Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Man of the Church

On this date in New York City in 1858, four American Catholic priests - all converts to Catholicism and all just recently released from membership in the Redemptorist Order - formed the Society of Missionary Priests of Saint Paul the Apostle, known ever since as the Paulist Fathers. Three days later, came the creation a new parish on Manhattan's West Side for the new community’s ministry, Saint Paul the Apostle, located near what is now Columbus Circle 

Their leader in this ambitious enterprise, Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888), had been born to an immigrant family in New York City and from an early age had become convinced that God had some special plan for his life. His older brothers were bakers who founded a successful flour business, becoming quite wealthy in the process. Young Isaac worked in the family business and shared his brothers' political interests in Jacksonian democracy, but increasingly turned his attention to religious questions. Confident that “it is not reasonable to suppose that [God] would implant in the soul such an ardent thirst for truth and not reveal it,” he deepened his spiritual search for the truth, examining the varied options 19th-century American had to offer, until finally finding his way into the Catholic Church - “the place,” as he put it, “where it is supposed among Protestants the least to exist."

Like Christian history’s most famous spiritual seeker, Saint Augustine, Hecker had examined the leading intellectual and religious currents of his time, paying intense attention to his own inner spiritual sensibility, before finally finding a permanent home in the Roman Catholic Church in 1844. In our contemporary idiom, Hecker was “spiritual but not religious” for much of the first 25 years of his life. The very personal story of his spiritual search, of his intense attention to his own inner spiritual sense, eloquently exemplifies the perennially human appeal of such seeking and certainly speaks to the spiritual longings of some in our own (admittedly more secular) society today. But what was most significant about Hecker the seeker was that he did not remain that way. For Hecker, searching was never an end in itself. The point of seeking was finding. Once the object was found, the search ended. Having found fulfillment in the Catholic Church, he never desired to look farther. Rather, he desired to devote his life to helping others – especially other seekers, such as he himself had been – to find the truth in the Catholic Church. Hecker’s enthusiasm for his new faith and his commitment to the Church would permeate all his subsequent activities – from his initial conversion experience as recorded in his Diary, through his active ministry as a priest and missionary preacher, to his final mature exposition in his last book, The Church and the Age (1887). 


Fundamental to Hecker's experience was his recognition of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God acting to call him out of himself and into the Church. Animated by an increasingly conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, Hecker opened himself to be guided by the Holy Spirit, whose presence and action he discerned in God’s care for him, and through that experience he recognized the grace to attach himself to the Roman Catholic Church for the rest of his life. Himself a product of the religious fragmentation of American society, but drawn by God’s providential grace to seek the light of truth and find it in the unity of the Catholic Church, he then committed himself completely to share what he had found with others similarly inspired to seek and to find - and to whom his story continues to speak. All his diverse pastoral and missionary efforts and accomplishments would remain rooted in his abiding trust in God’s presence and action in his own life and in the world in which he lived. Reflecting upon his experience many years later, Hecker wrote that he “not only became a most firm believer in the mysteries of the Christian religion, but a priest and a religious, hopes thus to die.”


That enthusiastic embrace of the Church led him to that active vocation as a priest and religious, giving his all to cooperate with God’s grace in serving God, the Church, and his contemporaries. "I believe," he wrote, "that providence calls me to an active life; further, that he calls me to America to convert a certain class of persons amongst whom I found myself before my own conversion … But to convince me that this work will not be mine, and that I shall be only the mean instrument for the accomplishment of His designs, He wills me to be deprived of all human means, so that I shall not attribute his glory to myself. Contrary to my first provisions, He has unmistakably shown me that it is by neither learning nor eloquence that he calls me to convert others but solely by His grace and power."


Formed by Providence through the crucible of contradictory experience into a thoroughly committed “man of the Church” (as New York's Edward Cardinal Egan once described him), he lived a consecrated life of priestly mission as a parish pastor, a preacher of missions, a public speaker lecturing to Catholic and non-Catholic audiences, an author and apologist, and the founder of a religious community, which, as a canonically approved clerical Society of Apostolic Life in the contemporary Church, continues his charism, in the words of its Constitution, “to be a dwelling place for the Holy Spirit and a prophetic instrument for His sanctifying action.” It was precisely his love of his newly found faith, explains the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, “that led Isaac Hecker to dedicate his life to serving Christ and Catholic Americans.”


In his active ministry, Hecker focused on the Church’s perennially essential mission of evangelization, both within the Church and outward to the world – founding a congregation of priests whose ministry reflects his inspiration even today.  What he lacked in formal philosophical formation and theological precision was abundantly compensated for by his spiritual insight, docility to the Holy Spirit, and filial obedience to the divine authority of the Church. 

