The National Catholic Review
Bruce Nieli

This year the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, commonly known as the Paulists, is beginning the process of seeking beatification for its founder, Isaac Thomas Hecker. To see Father Hecker declared blessed would indeed be an encouraging sign not only for our Paulist community but also for the United States and the universal church at this crucial time in history. Isaac Hecker founded the Paulists, America’s first Catholic religious society of men, on the eve of the Civil War, the gravest crisis in U.S. history. This was in 1858, the very year that Abraham Lincoln in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas declared his belief that “this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” But the Catholic Church was also in the midst of a crisis—in its intense struggle as an ancient body to minister effectively to the modern quest for liberty and justice. Hecker, a prophet and eternal optimist, believed that these two institutions, the United States of America and the Catholic Church, could help and complement each other. In fact, he felt that they were destined for one another. In an 1859 letter he wrote the words that would be inscribed on his tombstone: “In the union of Catholic faith and American civilization...a future for the Church brighter than any past.” But what would be the unifying force connecting these two institutions? The answer Hecker gave was the Holy Spirit.

 

As a twenty-something New Yorker, fresh from a prosperous bakery business and the Equal Rights branch of the early Democratic Party, Isaac Hecker came to a profound love of the spirit of Jesus through his sojourn among the 1840’s New England Transcendentalists. These were charismatic men and women who pursued spirituality without religion and included some of the movers and shakers of the American soul: guiding lights like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller and the Alcott family. They explored the transcendental thirsts of the soul—for unity, truth, goodness and beauty. Hecker’s contemplative heart-to-heart embrace of Jesus led him to discover that what ultimately quenches the thirsting soul is the living water of the Holy Spirit. He would later write: “Through the Holy Spirit we receive all that is holy, true, good, and beautiful.”

Yet on July 22, 1844, young Isaac would write in his diary: “The good, the true, and the beautiful are worshipped in mystic unity under the form of the holy in the Catholic religion....” The next month he would enter the Catholic Church, convinced that it could be the best “channel of the Holy Ghost” in quenching America’s thirsting soul.

Connected with Isaac’s passion for Catholicism was his passion for America. He was convinced that America was good for the church. He beheld the American experience of religious freedom as helping the Catholic Church grow in membership and openness to the Spirit. To Pope Pius IX’s caution that “in the United States there exists too unrestricted liberty,” Hecker, in a personal audience with the pope, responded that many “seeing in the United States that the Church is alone and independent, begin to regard it as a divine institution, and not as necessarily connected with what they term despotism, and they return to the Church.”

Modern-Day Heckers

Contemporary examples of Catholic Americans very much in the Hecker camp might help us in envisioning Catholic spirituality as an important leaven in unifying our people, and the United States as a logical setting for such a spirituality. One model, for example, of the thirst for unity is Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Through a renewed life of prayer the very busy archbishop of Chicago came to be a reconciler within the church. Bernardin, in fact, had been called to lead his country’s episcopacy as general secretary of an organization founded by the Paulist John J. Burke—the National (now United States) Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was Bernardin who prophetically proclaimed the “consistent ethic of life” principle that could help to unite a nation that is today so polarized between red and blue states. And it was this gentle priest of peace who shortly before his death conceived the Common Ground Project, designed to heal the liberal/conservative division paralyzing the modern church.

Thomas Merton could serve as a modern representative of the thirst for truth. In fact, among the many books authored by this profoundly contemplative monk and spiritual writer was one entitled The Ascent to Truth. It was his thirst for the fullness of truth that led him, like Isaac Hecker, into the Catholic Church, having been inspired to a great degree by a Paulist, Tom Fox. And it was Merton’s thirst for truth that led him, also like Hecker (and Pope John Paul II in Redemptoris Missio), to see the movement of the spirit of truth in all religions, and ultimately in the Catholic-Buddhist dialogues that completed the final chapter of his life.

The soul of Dorothy Day clearly thirsted for goodness. Participation in the women’s suffrage movement, radical socialism, a bohemian lifestyle, an abortion, a passionate love affair and single motherhood would all characterize this extraordinary individual, later described by her biographical filmmaker Ellwood Kieser, C.S.P., as “Mother Teresa with a past!” After her entrance into the Catholic Church, and with the assistance of the Paulist Father Joseph McSorley as an early spiritual director, she would become a tireless and holy “seamless garment” champion of nonviolent social change, living the legacy of Hecker’s friend Thoreau.

Between the two Paulist parishes of St. Patrick and St. Augustine in Memphis, Tenn., lie two American landmarks: Stax Records, the cradle of soul music, and the grave of Sister Thea Bowman, a woman whose soul was perpetually filled with the inner music of the Holy Spirit. For me, she is a contemporary model of the soul’s thirst for beauty. Granddaughter of a slave, and graced with a most winsome smile, a convert to Catholicism at 10 and a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration at 15, a gifted teacher, singer, dancer and proclaimer of the word, Bowman was a veritable icon of the spirit of jubilee. Riddled with the bone cancer that would eventually take her life, yet nevertheless embodying dramatically the spirituals of her African-American ancestors, she was even able to move the assembled body of bishops to get up on their feet and dance!

If Martin Luther King’s dream was to gather America around the “table of brotherhood,” could we not, in the spirit of Sister Thea, expand that vision to include an America dancing around the table of the Eucharist! Would we not then become one body, one spirit, one people in Christ?

In the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in January of 1999, along with approximately 15,000 representatives of the entire Western Hemisphere, I heard Pope John Paul II introduce his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. In that document appears this stirring quotation: “In America, the mestiza face of the Virgin of Guadalupe was from the start a symbol of the inculturation of the Gospel, of which she has been the lodestar and the guide. Through her powerful intercession, the Gospel will penetrate the hearts of the men and women of America and permeate their cultures, transforming them from within.”

 

E Pluribus Unum

A similar evangelical spirit had been communicated over 100 years before by Isaac Thomas Hecker, who boasted that divine providence had placed him in contact with “all classes” of people: “But the discerning mind will not fail to see that the [American] republic and the Catholic Church are working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogenous people, and by their united action giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development of man than has been heretofore accomplished.”

Father Hecker saw the United States as a natural, providential match for the e pluribus unum spirituality of Catholicism. Perhaps in our ecumenical and interreligious age our church could serve as a bridge of reconciliation among all the great churches, religions and spiritualities that continue to bless America. Might it even, on a broader scale, in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi and pursuing the hopes of Thomas Merton, serve as a bridge of reconciliation, as “mystical body,” between the mysticism of the East and the humanitarianism of the West?

The result would be a utopia in the best sense of St. Thomas More’s work. In the words of one of Hecker’s biographers, David O’Brien: “It would embrace all men and women; it would integrate all dimensions of human experience; it would have great art and music and science as well as great holiness; and it would be marked by the spontaneous response of persons to the Holy Spirit expressed in life, worship, and love of God and one another.”

Following the legacy and dream of Isaac Thomas Hecker, may our multicultural nation and our multicultural church work together to provide for all people “a future brighter than any past.”

Bruce Nieli, C.S.P., a Paulist evangelizer and missionary, lives in Memphis, Tenn.