Thursday, October 23, 2014

Isaac Hecker: Priest

Today is the 165th anniversary of Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker's priestly ordination in London on the Redemptorist feast of the Most Holy Redeemer. He had become a Catholic five years before as a result of a prolonged period of spiritual seeking. For Hecker, however, the spiritual search was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was to find. Once the object was found, the search ceased. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never either regretted what he had found or desired to look farther, but rather desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Thus, all of his activity after his conversion was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his personal spiritual search had so earnestly led him, and which would in time transform him into an active, enthusiastic missionary. 

Hecker’s immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in 1843, more than a year before his reception into the Catholic Church, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation [Diary, May 17, 1843]. Then, in 1845, at the Redemptorist parish of The Most Holy Redeemer on New York’s East 3rd Street, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. (In 1732, St. Alphonsus Liguori [1696-1787] had founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer as a society of missionary priests to reach out to the poor urban and rural poor in and around Naples, Italy. One hundred years later in 1832, the first six Redemptorists had arrived to begin work in the United States. The future Saint John Neumann [1811-1860], a Bohemian-born priest of the Diocese of New York  had joined the Order in 1840 and would serve as Provincial Superior of the American Redemptorists from 1847 until his appointment as Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.)

In July 1845, Hecker decided to join his new friends in becoming a Redemptorist. As the story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, the Provincial headquarters of the Redemptorists in the U.S. He showed up at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded him that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot – with none of today's fancy psychological screening processes! He took the train back to New York, said goodbye to his family, and set sail for his new life in Europe. 

As a Redemptorist novice, Hecker felt confirmed in his religious vocation.  In 1846, he wrote to his family: “Now I can say with some degree of certainty that I have found all that I have ever sought. All my seeking is now ended.” 

The path to the priesthood was far from smooth for him, however. According to his own 1857 account: “My noviciate was one of sore trials, for the master of novices seemed not to understand me, and the manifestation of my interior to him was a source of the greatest pain. After about nine or ten months he appeared to recognize the hand of God in my direction in a special manner, conceived a great esteem, and placed an unusual confidence in me, and allowed me, without asking it, though greatly desired, daily communion.… Some fears, however, at not being able to pursue my studies in that state arose in my mind, but he bade me banish them, and my vows were made at the end of the year.” 

His academic difficulties - what he himself described late in life as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors - continued to pose a problem. Hecker, however, remained   convinced that he had a vocation. As he wrote in 1857, "my vocation was to labor for the conversion of my non-Catholic fellow countrymen. This work at first was, it seemed to me, to be accomplished by means of acquired science, but now it had been made plain that God would have it done principally by the aid of His grace; and if left to study at such moments when my mind was free, it would not take a long time for me to acquire sufficient knowledge to be ordained a priest."

To their eternal credit, his Redemptorist superiors likewise recognized the authenticity of his vocation. So, after his novitiate in Belgium and some time at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he went to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in Clapham; and, on October 23, 1849, he was duly ordained a priest.

Reflecting back later on his difficult experience as a student, he likened himself to the Cure of Ars, Saint John Vianney (1786-1859), famous for how hard he had found his studies for the priesthood. Both Saint John Vianney and Isaac Hecker went on to become exemplary priests - in spite of not quite measuring up to standard seminary standards. His commitment to the Church as the institutional expression of the Holy Spirit's presence and providential action sustained him in his priestly ministry - even through the suffering inflicted upon him by his religious superiors.

First as a Redemptorist and then as a Paulist, Hecker devoted himself energetically to living out the priestly vocation to which he had been called, until illness drastically limited his activities in his final years. His closest companion in those years, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, wrote that Hecker "knew that this was really a higher form of prayer than any he had yet enjoyed, that it steadily purified his understanding by compelling ceaselessly repeated acts of faith in God’s love, purified his will by constant resignation of every joy except God alone – God received by any mode in which it might please the Divine Majesty to reveal Himself.”


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

I Voted (Early)

I have already previously (in October 2012) written expressing my ambivalence about the contemporary practice of "Early Voting." (See And I have really little to add to what I said there. Yet once again (and for essentially the same practical reason) I find myself taking advantage of the concession of Early Voting. And so, while as an individual I can certainly appreciate the convenience of Early Voting, I cannot resist wondering about its long-term social cost.

Among other things, the act of voting is a symbolic civic ritual, which signifies the voter's participation as a citizen in the society's civic life. Hence, the value of its being public and communal. Growing up, I watched my parents go to the polls on crisp autumn days – first, to register (back then when one had to register every time one planned to vote) and, later, to vote. Members of the “Greatest Generation,” my parents always set a good example faithfully voting in every election. Of course, voting is about expressing one's personal political preferences, but to me voting has always also been about participating in the process, bonding with one's fellow-citizens, and communally legitimizing the winner's mandate to govern – all very important things, that we neglect to our peril!

