Sunday, March 6, 2022

Nuper Nonulli

A week ago, the Paulist Fathers celebrated the centennial of ministry at the American Church in Rome, inaugurated at the Roman church of Santa Susanna on February 26, 1922. But, before any of that could have happened, before that could even have been a possibility, something happened in Rome almost 64 years previously, on March 6, 1858. On that day, the Congregation for Bishops and Regulars issued its Decree Nuper Nonnulli, which brought Isaac Hecker's first stay in Rome to its successful conclusion. That decree dispensed Hecker and 4 other American-born, formerly Protestant, Redemptorist priests - Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, Francis Baker, and Clarence Walworth - from their religious vows as Redemptorists and authorized them to return to the U.S. to continue, “under the direction and jurisdiction of the local bishops,” their work for the evangelization of the country. This set the stage for Hecker (together with three of the other four) to found the Paulist Fathers, four months later, on July 7, 1858, in New York City.

The back story to that decree was that Hecker and the four others had decided to appeal directly to the Redemptorist authorities in Rome for an English-speaking American house primarily focused on missionary work, an idea which had originated with their previous Provincial, but which his successor had reservations about. Hecker had sailed for Europe, arriving at the Redemptorist headquarters in Rome in August 1857, to find himself confronted by the Redemptorist Superior, Fr. Mauron, who had already received from the Provincial a letter critical of Hecker and his colleagues’ project. Later that month, the Redemptorist General Council decided that Hecker’s unauthorized trip was in itself grounds for dismissal. The decree of dismissal also accused him “a way of acting and thinking in general … by no means in harmony with the laws and spirit of our Institute.”

How Hecker went from successful Catholic author and prominent spokesman for the Church to being expelled from his religious community involved a legitimate debate within both the Redemptorists and the American Church about mission priorities with scarce resources. It involved ethnic tensions within the community - between the German-born and the American-born Fathers. It involved canonical questions concerning the correct interpretation of the Redemptorist Consitution – whether or not an individual member had the right to travel to Rome to make a direct appeal to the General Superior and his council. It highlighted contemporary community concerns about governance – American anxieties about overcentralization in the community and Roman worries about yet another division of the community. There were also, of course, the customary cultural misunderstandings between Europeans and Americans – rooted in their very different experiences of religion and religion’s relationship with 19th-century society.

The fourth image at the base of Hecker’s monumental sarcophagus in the Paulist Mother Church in New York highlights his ordeal in Rome in the six months that followed his expulsion from the Redemptorists.  

How did Hecker react to this sudden reversal? In a letter to his brother George, written just days after his expulsion, he wrote: “This morning I said Mass in St. Peter’s. Our affairs are in the hands of God. I hope no one will feel discouraged, nor fear for me. All that is needed to bring the interests of God to a successful issue is grace, grace, grace, and this is obtained by prayer, and if the American Fathers will only pray, and get others to pray, and not let anyone have the slightest reason to bring a word against them in our present crisis, God will be with us, and Our Lady will take good care of us."

“So far," Hecker continued. "no step that has been taken on our part need be regretted; if it were to be done over again it would have my consent; the blow given to me I have endeavored to receive with humility in view of God; it has not produced any trouble in my soul, nor made me waver in the slightest degree in my confidence in God or in my duty towards Him. Let us not be impatient; God is with us, and will lead us if we confide in him.“ [From a letter of Father Hecker to his brother George V. Hecker, September 2, 1857].

Armed with supportive letters from leading U.S. Bishops, Hecker took his case to the Congregation of Propaganda, which, as the curial body in charge of the Church in mission territories, then had jurisdiction over the U.S. Church (and would continue to do so until 1908). Already in September he had begun his eventually successful appeal to the Holy See and had had his first interview with Alesandro Cardinal Barnab√≥, Prefect of the Congregation of Progaganda, who was interested in the Church’s missionary efforts in the U.S. and was already aware of Hecker (who had recently been considered as a candidate for Bishop of Natchez, MS). Awaiting the outcome, Hecker actively promoted his case in every available way – including writing two articles in the important Jesuit journal Civilt√° Cattolica, optimistically assessing the Catholic Church’s prospects in the United States: 

“One might say that the longing after a more spiritual life is one of the principal characteristics of the American people. So far from being a nation absorbed in commerce and in accumulating material wealth, there is no other people who are so easily kindled to a religious enthusiasm, hence the success of the Methodists among them. And few will be found who are more ready to make sacrifices for the religious convictions, witness their countless churches, their Bible and Tract societies spread over that vast country.” [“The Present and Future Prospects of the Catholic Faith in the United States of North America,” December 1857–January 1858].

Visiting and celebrating Mass in Rome’s historic churches, themselves so identified with the mission of the Church in the past, Hecker had abundant opportunities to pray for the present evangelization of his home country: “Wednesday I said Mass in the Mamertine prison, in which St. Peter was confined by the order of Nero; and also St. Paul. The pillar is there in which they were chained, and the fountain remains which sprung up miraculously at their feet, in whose waters they baptized their gaolers and twenty-seven soldiers. There were with me four American students, and you can easily imagine that I prayed earnestly in Holy Mass to obtain or us all the zeal of the Apostles for the conversion of our country.”   [From a letter to Mrs. George V. Hecker, November 7, 1857].

Writing to his fellow missionaries back home that Christmas season, Hecker connected their situation to his sense of being called to serve the Church in American in a special way: “I must confess to you frankly that thoughts of this kind do occupy my mind and day by day they appear to come more clearly from heaven. I cannot refuse to entertain them without resisting what appears to me the inspirations of God. You know that these are not new opinions hastily adopted. From the beginning of my Catholic life there seemed always before me, but not distinctly, some such work, and it is indicated both in Questions of the Soul and the Aspirations of Nature and I cannot resist the thought that my present peculiar position is, or may be, providential to further some such undertaking.” [Letter to the American Fathers, January 1, 1858].

