In my “Pastor’s Column” in last Sunday’s Bulletin, I recalled how 36 years ago, the United States celebrated the bicentennial of its independence. At that time, I was a graduate student at Princeton University in New Jersey. On July 4, 1976, with some fellow students, I took the bus into New York for the bicentennial festivities – notably the parade of “tall ships.” Since that July 4 happened also to be a Sunday, we began by attending a special Mass celebrated at St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street in lower Manhattan – one block north of the World Trade Center. The Mass was celebrated by the then Archbishop of New York (now “Venerable”) Terence Cardinal Cooke. Dedicated in 1785, St. Peter’s on Barclay Street was the first permanent Catholic Church in New York. It was at St. Peter’s 20 years later, that St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born canonized saint, was received into the Catholic Church in 1805. And it was St. Peter’s which honored the first casualty of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack, when the body of Fire Department Chaplain, Franciscan priest Mychal Judge, was brought by firefighters to St. Peter's and laid before the altar. St. Peter’s has seen it all from the earliest years of the Republic to the present – a vivid symbol of the presence of a vibrant Catholic Church in the United States from its earliest years to the present, in good times and in bad, on days of national rejoicing and on days of national tragedy and mourning.
As we conclude our “Fortnight for Freedom” this Independence Day, we do well to recall the vital part played by Catholic immigrants from far and near in building this great country, and the incredible network of hospitals, schools, and other institutions which have served Americans of all religions and enriched our shared identity and common American culture. We recall also the blessed bounty of this land and the freedom offered by its institutions – the two principal blessings which beckoned our distant or more recent ancestors to these shores, and which continue to appeal to immigrants from all over the world. Among those freedoms is our precious heritage of religious liberty – written into the constitution itself and enshrined in the hearts and minds of Americans of all religions and backgrounds. Our faith teaches us to value our human, earthly, civil community, and to contribute to its welfare as far as possible. One of the great merits of our constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion has been how it has benefited both Church and State, religion and civil society.
As Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, wrote in his final book, The Church and the Age, in 1887: “the discerning mind will not fail to see that the Republic and the Catholic Church are working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogenous people, and by their united action giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development of man than has been heretofore accomplished.”
Isaac Hecker was a priest not a politician, a preacher not a pundit, and evangelizer not a lobbyist – all the more reason to recall his words today. Thus, in an 1863 sermon, entitled “How To Be happy,” Hecker asserted: “I have nothing to do with those causes which lie in the mercantile or political world; for the sanctuary is not the place for the discussion of these questions. Our duty here is to deal with man in his religious nature, in his relations with God.” However, that did not mean, he added, “that the earth is hateful and the world nothing but sin; that the soul is wholly depraved, and life is only another word for misery; then we reply, no; a thousand times, no! The Gospel we preach is not one of gloom and despair, but of glad tidings and great joy. The Creed we hold teaches us to “believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and all things visible and invisible.”
In other words, while, of course, humanity’s ultimate fulfillment is finally to be found in one’s citizenship in the kingdom of God, Hecker recognized the implications of the transcendent requirements of being a citizen of God’s kingdom for the immanent responsibilities of citizenship in temporal society. “We protest, therefore, against the idea of giving the earth over to wretchedness and the world to sin; rather would we indulge the hope, of establishing God’s kingdom here, and laboring earnestly for it.” Indeed, Hecker concluded, “There is little or no hope of our entering into the kingdom of heaven hereafter, if we are not citizens of it here.” For the aim of the Gospel, Hecker insisted, “is not to separate heaven from earth, or the earth from heaven, or to place between them an antagonism; the object of the Gospel is to bring them together, unite them and make them one; briefly, to establish the reign of God “upon earth as it is in heaven.”
Like the 19th-century’s most famous observer and analyst of American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections between individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedom. At his very first audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX, on December 22, 1857, in response to the Pope’s concern about factional strife in the United States, “in which parties get each other by the hair,” Hecker confidently replied that “the Catholic truth,” once known, “would come between” parties “and act like oil on troubled waters.”
In 19th-century Europe, the Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly modern political order. It sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with modernity and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The way to do this was to assert the Church’s claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon its political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state.
In contrast to that time-honored political approach, Hecker’s American alternative saw a social solution in which Catholicism answered individuals’ deepest human aspirations. Thus opened to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, people would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop their intelligence and liberty along Catholic lines.
In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker, quoting an anonymous acquaintance, said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.”
Homily for Independence Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 4, 2012.