Above: Father Isaac Hecker
Image in the Public Domain
ISAAC THOMAS HECKER (DECEMBER 18, 1819-DECEMBER 22, 1888)
Founder of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle
Robert Ellsberg, author of All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time (1997), suggests commemorating the life of Isaac Hecker on December 18.
Hecker was a Roman Catholic missionary to Protestants and a witness against nativism. He argued against traditional American anti-Roman Catholicism, for many native-born Americans thought of the Roman Catholic Church as a foreign institution incompatible with American politics and society. Certainly Papal hostility toward constitutions in Europe seemed to affirm this perspective. Nevertheless, the ubiquitous anti-Roman Catholicism was unquestionably bigoted.
Hecker, born in New York City, on December 18, 1819, to German immigrants, grew up a Methodist. Methodism did not satisfy our saint, who experimented with Unitarianism, Mormonism, and Transcendentalism. Ultimately, however, he found Holy Mother Church. In 1844 our saint converted to Roman Catholicism. Five years later he became a priest. Until 1857 Hecker worked as a missionary of the Redemptionist order; he ministered to German immigrants.
Hecker perceived a different vocation, however. He became a bridge between American society and the Roman Catholic establishment, which distrusted each other. In 1858, with Papal permission, Hecker founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle. The purpose of the new order was to convert the United States to Roman Catholicism. The Paulist Fathers operated differently than members of other orders; they did not take vows. Also, internal discipline was, as much as possible, to be a response to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Although many conservative Roman Catholics considered the Paulist Fathers and their methods subversive, more liberal-minded Roman Catholics tended to be supportive.
Hecker anticipated a post-Vatican II style of Roman Catholicism, one affirming of liberty of conscience and the separation of church and state. His death in 1888 left the order with much work left to do. In 1928, for example, many Americans voted against Governor Al Smith, the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, because he was a Roman Catholic. (My great-grandfather, George Washington Barrett, was among them.) In 1960 the Roman Catholicism of John Fitzgerald Kennedy was a major issue during the presidential campaign. Many Protestants, whether mainline or more conservative, repeated old nativistic arguments against the Roman Catholic Church.
The Paulist Fathers continue to perform the work of, in their words of their motto, “giving the Word a voice.”
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
NOVEMBER 8, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF JOHN CASPAR MATTES, U.S. LUTHERAN MINISTER AND LITURGIST
THE FEAST OF JOHANN VON STAUPITZ, MARTIN LUTHER’S SPIRITUAL MENTOR
Almighty God, we praise you for your servant Isaac Hecker,
through whom you have called the church to its tasks and renewed its life..
Raise up in our own day teachers and prophets inspired by your Spirit,
whose voices will give strength to your church and proclaim the reality of your reign,
through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 3:11-23
–Adapted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 60