Isaac Hecker

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Isaac Hecker
Hecker1.jpg
Born Isaac Thomas Hecker
(1818-12-18)December 18, 1818
New York City, NY, USA
Died December 22, 1888(1888-12-22) (aged 70)
New York City, NY, USA
Nationality American
Occupation Roman Catholic Priest and Missionary
Known for Founding of the Paulist Fathers
Parents John Hecker, Caroline Freund
Signature Appletons' Hecker Isaac Thomas signature.jpg

Isaac Thomas Hecker (December 18, 1819 – December 22, 1888) was an American Roman Catholic Priest and founder of the Paulist Fathers, a North American religious society of men; he is named a Servant of God by the Catholic Church.

Originally ordained a Redemptorist priest in 1849, with the blessing of Pope Pius IX, Hecker founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, now known as the Paulist Fathers, in New York on July 7, 1858. The Society was established to evangelize both believers and non-believers in order to convert America to the Catholic Church. Father Hecker sought to evangelize Americans using the popular means of his day, primarily preaching, the public lecture circuit and the printing press. One of his more enduring publications is The Catholic World, which he created in 1865. [1]

Hecker’s spirituality centered largely on cultivating the action of the Holy Spirit within the soul as well as the necessity of being attuned to how it is prompting one in great and small moments in life. Hecker believed that the Catholic faith and American culture were not opposed, but could be reconciled. The ideas of individual freedom, community, service, and authority were fundamental to Hecker when conceiving of how the Paulists were to be governed and administered. Hecker's work was likened to that of Cardinal John Henry Newman, by the Cardinal himself. In a letter written to Father Augustine Hewit on the occasion of Father Hecker's death, Newman wrote: "I have ever felt that there was a sort of unity in our lives, that we had both begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England".[2] Father Hecker’s cause for Sainthood was opened January 25, 2008, in the mother Church of the Paulist Fathers on 59th St, New York City.

Early life[edit]

Hecker, circa 1860

Isaac Hecker was born in New York City, the third son and youngest child of German immigrants, John and Caroline (Freund) Hecker. When barely twelve years of age he had to go to work, and pushed a baker's cart for his elder brothers, who had a bakery in Rutgers Street. But he studied at every possible opportunity, becoming immersed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and while still a lad took part in certain politico-social movements which aimed at the elevation of the working man.[3]

Brook Farm movement[edit]

It was at this juncture that he met Orestes Brownson, who exercised a marked influence over him. Isaac was deeply religious, a characteristic for which he gave much credit to his prayerful mother, and remained so amid all the reading and agitating in which he engaged. Having grown into young manhood, he joined the Brook Farm movement, and in that colony he tarried some six months.

Conversion to Catholicism and ordination as a priest[edit]

Shortly after leaving the Brook Farm in 1844, Hecker was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church by Bishop John McCloskey of New York. One year later he was entered in the novitiate of the Redemptorists in Belgium, and there he cultivated to a high degree the spirit of lofty mystical piety which marked him through life.[3]

Ordained a priest in London by Wiseman in 1849, he returned to America, and worked until 1857 as a Redemptorist missionary. With all his mysticism, Isaac Hecker had the wide-awake mind of the typical American, and he perceived that the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in the United States must remain to a large extent ineffective unless it adopted methods suited to the country and the age. In this he had the sympathy of four fellow Redemptorists, who like himself were of American birth and converts from Protestantism.[3]

Acting as their agent, and with the consent of his local superiors, Hecker went to Rome to beg of the Rector Major of his Order that a Redemptorist novitiate might be opened in the United States, in order thus to attract American youths to the missionary life. In furtherance of this request, he took with him the strong approval of some members of the American hierarchy. The Rector Major, instead of listening to Father Hecker, expelled him from the Order for having made the journey to Rome without sufficient authorization.[3]

Isaac, determined to fight the expulsion, remained in Rome. He approached Cardinal Alessandro Barnabò, prefect of the Propaganda, the Congregation of the Roman Curia with supervisory responsibility over the church in the United States. Cardinal Barnabo, made aware by American bishops of Hecker's outstanding missionary work and personal holiness, arranged an interview with Pope Pius IX. The pontiff, in effect, reversed the sentence of expulsion and annulled the vows of Hecker and his American Redemptorist confreres.

Founding of the Paulist Fathers[edit]

Hecker in 1887

During his months in Rome, Isaac had determined that the best way to serve the church in the United States was to establish a congregation of priests to labor for the conversion of his native land. Pope Pius approved his plan and encouraged him to take the steps necessary for its realization. 'To me the future looks bright, hopeful, full of promise,' he wrote home, 'and I feel confident in God's providence and assured of his grace in our regard.[3]

The outcome of the trouble was that Hecker, George Deshon, Augustine Hewit, Francis Baker, and Clarence Walworth, all of whom were American Redemptorists, were permitted by Pope Pius IX in 1858 to form the separate religious community of the Paulists.

