The United States already has its own saints, men and women of great holiness and distinction such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, Frances Cabrini and Katherine Drexel. They represent the causes of education, missionary work, outreach to Native American Indians and ethnic minorities and a thousand other worthy apostolates. But do any of them embody the spirit of the whole church in America? The recent official opening of the cause for sainthood of Isaac Thomas Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, offers the possibility that he may someday be a patron of the United States.
Hecker, a classic American religious seeker who (after becoming Catholic at age 41) sought the conversion of the United States to the Catholic faith, was the champion of an attractive though controversial proposition: Americans have much to learn from the church, and the church can likewise learn from the United States. For centuries in this country, many church members saw themselves as Catholics who happened to be American, willing to live in physical and psychological ghettos. In recent decades, we have seen much of the opposite: Americans who happen to be Catholic, who have become part of the mainstream of American life but unwittingly sacrificed much of what makes Catholicism distinctive. We live, love and votethe pundits tell usjust like other Americans.
Hecker would have found both options anathema. His thought and actions propose a church that is both fully Catholic and wholeheartedly American, preaching the Gospel in constant recognition of our unique circumstances. Surely Americans understand democracy a little better than Rome. Our economic and social traditions also encourage a level of transparency that the church has been only slowly, sometimes painfully, embracing. The Catholic Church also has much to teach American society, including its venerable teachings on the sanctity of human life and the necessity of economic justice for all.
In recent years, growing recognition of Heckers personal holiness and important contributions to the faith have trumped concerns from another century about his orthodoxy, and Cardinal Edward Egan of New York noted at the ceremony on Jan. 27 opening Heckers cause, that he was a saint like us: a saint who has suffered, a saint who made his way through life bearing crosses with a tremendous faith. (Readers seeking a comprehensive account of Heckers life and influence might profit from David J. OBriens Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic.)
My personal devotion to Hecker is that much stronger because of the crosses he bore, including his dismissal from the Redemptorists, battles with depression, years of spiritual struggle while he suffered from the leukemia that eventually killed him and, perhaps most touching, his fear that his intense mystical visions might be nothing more than a symptom of insanity. His life does not lend itself easily to hagiography, but his faith in God through such trials is a powerful testament to the rewards of perseverance in the spiritual life.
At the end of January, Hecker was declared a Servant of God. Beatification is the next step, with official acknowledgment of his sainthood likely to follow. Only in the rarest of circumstances do these canonization processes take anything but decadessometimes centuriesto reach their completion, so it is unlikely that many of us will live to see his sainthood officially recognized. Nevertheless, we may all still hope that by that late date we will have long since met this great American saint face to face.