It was a birthday party for the ages, as the Paulist Fathers celebrated the bicentennial of the birth of their founder, Servant of God Father Isaac Hecker, C.S.P.
Father Eric Andrews, C.S.P., the president of the Paulist Fathers, was the celebrant and homilist of the evening Mass at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan offered on Father Hecker’s actual birthday, Dec. 18.
Remembering his predecessor, he told the 200 people gathered at the West Side church that “we’re all part of Father Hecker’s family here at St. Paul the Apostle, the parish he founded with his brothers” in 1858.
The kinship requires their hearts be open to the Holy Spirit, Father Andrews said. “It was the engine that drove him from the beginning of his life.”
The Holy Spirit “propelled” Father Hecker, even before his ordination, “into the many aspects of his life.” Father Andrews told the congregation that if they want to follow Father Hecker’s lead, then they should “open your heart big and let the Holy Spirit carry you into a future you do not know, but a future that is always filled with hope and life and peace.”
Father Hecker was baptized into the Catholic Church as an adult in 1844. He first entered the Redemptorists a year later, taking off by ship for its novitiate in Belgium a few days after meeting with the provincial in Baltimore. His religious life wasn’t always smooth sailing, though.
After a time, Father Hecker headed to Rome to meet with the superior general so he and several other Redemptorist priests could clarify their service as an American missionary band. Father Hecker’s plans did not meet with approval, and he and his companions were dismissed from the Redemptorists.
When one door closed, another opened and “a new path was forged,” Father Andrews said. Pope Pius IX authorized them to form a new religious congregation focused on missionary work in the United States. Father Hecker was elected superior of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, a position he would hold until his death in 1888.
Father Hecker became known as the “steam” priest because he “took the old arc of the Church and put a motor in it,” Father Andrews explained. One of the ways he did that was to use all means of modern communication to transmit the message of the Gospel. He founded and edited the Catholic New World magazine, directed a paper for children and was the author of three books.
Father Hecker also suggested that the Catholic Church could serve “as a balm in our world” to bring together disparate voices and be a source of unity. Consequently, the mission of the Paulists was not to concentrate on political problems affecting the nation, or even squabbles within the Church.
“He would call us to open our heart and be perfected by the Holy Spirit,” Father Andrews said. “Don’t worry about out there as much as being concerned about your own soul.”
In a video message during the Mass, Cardinal Dolan said the life and ministry of Father Hecker appealed to him as a student of American Catholic history. “If we were going to do a Mount Rushmore of characters that were really normative, revered and instrumental in the development of the Catholic family in the United States, Father Isaac Hecker would be there.”
Cardinal Dolan said Father Hecker’s spiritual odyssey before he found his home in Catholicism would make him at home in our time, when many people proclaim spirituality, but are slower to belong to a community of faith.
“Those people have a patron in Isaac Hecker,” the cardinal said. “He went through that journey…until finally he discovered our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who he believed was alive and active and accessible in the Catholic faith.”
Father Hecker also found a “providential alliance” between the values of the United States of America and Catholic wisdom, Cardinal Dolan noted.
Father Hecker cautioned against being “dismissive of our culture, our country,” noting that “there are a lot of values there that gel with the Gospel and are allied with the mission of the Catholic Church,” the cardinal said.