Chile, Alberto Hurtado, was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict XVI. St. Alberto (1901-1952) was a priest less than 19 years, but his priestly ministry rose to the level of extraordinary through his interior life and apostolate.

The priestly life of St. Alberto and his influence, before and after his death, is best seen through the lens of his personal spirituality. His selflessness was influenced at an early age by his mother, who often told him that it is good to hold hands together in prayer and better to open hands in giving. 1 The foundation of St. Alberto’s spirituality was based on St. Paul’s image of the Christian life as expressed in Galatians 2:20, “so that it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” 2 This was reinforced by his favorite texts by Catholic saints: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis and the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. 3 Within the Spiritual Exercises, St. Alberto’s favorite was exercise §104, “ask for interior knowledge of our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely.” 4

In practice, St. Alberto strove to see Christ in people he saw daily. 5 He was an advocate of spirituality translated into action. 6 He sought to balance the spiritual life with the apostolate, realizing that action could be harmful if not united with God. 7 St. Alberto did not consider the interior life to be superior to the apostolate, or vice versa, but insisted that they work together. 8 One of his methods for keeping a balance was knowing when to say “no” and not respond to every occasion to do good. 9 Jesus retreated alone to pray, leaving his disciples who had to look for him (Mk 1:35). Prayer and experience can guide this necessity in priestly life. When St. Alberto felt overwhelmed by the onslaught of difficulties he faced, he would look away from his worries and toward God, casting off his anxieties and surrendering himself to God’s will. 10

St. Alberto considered spirituality sterile without the fertility of social action. 11 He was critical of what he called the “constructed Christian,” or a façade-Christian, who did neither harm nor good, speaking words of wisdom, but not putting into practice the very dogmas that were professed. 12 He was also deeply concerned about the attitude of many who reserve prayer for church on Sunday but fail to practice it in daily life. 13 He promoted what he called “integral Christianity” or manifesting faith in Christ in all aspects of life. 14

St. Alberto considered it an apostolate to cultivate generous support from the wealthy, convincing them to make a real sacrifice with their wealth for the greater good. 15 His approach to the greater good, or social reform, was developed as part of his priestly ministry. He insisted that society could only be reformed for the better by first reforming individuals who comprise a society. However, individuals of good moral conduct, acting alone, is insufficient. After individual reform, those individuals must join together to provide solutions for the greater good. He rejected the idea of reforming society by passing laws which could be circumvented. He recognized that the relationship between the Church and the world would always involve a struggle, but that the Church should never break with the world, always remaining within it, seeking opportunities for reform. 16

St. Alberto’s approach toward sacred Scripture emphasized study of the Bible with the guidance of the Holy Spirit through constant reflection. He said that Scripture study should involve the entire person: the senses, the heart, the intellect, and the will, so that such reflection will bring light to the intellect, warmth to the heart, life to the will, and awareness to the senses. Scripture study should be a concert of study and prayer in order to grasp, little by little, the content of Christian faith. 17

People who knew St. Alberto said he was usually smiling. 18 St. Alberto even wrote that if a smile does not come naturally, one should force a smile with one’s fingers and hold them there until the natural urge to smile can take over. 19 This effort to remain pleasant was motivated by a desire to be constantly approachable, which included his ministry to youth. In particular, St. Alberto practiced youth ministry at a Catholic high school and university. During this time, there was a noticeable increase in vocations. His spiritual direction and retreats had a profound effect on the youth whom he served. 20 The special attention he gave to youth seemed to prepare the way for successors to his ministry in serving the Church.

His apostolate to the poor led him to establish a homeless shelter in 1946 which he called Hogar de Cristo (Christ’s Home). Many more shelters opened and continue to serve the homeless. 21 St. Alberto also expressed in writing the responsibility of the Church to pay special attention to the needs of the poor, using terminology that closely resembles liberation theology. In a book he published in 1947, St. Alberto wrote, “the great bitterness which our time brings to the Church is the isolation of the poor, for whom Christ came to evangelize preferentially.” 22

In the example of this man of prayer and action, the combination of communicating with God, and serving those who God created, is manifest. As the Lord said to his disciples, who eagerly accompanied him but were hesitant to tend to the needs of the people seeking Jesus, “You yourselves give them something to eat” (Mk 6:37), so St. Alberto lived his pastoral ministry following Christ, and also tending to those whom he could love as Christ did.

  1.  J. Gilhooley, “Saint helped countless after one man helped him,” Our Sunday Visitor 96 (2007): 8.
  2. S. Fernández E., “Ya no vivo yo, es Cristo que vive en mí,” Teología y Vida, 46(2005): 352.
  3. Fernández, 359.
  4. P. Molinari, “La canonizzazione di Alberto Hurtado,” La Civilta Cattolica 156 (2005): 38.
  5. J. S. Torrens, “Saint of the streets,” America 193 (2005): 23.
  6. A. Thomasset, “Le Pere Alberto Hurtado,” Christus 206 (2005): 239.
  7. Thomasset, 244.
  8. S. Fernández, “Reformar al individuo o reformar la sociedad?” Teología y Vida 49 (2008): 527.
  9. Thomasset, 245.
  10. Tony Mifsud, El sentido social: el legado etico del Padre Hurtado (Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Ignacianas, 2005): 49.
  11. Molinari, 41.
  12. A. Mifsud, “Sant’Alberto Hurtado,” La Civilta Cattolica 157 (2006): 49.
  13. Tony Mifsud,  65.
  14.  J. Costadoat, “La mística social del Padre Hurtado,” Teología y Vida 37 (1996): 290.
  15. K. Gilfeather, Alberto Hurtado, man after God’s own heart (Santiago, Chile: Fundación Alberto Hurtado, 1994): 46.
  16. Fernández, Reformar… 519, 522-3, 529, 543.
  17. J. Ochagavia, “Un santo studioso,” La Gregoriana 10 (2005): 40.
  18. R. Barros, “Alberto Hurtado, hijo de Ignacio,” Mensaje 26 (1977): 387.
  19. Gilfeather: 64.
  20. A. Magnet, El Padre Hurtado (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Los Andes, 2003): 134.
  21. “Cronología,” Mensaje 44 (1995): 8.
  22. Alberto Hurtado, Humanismo social (Santiago, Chile: Editorial Difusión, 1947)
Arthur G. Quinn About Arthur G. Quinn

Arthur G. Quinn is a member of the full-time faculty at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Florida. He has held this position since 1996 and has previously published in the print edition of HPR in 1999 and 2004.


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