Nonetheless, I have, on occasion, voted by absentee ballot, when for some reason I was going to be away on Election Day. Likewise, in recent years, I have resorted to the newer and much more convenient practice of Early Voting for essentially the same reason - since I have a community meeting to attend in Washington during election week and therefore cannot vote in person on Election Day. For that reason, I appreciate the opportunity for Early Voting. But I am also conscious of and concerned about the correspondingly diminished significance of the Election Day experience itself. And I can't help but think that the resulting convenience-store approach to voting is in its own way problematic for democratic citizenship. It is like so many other things - self-service gas stations, ATMs, etc. - that our individualistic society fosters, but which may inevitably have a deleterious effect on our society's increasingly fragile  communal bonds.

And so I repeat the question I posed two years ago about Early Voting. Can the symbolic resonance of participating in the electoral process survive being reduced to what seems like yet another convenience-store transaction? As with anything else that has - or once had - a communitarian context and significance, when we align the civic ritual of voting with individual timetables rather than a common calendar, do we, in the long run, run the risk of losing even more of what little we have left of a once much more vibrant civic culture?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Saint from the Great War: Blessed Kaiser Karl I

Today the Church calendar commemorates Blessed Kaiser Karl I (1887-1922), who reigned as Emperor Charles I of Austria and King Charles IV of Hungary from 1916 to 1918. (The photo at left shows him at his Hungarian coronation on December 30, 1916). As the last Hapsburg emperor, he saw the catastrophic end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a consequence of World War I and with it the end of his dynasty's historic role in Central Europe. 

He was beatified in 2004 by Pope John Paul II whose father had served in Karl's army, and his feast was assigned to today's anniversary of his 1911 wedding to Princess Zita of Bourbon-Parma (1892-1989), Austria's last Empress.

Since 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of "The Great War" - a war triggered by a Serbian terrorist assassination of Karl's uncle - it seems only fitting to recall today not only Karl's personal sanctity but his unsuccessful efforts to end the impasse of a war which need never have happened and needed even less to continue so long. Deeply devout from childhood, his sanctity supported and reinforced by his similarly devout wife, Zita, he also exhibited a strong religious sense of the source of his duty as a political sovereign and what his duty was. And, as befits a statesman, his policies were based on an acute understanding of the political factors and social forces that had been unleashed by the war and would determine the fate of the post-war world - leading inevitably, as we now see so clearly, to yet another and even worse world war and to decades of Communist control of Eastern Europe (During that Second World War, Winston Churchill would write: "One of the greatest mistakes made after the last war was the destruction by ignorant hands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire." 

His heroic effort to achieve a negotiated peace in 1917 failed abysmally, as did his two efforts to regain his Hungarian throne in 1921. The last of those defeats led to his forced exile by the Allied Powers to Madeira, where he died in 1922. Yet, as he wrote to Pope Benedict XV in 1919, "In all my troubles, I have never lost my faith, I have never despaired." His death left Zita - at 29, a widow and mother of 9 underage archdukes and archduchesses - to carry on his legacy and hand it on to their son, Crown Prince Otto (1912-2011), who admirably adapted his family's mission to continue to play a productive role in Central European society in the post-war world.

When, as an undergraduate studying German in the summer of 1970, I first visited Vienna's Kapuzinergruft (the Capuchin crypt where most of the Hapsburgs lie buried), there were still daily fresh flowers at the tomb of Karl's predecessor, Kaiser Franz Josef I. Since then, Empress Zita and Crown Prince Otto have been entombed there with all the traditional Hapsburg burial rites. But Blessed Kaiser Karl remains buried alone - still in in exile - in Madeira, a lonely symbol still of the tragic turn the 20th century took 100 years ago, the catastrophic consequences of which the world remains still very much imprisoned in.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Blessed Paul VI

Pope Paul VI has now been beatified. Until now, his portrait still hung in the kitchen of the Parish Office - leftover, no doubt, from his years as Pope. Now that he is entitled to liturgical veneration, I shall look for a place for his picture in the church itself, where his successor (and now Saint) John Paul II already has a spot. The twentieth century produced 8 popes - Saint Pius X (1903-1914, canonized 1954), Benedict XV (1914-1922), Pius XI (1922-1939), Venerable Servant of God Pius XII (1939-1958), Saint John XXIII (1958-1963, canonized 2014), newly Blessed Paul VI (1963-1978), John Paul I (1978), and Saint John Paul II (1978-2005, canonized 2014. That is 3 canonized Saints, 1 Blessed, and 1 Venerable - quite a saintly century!

In his homily at the Mass of Beatification, which also served as the Mass for the conclusion of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Pope Francis made reference to today's Gospel and then quoted first from Paul's 1963 Coronation homily and then from his 1964 encyclical Ecclesiam Suam. Francis described Paul VI as one who truly "rendered to God what is God's" by devoting his whole life to the "sacred, solemn and grave task of continuing in history and extending on earth the mission of Christ," loving the Church and leading her so that she might be "a loving mother of the whole human family and at the same time the minister of its salvation."

