100 years ago today, Germany and Russia declared war on each other, thus transforming a 4-day old Balkan war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a large-scale European conflict. In just a few days more, France, Belgium, and Britain would also become belligerents, thus turning that European war into a truly world war - "the Great War," as it soon came to be called, "World War I," as we now know it.
This somber centennial is getting a lot of well deserved attention this anniversary year. But the Great War was not the only thing that ever happened on this August date.
Thus, seventy years earlier, a 24-year old Isaac Hecker, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers, took the most momentous step in his ongoing spiritual journey and was received into the Catholic Church at New York’s original Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. In his diary for August 1, 1844, he wrote quite calmly: This morning we were baptized by Bishop McCloskey [future Archbishop of New York and 1st American Cardinal]. Tomorrow we attend the tribunal of Confession. … We cannot stop long on the mystic bridge between Earth and Heaven if we once have started on our journey. There is no half-way house, it is either onward or backward. … Baptism is the declaration of our intention of becoming naturalized citizens of the holy city of God – Jerusalem. The next day (August 2), Hecker wrote with somewhat greater emotion: O ancient faith how dear how good is god in giving us sinners thee. Blessed is the grace of God that leadeth sinners to thee! O how thou hast comforted the Soul. It would turn from thee but thou strengthened it. … Our soul is clothed in brightness. Its youth is restored. No clouds obscure its lustre. O blessed ever blessed unfathomable divine faith. O blessed faith of Apostles Martyrs Confessors and Saints! O holy Mother of Jesus thou art my Mother. Thy tender love I feel in my heart. O holy Mother thou hast beheld me! Bless me Virgin Mother of Jesus.
Reflecting back on that occasion near the end of his life, Hecker wrote in the October 1887 issue of The Catholic World (the Paulist periodical Hecker had founded in April 1865): As for myself, I never had been a member of any denomination of any kind and, when received into the Catholic Church by Cardinal McCloskey early in the year 1844, the creed I recited was my first adhesion to any form of religion. I had no heresy to renounce, for I never had embraced any. Not having had personal and experimental knowledge of the Protestant denominations, I investigated them all, going from one of them to another – Episcopal, Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, and all –conferring with their ministers, reading their books.
Not unlike Christian history’s most famous seeker, Saint Augustine (354-430), Hecker eloquently exemplifies the spiritual search at its best. Like Augustine, he examined as many as possible of the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, before finally finding his permanent religious home in the Roman Catholic Church. 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 most of the first 25 years of his life. What was – and remains – significant about Hecker, however, was precisely that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, seeking was never an end in itself. The point of seeking is finding. Hecker found fulfillment in the Catholic Church and never desired to look farther. Rather, he devoted himself to helping others – especially other seekers, as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Church.
Without doubt, the First World War and its aftermath profoundly destroyed the prevalent cultural certainties and demolished widely held expectations and hopes for secular rationality and progress. In retrospect at least, it is likewise obvious that the cynical nihilism that was one of that war's profoundest legacies has continued the undermining of faith and religion that the pre-war period of progress and prosperity had already begun.
Yet, Hecker's search for faith and his zeal for bringing faith to others still remain an inspiration even in this dark, war-torn, faithlessly cynical and skeptical century.