Hecker returned to America from Rome and gathered his American friends Father Augustine Hewit, Father Francis Baker and Father George Deshon, to plan their congregation. Archbishop John Hughes accepted the men into his New York archdiocese, giving them a parish on 59th Street for their home. The five men decided on calling themselves the 'Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle.' The Priests, popularly known as the Paulists, conducted parish missions and the retreats to non-Catholics.[3]

Between 1867 and 1869, Hecker, directly addressing Protestants from lecture platforms, delivered more than 56 lecture series, traveling from Boston to Missouri, from Chicago to Hartford. During one Western tour, he traveled more than 4,500 miles and spoke to more than 30,000 people, two-thirds of whom were non-Catholics. Hecker's first biographer, Father Walter Elliot, wrote: 'We can never forget how distinctly American was the impression of his personality. We heard the nation's greatest men then living... Father Hecker was so plainly a great man of this type, so evidently an outgrowth of our institutions, that he stamped American on every Catholic argument he proposed... Never was a man a more Catholic than Father Hecker, simply, calmly, joyfully, entirely Catholic.'[3] Another writer quipped, 'He is putting American machinery into the ancient ark and is getting ready to run her by steam.'

In April 1865, adding the written word to his speaking campaign, Isaac launched 'The Catholic World,' a monthly magazine. A year later, he founded the Catholic Publication Society (now the Paulist Press) for the purpose of disseminating Catholic doctrine on a large scale, primarily for non-Catholics. In 1870, he established 'The Young Catholic,' a magazine for young boys and girls.[3]

In 1869-70, Hecker attended the First Vatican Council as a theologian for Bishop James Gibbons of North Carolina. On the trip, he visited Assisi, home of St. Francis. 'Francis touched the chords of feeling and aspiration of the hearts of his time, and organized them for united action,' Hecker wrote in his journal.[3]

Returning home in June 1870, the 55-year-old Hecker, full of enthusiasm, looked forward to resuming his American apostolate. But instead, he was stricken with painful, chronic leukemia. So rapidly did the disease progress that by 1871, he could not continue his work as Paulist director, pastor, lecturer and writer. Hecker had great difficulty accepting that the God whom he served would allow him to be cut down in mid-career. When he left for Europe to seek a cure, he told his Paulist brothers: "Look upon me as a dead man...God is trying me severely in soul and body, and I must have the courage to suffer crucifixion." He wandered from one European spa to another, worn in body and sorely tried in spirit, struggling to believe that God was as much at work in him now as he was on the lecture platform.[3]

He spent the winter of 1873-74 aboard a boat on the Nile River; the sail benefited him immensely. 'This trip,' he wrote, 'has been in every respect much more to my benefit than my most sanguine expectations led me to hope. It seems to me almost like an inspiration.'[3]

In 1875, the American Paulists invited Father Hecker to return to their midst. He came back and started to work once more, although on a limited basis. For 13 more years, he exerted his constantly diminishing strength to bring Catholicism to the hearts of his fellow Americans.[3] During these declining years, he also expanded his vision to the entire world, particularly Europe, where the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church was in decline. At the First Vatican Council, an attempt to stem this decline, the church issued the doctrine of papal infallibility. Following the Council, Hecker wrote an essay describing the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of both church and state. Hecker's theology foreshadowed by 80 years the interest of the Second Vatican Council in the role of the Holy Spirit.

During his last years Hecker constantly struggled with the feeling that God had abandoned him and that his life was useless. But, as the terrible blood cancer destroyed his body, his spirit found new strength. He turned back the despair; he accepted his lot as God's will for him. The spirit within him brought him new peace and serenity.[3] Isaac Hecker died December 22, 1888, at the Paulist House on 59th Street in Manhattan.[3]

Hecker and Americanism[edit]

Pope Leo XIII

The name of Hecker is closely associated with Americanism. To understand this movement it is necessary to comprehend the history of Catholic Europe rather than America itself. During the French Third Republic (which began in 1879), the power and influence of French Catholicism steadily declined. The French government passed laws bearing more and more stringently on the Church, and the majority of French citizens did not object. Indeed, they began to look toward legislators and not to the clergy for guidance.[4]