Writing home again after the Nuper Nonnulli Decree, he told his associates: "We are left in entire liberty to act in the future as God and our intelligence shall point the way. Let us be thankful to God, humble towards each other and everyone else, and more than ever in earnest to do the work God demands at our hands." [Isaac Hecker, Letter to the American Fathers, Rome, March 11, 1858].

On Nuper Nonnulli Day 10 years ago, I visited the Basilica of San Lorenzo Fuori le Mura (St. Lawrence Outside the Walls), which is one of the Seven "Pilgrimage Churches" of Rome. It enshrines the Tomb of Rome's esteemed 3rd-century martyr, the Deacon St. Lawrence, martyred August 10, 258. In addition to Lawrence's tomb, it also houses a marble slab, said to have been where the martyr's body was first laid after his death. It also has a beautiful medieval chiostro (cloister), housing scores of antiquities, which alone would be worth a visit.

The connection with Nuper Nonnulli, however, is that, since 1881, it has also housed the tomb of Hecker's papal patron, Blessed Pope Pius IX, with whom Hecker had two audiences during his momentous months in Rome - one before and another after the Decree Nuper Nonnulli. Pius IX was Pope from 1846 to 1878, but his burial at S. Lorenzo was delayed until 1881 in the hope of avoiding a hostile demonstration in the recently united Kingdom of Italy. As it turned out, a "patriotic" Italian gang did attempt (unsuccessfully) to throw the Pontiff's body in the Tiber! In his time, Hecker was obviously not unaware of the anticlericalism of the Kingdom of Italy and the various French Republics and of the political failure of ecclesiastical intransigence in those countries, and he could hardly not notice how, for all the prejudice the Catholic Church experienced in the U.S., the Church was in many respects really more free there than in much of traditionally Catholic Europe.

“The conversion of the Americans would be very difficult,” Pius IX had observed at his first meeting with Hecker on December 22, 1857, because Americans “are so engrossed in worldly pursuits and making money.” In response, Hecker compared the young country to “the young father of a family, who is furnishing his house.” Actually, Pius himself was quite prepared to acknowledge that Americans could also be generous, He was aware of “the bright side as well as the dark side of the American character.” But in the United States the Pope feared something that seemed even darker than its capitalist excesses - the country’s contentious politics. He worried that “in the United States there exists too unrestricted liberty” and a partisan spirit “in which parties get each other by the hair.” To this, Hecker confidently replied. “there is also the Catholic truth, which, if once known would come between these two parties and act like oil on troubled waters.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers, dated Rome, December 22, 1857]

Hecker’s confidence about Catholicism’s prospects in America and American society’s potential receptivity to Catholicism animated his life-long mission. In one of his last Catholic World articles, published in the year he died, Hecker quoted an anonymous acquaintance, who said “he didn’t care for union of church and state if he could have union of church and people.” [“The Mission of Leo XIII,” Catholic World, 48, 1888] Such comments convey how important the religious transformation of society and culture was for Hecker, and how he confidently expected this to accomplish what others looked for in politics.

Like the 19th-century’s most famous 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 between individuals, and the dilemma of how to create a community capable of uniting free individuals. In 19th-century Europe, the Church was struggling to survive as an institution against an increasingly liberal political order. There it sought to counteract the social fragmentation associated with liberalism and to reconnect increasingly isolated individuals into a community by preserving, repairing, or restoring religious bonds. The way to do this was to assert the Church’s traditional claims to authority as vigorously as possible and to insist upon its political privileges and institutional rights in relation to the state. In contrast to that time-honored political approach, Hecker saw a social solution in which Americans, converted to Catholicism as the answer to their deepest human aspirations and thus opened up to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in their lives, would "act like oil on troubled waters" to calm the country's contentious politics. 

What are we to make of Hecker's astonishingly hopeful prediction today?

Karl Marx being but the most infamous example, 19th-century thinkers tended to extrapolate from their contemporary experience and make predictions based thereon. Hecker had faith, obviously, in the truth of Catholicism and in its unique ability to respond to both the Questions of the Soul and The Aspirations of Nature (the titles of his two apologetical books composed in the 1850s). Based on his personal experience of New England Protestantism, he also confidently concluded that Americans were ripe for religious renewal, ready to recognize what he had recognized under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

Having himself experienced the divided and fragmented character of American Protestantism, Hecker always appreciated the importance of authority in the Church, as the divinely sanctioned providential alternative to the principle of individual interpretation.  For Hecker, “the test of our being directed by the Holy Spirit, and not by our fancies and prejudices, is our filial obedience to the divine external authority of the Church. … The measure of our love for the Holy Spirit is the measure of our obedience to the authority of the Church.” [“The Safeguards of the Paulist,” PV, pp. 141-142].. The internal order of the visible institutional Church was, for Hecker, the divine sanctioned means for the fulfillment of Christ’s life and mission on earth, pouring the oil of the Holy Spirit on the troubled waters of the world

Meanwhile, more than a century and a half later, the American religious situation has evolved and developed in ways which both confirm and challenge elements of Hecker's expectations. Americans today are again deeply divided, as they were in Hecker's time. Today, as David French has written, "Americans belong to their political 'tribe' not so much because they love its ideas but rather because they despise their opponents," while we "increasingly live separate lives - living in separate locations, enjoying separate media, and holding separate religious beliefs."

The viability of Hecker's vision - whether and how "the Catholic truth, which, if once known would come between these two parties and act like oil on troubled waters” - is thus a vital question for our own troubled time, which is both so similar to and so different from the context out of which Hecker formulated his hopes and aspirations.


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