Exactly 154 years ago today, on July 7, 1858, Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, and four collaborators, Fathers Augustine Hewitt, George Deshon, and Francis A. Baker, signed the Programme of Rule and Constitution of the Congregation of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, thus creating the community commonly known ever since as The Paulist Fathers. The Paulists were the first men’s religious community founded in the United States. New York’s Archbishop John Hughes immediately assigned to The Paulist Fathers the pastoral care of a new parish, under the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, on the west side of Manhattan. Father Hecker became the parish’s first pastor, as well as superior of the new community.
Hecker’s vision of the mission of The Paulist Fathers was a monumental one – the conversion of America to the truth of the Catholic Faith. He envisioned St. Paul the Apostle Parish as animated by that same mission, a vibrant Catholic parish reaching out to evangelize American culture locally, and a center from which the Paulist Fathers would reach out in mission to the entire country. And that is what Paulists have tried to do ever since, in parishes and other institutions throughout the United States.
In his preaching and writing, Isaac Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted images and models of holiness which he believed resonated well within the new context created by what he saw happening in the modern world. An excellent example of this is his often quoted 1863 sermon, The Saint of Our Day. Consistent with his theology of the Church and his understanding of the role of free individuals in modern society, he constantly sought to promote an understanding of and devotion to the Church, which would resonate with the kind of contemporary holiness he believed most relevant for the circumstances of the modern age.
Just as every age has its own characteristics, expressed in its art, science, and politics, likewise in the Church, Hecker argued, “There is something about the sanctity of each age peculiar to itself.” The 19th century claimed “to be marked by unprecedented diffusion of intelligence and liberty.” Hence, Hecker’s specific understanding of what was characteristically required by sanctity in a modern and free society: “The more a civilization solicits the exercise of man’s intelligence, and enlarges the field for the action of his free-will, the broader will be the basis that it offers for sanctity.”
It was Hecker’s missionary vision that led the Paulist Fathers in the first half of the 20th century to undertake a major missionary outreach based in Winchester, Tennessee – and then, in 1973, to assume responsibility for the mission of two parishes here in Knoxville.