What Isaac Heckler Can Teach Us about America

Article excerpt

Isaac Hecker, Catholic evangelist and author, loved to talk about America. As a Protestant become a Catholic, Hecker saw his own story as paradigmatic for all Americans, for he believed that a synthesis between the Catholic faith and American culture was possible. While his life and ministry spanned most of the nineteenth century, this article asks if there is in the life and thought of Hecker an intuitive sense of the American character, or an understanding of American culture that continues to have value? Can this mid-nineteenth century visionary provide us a way to re-examine our society and recover some sense of our culture that we have lost?

Hecker was born in New York City in 1819 to a German American family who had become evangelical Methodists during the Second Great Awakening. Failing to find personal satisfaction in evangelical Christianity, Hecker spent his early twenties living among the Transcendentalists of New England, first at George Ripley's Brook Farm, and later at Brownson Alcott's brief experiment called Fruitlands. In the summer of 1844, he surprised his Transcendentalist friends by converting to Roman Catholicism. Ordained as a Redemptorist priest five years later, his own interest in working with non-Catholics like himself soon led to conflicts with his religious superiors, who were primarily concerned to develop ministry to immigrant Catholics.

Together with three other Redemptorist priests who were also converts, Isaac Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers in 1858, devoting his life and ministry to the evangelization of the American people. Based upon his own experience of conversion, Hecker came to believe that every American would in time become a Roman Catholic; that the Catholic faith would dramatically transform American culture; and that when the Catholic faith combined with the energy and youthfulness of the American people, a renewal of church throughout the entire world would soon take place. His enthusiastic vision and his hopes for the transformation of American culture and ultimately the entire Catholic world appear in three books that he wrote between 1855 and 1885, and in his monthly, The Catholic World, which he founded in 1865.(1)

HECKER'S HOPE FOR AMERICA

He was an optimist by nature, and his enthusiasm and hopefulness were infectious. His friend Orestes Brownson described Hecker in these terms, "He is one of those men whom you feel it is good to be with ... full of life and cheerfulness, he wins at once your love . . . he infuses as it were, his own sunshiny nature into your heart."(2) Hecker's optimism must be placed against the background of his life which was filled with disappointments, including his physical incapacity during the last fourteen of his sixty-nine years of fife. The fact that Hecker never lost hope in himself or America only adds to the power of his beliefs. In the summer of 1851, after his return to the United States to begin his priestly ministry, he wrote to Brownson, "Let it be known that we have hope in the future ... we are a young people, a vast immeasurable field is before us, and (we) have no overpowering monuments of the past to check our fresh enthusiasm or to dishearten us."(3)

Hecker's optimism was primarily derived from his own spirituality. An evangelical Protestant who, according to historian David O'Brien, became an evangelical Catholic, God's transforming spirit was at work for Hecker beneath the events that comprised his present moment. "God's Providence," a phrase Hecker derived from American Puritanism, was the movement of the Spirit of God which guided and directed each individual life as well as the large church in the world. The Holy Spirit was at work in each individual, prompting one's hopes and aspirations, imparting grace to endure, and illumination to understand, and taking the polarities of a person's life and bringing them into synthesis. Every experience of the Spirit became, for Hecker, one further example of the ultimate triumph that lay ahead. …