On this date in 1844, Isaac Hecker, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, was received into the Roman Catholic Church, being baptized at the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York by Bishop John McCloskey (later Archbishop of New York and the first American Cardinal).
According to an account he wrote of his early life in 1858: “The Catholic Church burst upon my vision as the object to which all my efforts had been unintentionally directed. It was not a change, but a sudden realization of all that had hitherto obscurely captivated my mind, and secretly attracted my heart.” In thus describing his spiritual quest, Hecker evidently wanted to emphasize what would become his lifelong conviction that Catholicism was consistent with and in fact the fulfillment of the aspirations of human nature – a 19th-century version of the famous theme of St. Augustine’s Confessions: You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.
In his early twenties, Hecker had examined the principal Protestant sects, sampling as many as possible of the leading contemporary religious ideas. Then as now, religion in the United States was a diverse marketplace in which individuals could choose the religions that suited them. Historically, there has always been a considerable amount of movement by Americans from one religious group to another. Even today, according to The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, more than one-in-four U.S. adults (28%) have changed their religious affiliation from that in which they were raised.
Confident that “it is not reasonable to suppose that [God] would implant in the soul such an ardent thirst for truth and not reveal it,” Hecker continued his search for the truth until he found it in the Catholic Church, “the place,” as he put it, “where it is supposed among Protestants the least to exist.
Along the way, his searching had taken him to a transcendentalist, utopian community near Boston. New England Transcendentalism had its roots in the Unitarian rejection of classical Calvinist doctrine. Yet, while benefiting from an environment that encouraged him to value and explore his inner life, Hecker’s search led to conclusions quite different from what the Transcendentalists believed. As he came to understand his inner spiritual experience in terms of the action of the Holy Spirit, he found himself more and more drawn to institutional Christianity. He studied the Catechism of the Council of Trent and was especially impressed by Article IX, on the doctrine of the communion of saints. Writing in the Paulist magazine The Catholic World, in 1887, one year before his death, he recalled: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented.”
Reflecting upon his experience years later, Hecker wrote: “An act of entire faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things – in its infinite love, wisdom, power; that it is under its influence and promptings up to now my life has been led. Though not clearly seen or known, He has directed every step. On this faith, on this principle, promised to act now and in time to come. To be above fear, doubt, hesitation, or timidity, but patient, obedient, and stable.”
The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, certainly speak to the spiritual longings of our own spiritually hungry century, with its legions of souls claiming to be “spiritual but not religious.” Hecker too was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. But he did not remain that way. Hecker understood in the 19th century something many in the 21st century may find harder to grasp - that “Joining a tradition doesn’t mean suppressing your individuality. Applying an ancient tradition to a new situation is a creative, stimulating and empowering act. Without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.” [David Brooks, New York Times, February 3, 2012].
Henceforth, he would devote himself to helping others – especially other seekers, as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Church. He would truly become, as Edward Cardinal Egan of New York wrote in 2006, “a man of the Church.”