Unlike any of the popes who succeeded him, Paul VI seemed to have been prepared for the papacy by the various stages of his career path. Whatever went on inside, outside the conclave Cardinal Montini was by far the odds-on favorite. I remember listening to the announcement on the radio that Friday morning, June 21, 1963, and thinking how different that conclave was from the previous one in 1958. This time the winner was predicted by almost everyone, and almost everyone was right!

For all his preparation, however, Paul's pontificate was far from smooth. First, he had the Council to guide and conclude. But then the implementation of the Council proved problematic on so many levels, and he was torn in so many directions - as was the Church in that exciting but difficult time that was the late 60s and the ensuing 70s. Paul allowed the liturgical reform to go way, way farther than the Constitution on the Liturgy had ever envisioned, with incomparable consequences we are still sorting out today. The story that he himself wept when faced with the consequences of certain of the liturgical changes he had authorized may or may not be accurate, but it does ring true, reflecting how conflicted he seemed to be about so many of the controversial actions he took. Politically too, his greater openness to Communist governments in Eastern Europe may have conceded too much and has been criticized accordingly - especially in light of his successor Saint John Paul II's different (and ultimately successful) approach of not conceding the permanence of Communism. On the other side, Paul's most 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was not really received by certain significant constituencies in the Church, with divisive and polarizing consequences that likewise continue to haunt the Church today.

All that having been said, he was also - as I wrote yesterday - the Pope of Evangelii Nuntiandi, the great 1975 Apostolic Exhortation on Evangelization in the Modern World. It has taken time, to be sure, but the Church's turn to evangelization as its core identity and essential mission was probably the most positive internal Church development in the aftermath of the Council, and it owes so much to Paul's personal evangelizing zeal and commitment.

Nor can anyone ignore Paul's personal and courageous commitment to building bridges of real understanding and relationship with the world beyond the Church - and in a special way with non-Catholic Christians and non-Christian religions. His history-making trips outside of Italy - starting with his pilgrimage to Israel in 1964 and his amazing address to the UN in 1965 - represented a new style of engagement with the world beyond the Tiber, which we now take for granted, but which was not so long ago unexpected and novel. 

Pau's combined emphases on bridge-building and evangelization were how he fulfilled the mandate he identified for the Church in his first encyclical, quoted again today by Pope Francis - "a loving mother of the whole human family and at the same time the minister of its salvation."

Pray for us, Blessed Paul VI,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

World Mission Sunday

Pope Pius XI first instituted Mission Sunday for the whole Church in 1927 in order to help emphasize the Church's universality and to promote our common responsibility for evangelizing the entire world. It seems especially appropriate, therefore, that the Beatification of Pope Paul VI (1897-1978) has been scheduled this year for Mission Sunday. Blessed Paul VI reigned as pope from 1963 until his death in 1978. He oversaw the successful completion of the Second Vatican Council and began the implementation of its constitutions and decrees. It was during that turbulent time that he established the Synod of Bishops. (This year’s Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization will conclude with today's Beatification Mass.)

After the 1974 Synod of Bishops on the topic of “Evangelization in the Modern World,” Pope Paul issued an Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975), devoted to the task of proclaiming the Gospel to the people of our time. The Synod had declared "that the task of evangelizing all people constitutes the essential mission of the Church." In amplifying that theme in Evangelii Nuntiandi Pope Paul taught that “Evangelizing is in fact the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her deepest identity. She exists in order to evangelize, that is to say, in order to preach and teach, to be the channel of the gift of grace, to reconcile sinners with God, and to perpetuate Christ's sacrifice in the Mass, which is the memorial of His death and glorious resurrection” (Evangelii Nuntiandi,14). Following Blessed Paul VI, Saint John Paul II called in 1983 for a “new” evangelization – “new in its ardor, its methods, and its expressions.”

Evangelii Nuntiandi marked an important moment in the development of the modern Church’s self-understanding in relation to the world. Thus, for example, the great 20th-century American Jesuit theologian, Avery Cardinal Dulles came to view the papal emphasis on evangelization as “one of the most surprising and important developments in the Catholic Church since Vatican II.” Near the end of his long life, Dulles identified two contemporary mission priorities for the Church in the United States: “to catechize Catholics in their Faith and to motivate them to evangelize others. (On this, see Patrick W. Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ: A Model Theologian, 1918-2008, Paulist Press, 2010, pp. 448-450.) It is safe to say that those two priorities remain as urgent - and as unfilfilled.

“The Catholic faith alone,” Paulist founder Isaac Hecker wrote to Orestes Brownson in 1851, “is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm fraught with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves.” For the rest of his life, Hecker would repeatedly emphasize the reciprocal relationship between the Church’s mission within and to the Catholic community and her mission outward to the larger American society. “We cannot even preserve the faith among Catholics in any better way than by advancing it among our non-Catholic brethren” Hecker wrote in The Catholic World in 1886. “Indeed,” he continued, “simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it. It is a state of chronic disease for men to live together and not endeavor to communicate their respective good fortune. A Catholic without a mission to his non-Catholic fellow-citizens in these times, and when only a small portion of the human race has the true religion, is only half a Catholic.”