Wednesday, October 23, 2019

"True, Permanent, and Burning Enthusiasm"

Today is the 170th anniversary of Paulist Fathers’ Founder Isaac Hecker’s ordination as a Redemptorist priest in 1849. He had become a Catholic a mere five years earlier after an intense spiritual journey, and had immediately embarked on the next phase of that journey – discerning his proper vocation within the Church.

On July 28, 1844, just days before his reception into the Church, Hecker had written in his Diary: “I have commenced acting. My union with the Catholic Church is my first real, true act. And it is no doubt the forerunner of many more – of an active life.

This second major period of Hecker’s life – from his reception into the Catholic Church in 1844 through his separation form the Redemptorists in 1858 – was characterized above all by his enthusiastic embrace of the Church to which his search had so earnestly led him, transforming the young contemplative mystic into a mature active missionary.

His immediate practical task as a new Catholic was to resolve his vocation within the Church. Already in his Diary on May 17, 1843, more than a year before his baptism, he had committed himself to a celibate vocation. He had done so, as his first biographer, Paulist Father Walter Elliott, observed, “even before entering the Church or arriving at any clear understanding of his duty to do so.”

In 1845, however, Hecker met two other new Catholics, James McMaster and Clarence Walworth, both former Episcopalians, who were planning to travel to Europe to enter the Redemptorist novitiate in Belgium. Hecker decided to join them. As the familiar story goes, he took an overnight train to Baltimore, showed up at the Redemptorist house at 4:00 a.m., and met with the Provincial after morning Mass. Having persuaded the Provincial that he knew enough Latin, he was accepted on the spot.  Taking the morning train back to New York, he said a quick goodbye to his family and set sail for his new life in Europe. In the words of his 20th-century biographer, David O’Brien, “at the most crucial moments of his life, leaving home, entering the church, joining a religious order, Hecker acted suddenly and decisively and never turned back.”

In a letter to Brownson a week earlier, Hecker had expressed “the need of being under stronger Catholic influences than are so far as my experience goes, in this country.” Providentially, the Redemptorists met that need, and he threw himself fully, physically and spiritually, into the rigorous process of 19th-century religious formation. Despite difficulties with his studies, what he himself later described as a “helpless inactivity of mind in matters of study” that made him “a puzzle” both to himself and to superiors, Hecker was able to make sense of his own personal conversion experience and find a suitable structure within which to live it in his encounter with Catholic Europe, in the Redemptorist religious routine and ascetical practices, and in his reading of Catholic spiritual writers like the Jesuit author Louis Lallemant (1538-1635).

Unfortunately (or, perhaps, providentially) academic difficulties continued to present a problem for the enthusiastic young seminarian. Convinced as he had become, however, that he had a vocation to labor for the conversion of his non-Catholic fellow Americans, he successfully persuaded his superiors that, if permitted to study at an appropriate pace, he could yet qualify to be ordained a priest. Thus, after a year’s novitiate in Belgium and three years at the Redemptorist House of Studies in the Netherlands, he was sent to England to finish his formation at the Redemptorist house in London, where, on this date in 1849, he was ordained a priest.

After a brief period ministering as a priest in London, he was sent back to the United States as part of a new English-speaking, Redemptorist mission band, which included Clarence Walworth and two other American ex-Protestants, Augustine Hewit and Francis Baker. On March 19, 1851, the 31-year old Father Hecker was home in New York – in his old neighborhood, at the Redemptorist house on East 3rd Street.

Parish missions were intended as a kind of parish renewal experience (in American terms, sort of like a Catholic revival meeting - focused, however, on the sacraments). Missions sought to elevate the spiritual life of the faithful and reconcile back to the sacraments those who had lapsed or become alienated. By challenging Catholics to a higher standard of religious practice and moral behavior, missions contributed to what Hecker, in a letter to Brownson, called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country,” one consequence of which, Hecker hoped, would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker well understood that any successful mission to non-Catholic America presupposed an effective pastoral ministry within the American Catholic community. “The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker famously wrote to Brownson in 1851, “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.  

That was the challenging foundational task for the Church in the United States in the mid-19th-century – and remains a real, demanding, and ongoing challenging task for the American Church in the radically changed circumstances in which she finds herself today.

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