Thursday, July 7, 2022

"Devoted to the Great Wants of the Country"

On this date in New York City in 1858, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, together with three other ex-Redemptorist priests - Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker - founded the Paulist Fathers. At their 2022 General Assembly, the Paulist Fathers reaffirmed their community’s appreciation of Isaac Hecker’s holy life and heroic virtue, and said they continue to be inspired and directed in our discernment by Hecker’s own experience and his continuing influence.

Already anticipating the outcome of his Roman appeal of his expulsion from the Redemptorists,, Hecker had written to his colleagues from Rome the previous September 1857, asking them to consider forming “an independent band of missionaries, to be devoted to the great wants of the country.” Encouraged by the success of his appeal and armed with Blessed Pope Pius IX’s personal blessing, Hecker returned to New York on May 10, 1858, and joined the other ex-Redemptorists at his brother George Hecker’s house.
“Our aim,” Hecker wrote in a letter to a friend, “is to lead a strictly religious life in community, starting with the voluntary principle; leaving the question of vows to further experience, counsel, and indications of divine Providence.” Even so, Hecker would later write in an unpublished essay Personal Sanctification of the Paulist and His Standard of Perfection, "yet we are none the less wholly given up to the divine service. The true Paulist should be a man fitted to take the solemn vows at any moment.”
Thus, in their Programme of Rule & Constitution, which they and New York’s Archbishop John Hughes signed on July 7, 1858, thus forming The Congregation of Missionary Priests of S. Paul the Apostle (now named The Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle), the four committed themselves “to promote their own sanctification by leading a life in all essential respects similar to that which is observed in a religious congregation” and “to practice the three religious virtues of chastity, poverty, and obedience.” Three days later, the Archbishop signed another agreement, creating a new parish in Manhattan for the new community’s ministry. A year later, the new parish got off to a rousing start with its first Paulist mission, which began on December 18, 1859 (Hecker’s 40th birthday), and was attended by some 725 adults and 75 children. The Hecker of those early years those early years was remembered as a very hands-on pastor - checking that the altar cloths were changed weekly and the candles trimmed evenly, that fresh flowers were put on the altar daily, and that the pew doors were all shut after Mass.
Hecker’s priorities during this period were primarily pastoral and missionary work. When a volume of sermons preached at Saint Paul’s was published in 1861, a reviewer noted that they made no reference to the “exciting topics of the day.” In a New Year's Day sermon preached at Saint Paul the Apostle in 1863 ("How To Be Happy"), Hecker asserted: “I have nothing to do with those causes which lie in the mercantile or political world; for the sanctuary is not the place for the discussion of these questions.”
That, of course, was during the American Civil War, when the consequences of those “exciting topics of the day” could hardly be easily avoided. In fact, in that same sermon, he continued: "If you mean … that the earth is hateful and the world nothing but sin; that the soul is wholly depraved, and life is only another word for misery; then we reply, no; a thousand times, no! The Gospel we preach is not one of gloom and despair, but of glad tidings and great joy. The Creed we hold teaches us to 'believe in God the Father Almighty, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, and all things visible and invisible'.”
That same year, in his famous sermon on Saint Joseph ("The Saint of Our Day"), the doctrine contained in which he later described as “the groundwork of all my thoughts, actions [and] plans,” he said: "Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, and in the varied relations that form human society, and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced. … For it is the difficulties and hindrances that Christians find in their age which give the form to their character and habits, and when mastered, become the means of divine grace and their titles of glory."                                                                                                                               
Through such sermons and in his speaking and writing generally, Hecker self-consciously sought and promoted images and models of holiness which he believed resonated well within the new context created by what he saw happening in the changing world of the 19th century. Far from being a simplistic accommodation to the secularizing spirit of the modern age, Hecker’s efforts represented a renewed missionary commitment to his contemporary time and place.
Hecker’s constant preoccupation with emphasizing the compatibility of Roman Catholicism and American values and institutions and his invitation, already expressed in an 1857 letter to his colleagues, “to adapt ourselves to accept what is good in our social and political customs and institutions" represented not a call for conformity to secular culture, but rather a definite evangelizing strategy, an expression of missionary vitality. He was convinced that the same Holy Spirit who spoke in his own heart and in human hearts in general simultaneously spoke through the Church, and that the evangelization of American society through missionary action aimed at the conversion of citizens would benefit both Church and civil society.

Looking back on Hecker’s ideas from the vantage point of the present, we can appreciate his consistent commitment to call American Catholics to the fullness of their mission to evangelize their society and – to that end - to enhance the quality of Church life, to build up the Catholic Church in the United States. If anything, we may be even more apt to appreciate today the importance of improved internal Church community life for the effectiveness of its mission outward to society.

As the Paulist Fathers' 2022 general Assembly declared: At the heart of Paulist spirituality is an unwavering hopefulness that sees the sacred present in the contemporary context in which the mission of the Church is set. Faithful; to the charism of our founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, Paulist mission, rooted in this hopefulness, trust that the Holy Spirit is not only present in the modern world, but is actually breathing life into all things.

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