Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Novena of Grace of St Francis Xavier 6th Day, 9th March 2010

From Spain we cross the Atlantic and we surf over the Andes to a country thin and long, a country quite in the limelight these days but for the wrong reason. We shall get acquainted with a man so close to us in time and yet quite far from us in spirit. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga—the Chilean saint.

He was born in 1901; he was orphaned when he was four years old by the death of his father. His mother had to sell, at a loss, their modest property in order to pay the family’s debts. As a further consequence, Alberto and his brother had to go to live with relatives and were often moved from one family to another. From an early age, therefore, he experienced what it meant to be poor, to be without a home and at the mercy of others.

He was given a scholarship at the Jesuit College in Santiago. Here he became a member of the Sodality of Our Lady and developed a lively interest in the poor, spending time with them in the most miserable neighbourhoods every Sunday afternoon. At 16, he wanted to join the Jesuits but was told to delay so that he could take care of his mother and younger brother. He studied as he worked and graduated with a law degree from the Catholic University. When he was 22, he entered the Society of Jesus in Chile. He was sent first to Cordoba, Argentina and then to Spain. But Spain entered the Civil War and the Society was suppressed and so he continued his studies in Belgium. He was ordained a priest at 32. Armed with a doctorate in pedagogy and psychology, he returned to Chile after his tertianship in 1936.

He taught religion at Colegio San Ignacio and Pedagogy at the Catholic University of Santiago. He was entrusted with the Sodality of Our Lady for the students, and he involved them in teaching catechism to the poor. He frequently directed retreats and offered spiritual direction to many young men, accompanying several of them in their response to the priestly vocation and contributing in an outstanding manner to the formation of many Christian laymen.

In 1941 Fr Hurtado published his most famous book: “Is Chile a Catholic Country?” as he alerted to his contemporaries the grave problem of the lack of priestly vocations. The same year he was asked to assume the role of Assistant for the Youth Movement of the Catholic Action, first within the Archdiocese of Santiago and then nationally. In October 1944, while giving a retreat, he felt impelled to appeal to his audience to consider the many poor people of the city, especially the numerous homeless children who were roaming the streets of Santiago. “If Christ could come down tonight, He would repeat to you as He looked at this city, ‘I take pity on it’ and turning to you, He would tell you with great tenderness ‘You are the light of the world. You must illuminate this darkness. Who wants to work with Me? Do you want to be My apostles'?” And it was for this that he became famous: a form of charitable activity which provided not only housing but a home-like milieu for the homeless: “El Hogar de Cristo”.

By means of contributions from benefactors and with the active collaboration of committed laity, Father Hurtado opened the first house for children; this was followed by a house for women and then one for men. The poor found a warm home in “El Hogar de Cristo”. The houses multiplied and took on new dimensions; in some houses there were rehabilitation centres, in others trade-schools, and so on. All were inspired and permeated by Christian values.

In 1945 Fr Hurtado visited the United States to study the “Boys Town” movement and to consider how it could be adapted to his own country. The last six years of his life were dedicated to the development of various forms in which “El Hogar” could exist and function.

In 1947 Father Hurtado founded the Chilean Trade Union Association (ASICH) to promote a union movement inspired by the social teaching of the Church. Between 1947 and 1950, Father Hurtado wrote three important works: on trade unions, on social humanism, and on the Christian social order. In 1951 he founded “Mensaje”, the well-known Jesuit periodical dedicated to explaining the doctrine of the Church. He died from pancreatic cancer in 1952.

Within a period of 15 years, Fr Hurtado lived and accomplished all the works described above. His apostolate was the expression of a personal love for Christ the Lord characterised by a great love for poor and abandoned children, an enlightened zeal for the formation of the laity, and a lively sense of Christian social justice. Fr. Hurtado was beatified by John Paul II on October 16, 1994 and canonised by Benedict XVI 23rd Oct 2005.

At the beginning I mentioned that he was a man close to us and yet quite far away. He is temporally close to us. He lived and died within the lifetime of some of us. But he is also quite far from us. Why? Well, he is famous for his social action. In our mind we conjure up images of a man fighting to right the wrong. No doubt, with electronic media beaming images of shanty towns in the megacities of the world, we all are introduced to the immediacy and the immensity of the problem of homelessness.

