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World Day of the Poor. The example of Alberto Hurtado: “The poor man is Christ”

Saint Alberto Hurtado, Chilean Jesuit priest, created the charity “Hogar de Cristo” (“Home of Christ”) as a shelter for the homeless. He was canonized on October 23 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI, thus becoming the second Chilean Saint

Padre Hurtado

Nothing best prepares our heart for the World Day of the Poor than the words of one of the greatest saints of our times, Chilean Jesuit priest Saint Alberto Hurtado (1901-1952). These words reverberate as a heartfelt appeal:

“The poor man is Christ.”

Hurtado explained the Gospel very clearly and incarnated it in the reality of the streets: “The poor collector of cardboard, the shoeshiner… the women with tuberculosis, the one with lice, are Christ. The drunkard … let us not be appalled, is Christ! To insult him, to scorn him, to deride him is to deride Christ! Whatever you do to the least of my brothers you are doing to me! This is the meaning of “Hogar de Cristo” (“Home of Christ” – created in 1944 as a shelter for homeless people. At present the Home provides support to over 25 thousand people in over 500 centers throughout Chile.)

At the end of his life he expressed his final wish: “As I leave to return to God, my Father, permit me to confide to you one last desire: that you strive to create a climate of true love and respect for the poor because the poor man is Christ. ‘What you do to the least of my brothers, that you do to me’ (Mt 25,40). The Hogar de Cristo, in faithfulness to the ideal of seeking the disadvantaged and abandoned ones to fill them with brotherly love, has continued creating shelter homes for men and women, so that those who have no place to turn to may find a helping hand.”

The heart of Christianity

Not knowing that his life was nearing an end, Hurtado decided to write something on what he defined “the sense of poverty.” He confided it to his friend Arturo Gaete:

“If you hear words about my health, you should know that I’m fine, after a month of rest at the harbor [of Valparaíso]. I hope to write (or start writing?) something on the respect for the poor this summer. I believe that this is where we find the heart of Christianity, while resistance to and misunderstandings on anything related to poverty increase day by day. Do you know something good about this subject?”.

That project remained unfinished, but his works and his life enable us to discover what the “sense of poverty” meant for Hurtado his works and his life.

The sense of poverty is related to the concrete dimension of incarnation.

“To be a cook or a stoker is not less noble than being a writer, a poet, or a lawyer. Where does the excellency of these intellectual professions derive from? From the false, platonic, pagan concept ascribing greater importance to what is abstract than to what is concrete. However, this concept was wiped away by the Incarnation, a concrete event that generates a life of events with the most humble realities.”

Showing respect towards the poor is something we should all be educated to.

“This form of education should be instilled in early childhood: the mutual respect of our brothers, the respect for servants, the respect for the poor, for the beggars and even for the drunkards.” Hurtado describes the sense of poverty with the following words:

“Feel their pain, their anguish, as your own, do not remain with your arms folded when you can help them. Yearn for a relationship with the poor, feel sorrow for not being able to see a poor man who for us represents Christ.”

It’s a very intense sentence. It deserves being accurately examined. Let us start from the end. “Yearn for a relationship with the poor, feel sorrow for not being able to see a poor man who for us represents Christ.” The sign that we “see” Christ in the poor man reflects the “desire” to establish a relationship. If we don’t have this desire, and conversely, we want to dismiss it and stay aloof from it, we are told to “feel sorrow for not being able to see Christ”; this means realizing that if we saw him, we would yearn for this relationship. 
We have all had the experience of perceiving as a grace, at a time of closeness with a poor person, the consolation of the Lord’s presence. When we don’t feel this grace, with divine pedagogy Hurtado exhorts us not to complain by saying, “I saw Christ and I failed to serve him”, but rather say: “I did not see him”, and that is why I did not feel the desire to approach him.

Young masters

Hurtado enjoined to have a “loving dedication to the poor man.” Speaking to the volunteers of the Fraternity, he described such dedication with the following words:

“Make sure that there is respect for the poor: that they may have beds, that they may not lack spoons, dishes, etc. Strive for the dignity of the poor, it is Christ whom you serve. Have a relationship with the poor in the House, go to Chorrillos, look for the poor with love and respect … May the flame of charity of the Hogar de Cristo glow with the same intensity, that it may never become a cold form of charity.”

In the Fraternity we make “a vow of obedience to the poor man”, whom we call “our young master.” This should make us realize the extent to which the expression “the poor man is Christ” is concrete, and thus the bond of obedience to him is exerted through a vow. It’s hard to explain in theory, but I have witnessed this vow put into practice. I was deeply impressed, in the shelter homes in Chile, which I visited a few years ago, by seeing true obedience to the poor man being put into practice by lay faithful.

I remember the way in which a guardian treated a drunk man that he was accompanying to a special area of the Home with a volunteer because he was too drunk to be brought to the rooms. I can still picture them keeping the drunkard aside as if he were the manager of a business who got drunk and his employees were protecting him to spare him from being scorned or feeling ashamed in public. What I am saying is that they stood near him with the same respect shown towards a master.

Another approach that attracted my attention was the endless, loving patience with which a collaborator was listening to the complaints of a “young master.” To give you an example, he showed the same respect that is typical of an employee of a telephone company, who never loses his composure, coupled by the love of an older brother listening to his younger sibling. In other words, he united elements that are usually kept apart. They were ordinary volunteers, and I was impressed by the fact that they did not seem to be doing something special or something they had been forced to: this spirit came natural to them. They way in which they obeyed the poor man would have been the same if they were suggesting something to him or setting his limits.

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