On this day in 1888, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist Fathers, died at the Paulist Mother Church, where he is now buried in a monumental 1950s sarcophagus at the north-east corner of the church. Isaac Hecker was a creative and complicated person who accomplished much in his life and aspired to even more. His most lasting legacy, however, remains the religious community he founded in New York in 1858 and which is still very much alive and active in the Church in North America today.
These days, I have been commenting occasionally on the three aims Pope Francis has proposed to religious communities for this specially dedicated Year of Consecrated Life. So far, I have written about the first and second aims - “to look to the past with gratitude” and “to live the present with passion.” Today, I would like to say something about the third aim the Pope is proposing to religious communities for this year - “to embrace the future with hope.”
In his message, the Pope candidly acknowledges many of the difficulties religious communities are currently experiencing – including, of course, the perennial problem of decreasing vocations and aging members. But many of the particular problems religious communities currently experience are also actually being experienced more broadly by the Church throughout the world. “But it is precisely amid these uncertainties, which we share with so many of our contemporaries,” the Pope assures us, “that we are called to practice the virtue of hope, the fruit of our faith in the Lord of history, who continues to tell us: ‘Be not afraid … for I am with you’ (Jeremiah 1:8).” Our hope, Pope Francis reminds us, “is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Timothy 1:2), the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Luke 1:37).” Accordingly he encourages religious communities – and, by extension, all of us in the Church – not “to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength” but instead to “constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.”
Admittedly, these past several decades have been somewhat trying times for religious communities (and not just for religious communities, of course). Life has a way of throwing unexpected challenges at all of us. But it is how we interpret those challenges and how we respond to them that matters in the end. In 1851, Isaac Hecker wrote to his friend and one-time mentor Orestes Brownson in a letter: If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone 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.”
When all is said and done, that remains the basic challenge for all religious communities and indeed for everyone in the Church - and not just in this special Year of Consecrated Life but in every year.