But how wrong can we be? This was a man whose spirit and vision are far superior to ours and thus, the closeness of his time to ours may indeed be fortuitous but deceptive. Instead of leading us into the slums, he is actually inviting us to climb or rather to ascent the hill of spiritual perfection with our heads in the clouds and our feet firmly on the ground. What does this mean? He may be temporally near but his vision or his spirituality of social action is far superior to some of us who are involved with his type of work. His social action was centred on Christ and the Church.

In a way, his temporal proximity means that hagiography about him is more sober. But, his spirituality is neither mundane nor pedestrian. In fact, temporal proximity means that we have many of his words available to us. So, I shall let him speak to your hearts.

There are people who wish to advance in holiness but without suffering. They have not understood what it is to grow. They want to develop themselves by chant, by study, by pleasure, but not by hunger, by anguish, by failure and by hard work of each day, nor by accepting the powerlessness that teaches us to rely on God’s power, nor by letting go of their own plans, which enables us to recognise those of God. Suffering is beneficial because it shows me my limits, purifies me, makes me stretch out on Christ’s cross, forces me to turn to God.

There is a strong element of the Cross in his vision of life. He was never afraid of failure. In fact, “In Christian work, there is the triumph of failures! Delayed triumphs! In the world of the invisible, that which appears useless is the most effective. A total failure accepted wholeheartedly yields more supernatural success than any triumph. Sow, with no concern for what will grow. Continue to sow despite everything. Thank the Lord for the apostolic fruits of failures. When Christ spoke to the rich young man in the Gospel, He failed, but how many others have learnt the lesson as a result! And when He announced the Eucharist, how many fled---but yet, how many come running. Your zeal will seem still-born, but how many will live, thanks to you”.

And the Cross looms largely in this social vision too especially in the context of Church. In a way, he challenges many of our social workers especially when our vision is dichotomised by having Christ on one side and the Church on the other. The failure of so many people in the Church, especially the hierarchy is a cause of scandal—not in the sense of salacious smut but in the sense that scandal causes people to lose faith. As a result, there is a disdainful scepticism of Church authority as we tend to view the Church as a prime example of what structural sin is about. For example, the Church’s hierarchy by virtue of it being a male hierarchy is already suspect. But, this you will not find in Hurtado. It may explain why people are burnt out so often simply because a large part of the energy is expended due to this divided loyalty. To Christ, one is loyal. To the Church… hmmm, doubtful.

Hurtado's social vision was firmly rooted in Christ and the Church. We know that even as he loved the Church, in the end, he suffered at the hands of the very Church he loved. In his case, the Church was represented by Christians—people, priests, bishops of good standing and good intentions. We often think that pain is the result of a clash between a good person and a bad person. But, pain comes too despite good intentions from two good persons. Two persons may be armed to the teeth with good intentions and yet both end up hurting each other. From there was born a wisdom that says,

If someone begins to live for God, in self-denial and love for others, all possible difficulties will come knocking at his door. I am often like a rock that is battered on all sides by the towering waves. There is no way but up. For an hour, for a day, I let the waves break against the rock; I do not look toward the horizon, I lift my eyes to God. O blessed active life, entirely consecrated to my God, entirely given to neighbour. Its radicalness itself forces me to turn to God to find myself. He is the only possible way out of my worries, my only refuge”.

However, what he accomplished through his social ministry paled when compared to his spirituality. As he suffered towards the end of his life, that part of his life was marked by a joyful trust in God. “How can I not be happy? I am entirely grateful to God for it. Instead of a violent death, He has given me a long illness so that I can prepare myself. Life have been given to man so that he may cooperate with God in carrying out His plans; death is only a completion of that collaboration, a return of all our powers into the Creator’s hands. Before me, eternity. I am an arrow, shot towards eternity. May I never be attached to anything here, but in all things keep my eyes on the life to come.

So, what lessons can we derive from him? In building homes for the poor, he provided a roof, a sense of security for so many who do not have it. This is where we have something in common with Fr Hurtado. Everyone here works in order to have a roof over the head—a home. And this is where we may part ways with him. For some of us, a home is part of a good life. A good life in turn is synonymous with “life is good” and "life is good" is measured by convenience and comfort. But, a good life in spirituality is nowhere close to this. Fr Hurtado’s temporal closeness challenges us to rethink that a good life should be a life that is good—a life that is marked by goodness, not measured by convenience or comfort.