Like the 19th century’s most famous foreign observer and analyst of Jacksonian American society and institutions, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), Hecker appreciated the problem posed by the fundamentally fragmented character of American society with its fragile connections among individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting individuals consistent with their freedoms. While enthusiastically supporting the Church’s full spiritual authority over its own members, he envisaged a social solution in which individuals, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations and thus opened to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, would be empowered, by combining true religion and democratic political institutions, to develop this consensually based society along Catholic lines. His was a thoroughly religious form of discourse, uniquely capable of addressing social and political concerns. Prescinding from direct politics, Hecker anticipated overcoming the adverse consequences of liberal individualism at a social level through personal conversion and the consequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a recovery of the communal possibilities of democracy through overcoming the fragmenting forces he found in Protestant individualism.

Whereas for Hecker’s famous contemporary Karl Marx (1818-1883), religion meant alienation and its survival in society showed the inadequacy of its purely political separation from the state, for Hecker in contrast Roman Catholicism was the providential fulfillment of the most authentic aspirations of human nature; and its power to transform society through the conversion of citizens more than compensated for the Church’s loss of political power thanks to its separation from the State.

Although he is listed as Paulist General Superior and parish pastor from 1858 through his death in 1888, the last period of Hecker’s life was dominated by physical illness and emotional suffering. Even then, Hecker was hardly inactive. He was directly involved in the design and construction of the present Saint Paul the Apostle parish church in New York City. He also continued to contribute to the Catholic World, the monthly Catholic journal he had founded in 1865. The Church and the Age, published the year before Hecker’s death, remains the most comprehensive summary of his most mature thought on the themes that had preoccupied him for most of his life. It offers Hecker’s mature insights on his lifelong faith in the simultaneously interior action of the Holy Spirit within the individual and the Holy Spirit’s exterior action in the authority of the Church. It also represents Hecker’s final and mature formulation of his core convictions about the Church and the contemporary world in general and in particular the vexing question of Church and State in the United States, Italy, and France (the latter two being the countries where Church-State relations were persistently neuralgic at the time and where such issues had the most immediate impact on the government of the Universal Church).

Hecker was no systematic theologian and did not write as one. What he wrote was not some “theology” of the Holy Spirit but an appreciation of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity in the world. Here Hecker effectively posited three renewals: that of the age (the world, society), dependent on that of religion (the Church), itself inseparable from that of the individual. Through the Church and its sacraments and its worship, “the object of Christ in the church is,” wrote Hecker in his later years, “to come in personal contact with the soul, and by the power of his grace to wash away its sins, communicate to it fellowship with God as the heavenly Father, and thereby to sanctify it.” 

Especially in his final years when burdened by illness, Hecker lived what one of his favorite spiritual authors, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, called “the sacrament of the present moment.” Caussade had written: “To be satisfied with the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will moving through all we have to do and suffer as events crowd in upon us.”


Through it all, Hecker lived a life of recognizable holiness. His reputation for sanctity was evident in his own lifetime and has continued to inspire pastoral and missionary zeal in the Church down to today. A decade after his death, the great Cardinal Gibbons wrote:

"He was undoubtedly a providential agent for the spread of the Catholic faith in our country, and did immense good by drawing non-Catholics nearer to us, allaying prejudice, obtaining a fair hearing for our holy religion, besides directly and indirectly making a multitude of converts. His spirit was that of a faithful child of Holy Church, every way Catholic in the fullest meaning of the term, and his life adorned with fruits of personal piety, but especially he was inspired with a zeal for souls of the true Apostolic order, aggressive and yet prudent, attracting Protestants and yet entirely orthodox."

Summarizing Hecker’s legacy, one of his 20th-century successors as Superior General of the Paulist Fathers, Joseph McSorley, wrote that Hecker manifested “a magnetic power commonly associated with personal holiness.”

In his life as a Catholic convert and a priest, Isaac Hecker practiced the theological and moral virtues to an heroic degree, confident that he was “living and working in the dawn of light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church.”

On May 23, 2006, the Paulist Fathers General Assembly, “conscious of the need for contemporary models of holiness,” resolved to promote the canonization cause of Paulist Founder, Father Isaac Hecker, declaring his life and teaching “truly a valuable resource that needs to be widely recognized and communicated,” that he “can inspire others beyond ourselves towards holiness of life, heroic virtue and personal faithfulness to Christ,” and that “the time has come” for Father Hecker’s story “to be disseminated throughout the larger church.”

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