Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Servant of God Isaac Hecker at 200

Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, was born 200 years ago today on December 18, 1819, and died on December 22, 1888. 

Looking back at Hecker's life today, we can consider it in four fairly distinct periods. The first comprised his early life and spiritual search, culminating in his baptism as a Catholic in 1844., when, animated by a conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, he allowed himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s providential care for him, and which he received the grace to recognize and follow in the Roman Catholic Church. 

The second spanned his 14 years as an enthusiastic new Catholic, a Redemptorist seminarian, and then priest, culminating in the crisis which led to his formal separation from the Redemptorists in 1858. In this second period of his life, his enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him to an active vocation as a priest and religious and formed him, through the crucible of opposition and suffering, into a thoroughly committed “man of the Church.” 

The third was the period of Hecker’s greatest pastoral and missionary activity, beginning with the founding of the Paulist Fathers in 1858, through the American Civil War and the 1st Vatican Council, during which period he” concentrated on the Church’s perennially essential mission of evangelization, both within the Church and outward to the world – planting his vision in the solid soil of his religious community and their growing parish in New York

Then, fourth, his final years, characterized by physical illness and emotional suffering, in which he surrendered himself and all his activities to the call to conform his life to the mystery of Christ’s Cross – filling up, in the words of his patron, St. Paul, what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, on behalf of his body, which is the church.” (Colossians 1:24)

I believe that the distinctive character of each period can highlight for us a distinctive aspect of his sanctity that remains especially relevant for the Church in the 21st-century.

Of course, to suggest that Hecker in the 19th-century exemplified a heroic sanctity that is exemplary for the 21st-century does not mean that one should be asking what Hecker would say or do in this or that specific situation today (an unanswerable question in any case), but rather to ask what someone inspired and motivated by the example of Hecker’s heroic sanctity should say or do today. Hecker himself, commenting on the significance of Saint Francis of Assisi, warned that what the age called for was not so much people attempting to relive Francis’s life, but rather people inspired by him to address their age as Francis had his. That, of course, is always the challenge presented by the life of any admirable historical figure.

For example, his knowledge and understanding of American religion – American Protestantism – was somewhat limited, due to the narrow limits of his religious exposure. New England Protestantism, became his model – and really his only model - for mainline American Protestant Christianity and its decline. In fact, for most of its history, the U.S. has been a Protestant country, its founding mythology deeply identified New England Protestantism. That said, just as the classic U.S. founding narrative inordinately privileges the influence of New England over, for example, the Spanish settlements in California, Texas, New Mexico, and Florida – and even over the other English colonies with different variants of Protestantism – Hecker’s narrative of American religion likewise overly privileged New England Protestantism and its devolution into Unitarianism and Transcendentalism over other and somewhat longer-lasting experiences and forms of Protestantism in the US.

Hecker was clearly incorrect in his insistence that American Protestantism was inevitably doomed to disappear. As even so sympathetic an account as that of Paulist Father James McVann acknowledged, Hecker’s “facts and figures mostly took account of a decline in Eastern Massachusetts, without considering the strong roots of Protestantism in other parts of America, which his travels South and West should have shown him” While so-called Mainline Protestantism may today be in serious decline in the United States, Hecker failed to appreciate Protestantism’s capacity to revitalize itself precisely at its own evangelical roots. And, while it may well be that in the 21st century even Protestantism’s more successful Evangelical form has also begun to decline, the predominant direction of that decline has been towards secularism, not Catholicism as Hecker had hoped.

Looking back on Hecker’s ideas from the vantage point of the present, we can appreciate his consistent commitment to enhance the quality of Church life, to build up the Catholic Church in the United States, to achieve what, in a letter to Brownson, he called “a higher tone of Catholic life in our country.” one consequence of which would be to make the Church more attractive to non-Catholics. It seems that Hecker understood that any successful impact on the wider American society presupposed an effective mission and ministry within the American Catholic community.

“The Catholic faith alone,” Hecker famously wrote in a letter to Brownson, “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.”  Hecker was convinced that the same Holy Spirit, who spoke in his own heart and in human hearts in general, spoke through the Church, and that the evangelization of American society through missionary action aimed at the conversion of individuals would benefit both Church and civil society.

Nonetheless, much of what Hecker admired in America – the egalitarianism and sociability which Tocqueville analyzed and which Jacksonian populism celebrated – no longer characterizes post-industrial America. Hecker’s America is gone – forever. And, of course, Catholicism has changed as well and in certain respects increasingly mirrors rather than challenges the changes in secular society. 

Also, while conversions to Catholicism continued both during and after Hecker’s lifetime, they have hardly represented the numbers necessary to make the kind of impact on American society Hecker had hoped for. What made the difference (then as now) has been immigration. In his own way, Hecker linked this to his theory of American’s providential significance. As he wrote near the end of his life in The Church and the Age: “But the discerning mind will not fail to see that the republic and the Catholic Church are working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogeneous people, and by their united action giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development of man than has been heretofore accomplished.” That aspect of Hecker’s thinking may be more relevant now than ever.

In the end, Hecker would have agreed with Marx that a citizen might remain religious as an individual: not on a political level – in the union of church and state – but on a social level – in the union of religion and society. But, whereas for Marx, that meant human alienation and religion’s survival showed the inadequacy of democratic politics, for Hecker religion meant the solution to alienation and the fulfillment of human aspirations, And so his confidence that religion’s power to heal and reconcile the contentious divisions of modern society would solve the problems politics could not.

The Church’s mission happens when people are excited enough to witness to it in their lives and when they really believe (as Hecker so strongly did) that those who accept the Church’s faith will be better off as a result – both individually and as a society. In a politically polarized and socially fragmented society, Hecker’s personal religious experience formed the foundation for his ministry as a priest, proclaiming Catholic faith and building Catholic community, confident that that could change society for the better.

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