Nuper Nonnulli + 160
160 years ago today, on March 6, 1858, the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued the Decree Nuper Nonnulli. At their request, it dispensed four of Isaac Hecker’s Redemptorist colleagues, Clarence Walworth, Augustine Hewit, George Deshon, and Francis Baker from their vows, and attached Hecker himself to their petition in respect to the dispensation. The decree directed the five of them then to work “under the direction and jurisdiction of the local bishops.” It was this event which made it possible for Hecker and three of the others to join together to form the Paulist Fathers the following summer.
The fourth image at the base of Hecker’s sarcophagus in the Paulist Mother Church depicts his ordeal in Rome in 1857-1858 after his expulsion from the Redemptorists. How Hecker went from successful Catholic author and prominent spokesman for the Church to being expelled from his religious community is a complicated story. It involved a legitimate debate within both the Redemptorists and the American Church about priorities – ministry within the Catholic community, or mission outward to non-Catholic America, or both; and, if both, then how. It involved ethnic tensions within the Redemptorists - 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 Redemptorist 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, cultural misunderstandings between Europeans and Americans – rooted in their very different experiences of religion and religion’s relationship with 19th-century society.
The basic story is that Hecker with the four other American-born, ex-Protestant Redemptorists – Hewit, Deshon, Baker, and Walworth - 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, Fr. George Ruland, had reservations about. Hecker sailed for Europe, arriving at the Redemptorist headquarters in Rome in August 1857. By the time of Hecker’s arrival, Fr. Mauron, had already received from Fr. Ruland a letter critical of Hecker and his colleagues’ project. Later that month, the Redemptorist General Council met and decided that Hecker’s unauthorized trip was in itself grounds for dismissal. The decree of dismissal accused him of ignoring the prohibition of such trips to Rome, of “procuring money from outsiders,” and having “a way of acting and thinking in general … by no means in harmony with the laws and spirit of our Institute.”
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].
Hecker remained in Rome for another eight months. Armed with supportive letters from leading U.S. Bishops, he 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 Barnabó, 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 form his having 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 Civiltá 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 evangelizing 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 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].
Finally, on March 6, the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued the Decree Nuper Nonnulli, in effect ignoring Hecker's dismissal and authorizing him and his four colleagues to continue their work “under the direction and jurisdiction of the local bishops.” [Decree of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars,” Nuper nonnulli,Translation].
A few days later, Hecker wrote to the other four: “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.” [“From a letter to the American Fathers,” dated Rome, March 9, 1858].