Observing this, and encouraged by the action of Pope Leo XIII, who, in 1892 called on French Catholics loyally to accept the Republic, several young French priests set themselves to stop the decline in Church power. They determined that because the Church was predominantly sympathetic to the monarchists and hostile to the Republic, and because it held itself aloof from modern philosophies and practices, people had turned away from it. The progressive priests believed that the Church did too little to cultivate individual character, and put too much emphasis on the routine side of religious observance. They also noted that Catholicism was not making much use of modern means of propaganda, such as social movements, the organization of clubs, or the establishing of settlements. In short, the Church had not adapted to modern needs, and these priests endeavored to correct this. They began a domestic apostolate which had for one of its rallying cries, "Allons au peuple." ("Let us go to the people.") They agitated for social and philanthropic projects, for a closer relationship between priests and parishioners, and for general cultivation of personal initiative, both in clergy and in laity. Not unnaturally, they looked for inspiration to America. There they saw a vigorous Church among a free people, with priests publicly respected, and with a note of aggressive zeal in every project of Catholic enterprise.[4]

The French reformers particularly admired Father Hecker for his courage, piety, assertive self-initiative, and love of modern times and modern liberty. Indeed, they took him as a kind of patron saint. His biography, written in English by the Paulist Father Elliott in 1891, was translated into French six years later and proved an inspiration to the French. Inspired by Father Hecker's life and character, the activist French priests undertook the task of persuading their fellow-priests to accept the political system, and then to break out of their isolation, put themselves in touch with the intellectual life of the country, and take an active part in the work of social amelioration. In 1897 the movement received an impetus when Monsignor O'Connell, former Rector of the Pontifical North American College in Rome, spoke in behalf of Father Hecker's ideas at the Catholic Congress in Friburg.[4]

Conservative Catholics took alarm at what they considered to be symptoms of pernicious modernism or Liberalism. They thought the "Allons au peuple" catchphrase had a ring of heresy, breaking down the divinely established distinction between the priest and the layman, and giving lay people too much power in Church affairs. The insistence upon individual initiative was judged to be incompatible with the fundamental principle of Catholicism, obedience to authority. Moreover, the conservatives were, almost to a man, anti-republicans who distrusted and disliked the democratic abbés. They complained to the Pope, and in 1898, Abbé Charles Maignen wrote a violent polemic against the new movement called Le Père Hecker, est-il un saint? ("Is Father Hecker a Saint?").[4]

Many powerful Vatican authorities also detested the Americanist tendency. However, Pope Leo XIII was reluctant to chastise the American Catholics, whom he had often praised for their loyalty and faith. But he eventually made concessions to the pressures upon him, and in early February 1899, addressed to Cardinal James Gibbons the Brief Testem Benevolentiae. This document condemned the following doctrines or tendencies:

  1. undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience
  2. attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value of religious orders in the modern world
  3. minimizing Catholic doctrine
  4. minimizing the importance of spiritual direction

The brief did not assert that Hecker and the Americans had held any unsound doctrine on the above points. Instead, it merely stated that if such opinions did exist, the Pope called upon the hierarchy to eradicate them. Cardinal Gibbons and many other prelates replied to Rome. With a near-unanimous voice, they declared that the incriminated opinions had no existence among American Catholics. Hecker never had countenanced the slightest departure from Catholic principles in their fullest and most strict application. The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity and a considerable part of the clergy were unaware of this affair. However, the pope's brief did end up strengthening the position of the conservatives in France.[4]

Cause for Sainthood[edit]

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York formally opened Fr. Hecker's cause for sainthood on January 25, 2008 at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in New York City, mother church of the Paulist Fathers. Fr. Hecker is now known as Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker.[5]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ Fox 1911.
  2. ^ Smith 1913.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Boniface Hanley, OFM. The Story of Isaac Hecker: Missionary to North America Paulist Fathers, 2008-02-08, http://www.paulist.org/main/hecker_book.htm
  4. ^ a b c d e  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Hecker, Isaac Thomas". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  5. ^ The Paulist Fathers News

References[edit]

Attribution

Sources[edit]

  • John Farina, An American Experience of God. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.
  • John Farina, ed. Isaac Hecker, The Early Diary: Romantic Religion in Ante-bellum America. New York: Paulist Press, 1989.
  • Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic. By David J. O'Brien. New York: Paulist Press, 1992.
  • Isaac Hecker and his Friends. By Joseph McSorley. New York: Paulist Press, 1972.
  • The Paulist Vocation. By Isaac Hecker. New York: Paulist Press, 2000.
  • Hecker Studies: Essays on the Thought of Isaac Hecker. By John Farina. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
  • Yankee Paul: Isaac Thomas Hecker. By Vincent F. Holden. Milwaukee: Bruce Pub. Co, 1958.

External links[edit]