St. Paul in Nineteenth Century America

Today marks the death of Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), the Thomas Merton of his era: a youth whose spiritual journey led him to Catholicism and the priesthood, and became a bestselling author on religious topics. Born in Manhattan, he was looking for a church that offered “the full range of the Christian experience.” Baptized a Catholic in 1844 and ordained a priest in 1849, he concluded that his vocation was to reach out to “a certain class of persons among whom I found myself before my conversion.” In 1858, he started America’s first community of priests, the Paulists, whose work focused on “outsiders.” (All the original members were converts.) From the start they were active in the media. In 1865 they founded The Catholic World, which became one of the most prominent journals of its time. Unlike most apologists, Hecker’s approach was positive rather than defensive. He argued that the Church best met the soul’s needs, offering a balance between the communal and individual, the material and spiritual. And he was enthusiastic. A peer described him as “one of these people whom you feel it is good to be with…. He wins at once your love, and infuses it as it were his own sunshiny nature into your heart.” The Paulists have kept their founder’s legacy alive and well. It’s taken on a new relevance with the call for a “New Evangelization.” Hecker’s cause for canonization is currently under consideration. (Hecker’s beard, by the way, was a style fairly popular among preachers. In the absence of central heating, it was a good way to keep your throat warm in the pulpit.)
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