In an 1876 essay On the Mission of New Religious Communities, Paulist Founder Isaac Hecker (1819-1888) expressed his opinion – pivotal for so much of his later thinking – that the Church of his time was “not in the last days of the world, but in the last days of an epoch which began three centuries ago, and at the opening of a new age.” The era he believed to be ending was “characterized on the side of the Church by the more perfect development of her divine external authority, her government and discipline. The era he believed to be beginning would be “by a necessary law of development, an upward and forward movement, characterized by an increase and a greater display of the internal life and glory of the Church.” Hecker made these observations in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council (1969-1870), which, by definitively settling past disputes about authority in the Church, he believed had met the challenge of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras and thus “prepared the Church for a fresh start.”
Hecker, of course, did not live to see the results of that fresh start – among them, the revival of Thomism, the slow but real rapprochement between the Church and modern society (making peace with modern democratic institutions and challenging them with a renewed conception of social justice), resourcement in theology and renewed attention to history, the liturgical movement, Catholic Action, and the inculturation of Christianity in the non-Western world. Then came Vatican II and the ensuing period of internal turbulence in the Church. (As happens in history, Councils stir things up - or, as Pope Francis might say, “make a mess” - after which it takes time to settle down). For a time, that post-conciliar turbulence turned the Church in on itself. If the Church has been less effective in its outreach to the wider world than it might otherwise have been in this past half-century, this has, to some extent, been because so much of Catholic energy has been sapped by internal battles between factions and groups within the Church. Meanwhile the world has moved on from where it was 50 years ago (both more secular and more religiously divided and conflicted), and the Church’s challenge to focus on its essential mission in relation to the world has correspondingly developed.
Hecker himself certainly appreciated the importance of intra-Church concerns. After all, most of his active ministry was involved in the building up of the Church. Having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of 19th-century American Protestantism, Hecker always appreciated the importance of authority in the Church. But he always understood that the Church exists to evangelize, and he seems to have had little fondness for the distractions of factionalism. One of his Rules for the Guidance of Writers, Lecturers, and Others Engaged in Public Life was “To keep our minds and hearts free from all attachments to schools, parties, or persons in the Church, so that nothing within us may hinder the light and direction of the Holy Spirit.”
As any student of politics would readily recognize, there is nothing surprising in how both ideological extremes, on the right and on the left, inside and outside the Church, have tried to spin Pope Francis’ words and actions (above all his now famous interview). That’s what factions do. But such obsessions distract from what may be a fundamental storyline of this papacy, the Gospel’s challenge to get beyond ourselves and refocus on the re-rooting of God’s kingdom in the problematic soil of post-modernity.
Hecker’s uncompromising commitment to the Church and his equally uncompromising commitment to the Church’s purpose in the world remain as relevant – are even more relevant - in our even more fragmented society, in which the Church is constantly being challenged to embody a more effective communal experience of the Body of Christ (e.g., Francis’s “field hospital”), responding to the world’s deepest needs, both outside and inside the Church.