19th-Century Missionary for the 21st-Century Church
On this date in 1819 Isaac Hecker (who eventually went on to found the Paulist Fathers in 1858) was born to immigrant parents in New York City. From an early age, he already expressed a belief in God’s special providence – that God had a providential plan for his life. Even as a boy working in the family bakery, Hecker was already asking himself: “What does God desire from me? How shall I attain unto Him? What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were,” he said, “the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.”
Hecker’s family was active in New York Democratic party politics, and Isaac would remain committed to key tenets of Jacksonian democracy. Gradually, however, his interests evolved from political to social and eventually to primarily religious concerns. Then as now, religion in the United States was a diverse marketplace in which individuals could choose whatever religions suited them. After considerable searching, Hecker found his spiritual home in the Catholic Church in 1844. “It never can be too often uttered that Catholicism means the Universal Good and True and Beautiful,” Hecker confided to his Diary on his 25th birthday. “That is not worthy to be named Catholicism which does not embrace all truth, all Goodness, all Beauty. Our allegiance is alone due to God and to Catholicism because it is the universal revelation of God. The measure of Catholicism is the measure of God’s love to man. I am a Catholic because I would not reject any of Gods Truth.”
The rest of his life reflected his enthusiastic embrace of the Church and he became an active, enthusiastic missionary – first as a member of the Redemptorist order and then as the founder of the Paulist Fathers. His life and ministry reflected the reciprocal relationship between the mission within and to the Catholic community and mission outward to the larger American society. “We cannot even preserve the faith among Catholics in any better way than by advancing it among our non-Catholic brethren,” he wrote. “Indeed, simply to preserve the faith it is necessary to extend it. It is a state of chronic disease for me to live together and not endeavor to communicate their respective good fortune. A Catholic without a mission to his non-Catholic fellow-citizens in these times, and when only a small portion of the human race has the true religion, is only half a Catholic.”
In his preaching and writing, 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 modern world. He was convinced that the same Holy Spirit who spoke in his own heart and in human hearts in general also 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.
Hecker died at the Paulist Mother House at the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York City on December 22, 1888. During his lifetime, the dynamic growth of the Catholic Church in the U.S., Its population constantly swollen by immigrants and converts, provided the dramatic backdrop for the story of his life and for the mission he bequeathed to his Paulist community.