In March 1851, after six years abroad, he returned to New York City as a member of the newly established Redemptorist province. As his ship left Quarantine for New York Harbor, his eyes swept along the shoreline of Lower Manhattan. The memories of the joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats he had experienced on those wharves and in those streets nearly overwhelmed him.
Isaac, aware that no systematic effort had been made to attract Protestant interest, wrote a book in 1855, titled Questions of the Soul, based on his own spiritual journey. In place of the classical defense of Catholicism through logic, he presented Catholicism as a religion which best answered the needs of the heart. Christ came to fill us with life, Isaac argued, and the Catholic Church is the means by which he fulfills his mission. Within months, Questions of the Soul went through three printings.
But Hecker’s desire to emphasize an American experience of Catholicism met with resistance from his European superiors in the Redemptorists who dismissed him from the congregation.
Isaac, determined to fight the expulsion, remained in Rome and arranged an interview with Pope Pius IX. The pontiff, in effect, reversed the sentence of expulsion and annulled the vows of Hecker and his American Redemptorist confreres. During his months in Rome, Isaac had determined that the best way to serve the church in the United States was to establish a congregation of priests to labor for the conversion of his native land. Pope Pius approved his plan and encouraged him to take the steps necessary for its realization. “To me the future looks bright, hopeful, full of promise,” he wrote home, “and I feel confident in God’s providence and assured of his grace in our regard.”
Returning to America in the spring of 1858, Hecker gathered his American friends, Father Augustine Hewit, Father Francis Baker and Father George Deshon, to plan the new congregation. Archbishop Hughes accepted them into the New York archdiocese, giving them a parish on 59th street for their headquarters. They called themselves ‘Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle.’ The group, popularly known as the Paulists, conducted parish missions and the apostolate to non-Catholics.
Between 1867 and 1869, Isaac, directly addressing Protestants from lecture platforms, delivered more than 56 lecture series, traveling from Boston to Missouri, from Chicago to Hartford. During one western tour, he traveled more than 4,500 miles and spoke to more than 30,000, two-thirds of whom were non-Catholics.
In a time when some believed that being Catholic and American were mutually exclusive identities, Hecker was a living example of how those two identities could easily co-exist. “We can never forget how distinctly American was the impression of his personality” wrote Hecker’s first biographer, Father Walter Elliot. “We heard the nation’s greatest men then living. Father Hecker was so plainly a great man of this type, so evidently an outgrowth of our institutions, that he stamped American on every Catholic argument he proposed.”
The Paulist Press and Vatican I
In April 1865, adding the written word to his speaking campaign, Isaac launched ‘The Catholic World,’ a monthly magazine. A year later, he founded the Catholic Publication Society (now the Paulist Press) for the purpose of disseminating Catholic doctrine on a large scale, primarily for non-Catholics. In 1870, he established ‘The Young Catholic,’ a magazine for young boys and girls.
In 1869-70, Hecker attended the First Vatican Council as a theologian for Bishop James Gibbons of North Carolina. Returning home in June 1870, the 55-year-old Hecker, discovered he was suffering from chronic leukemia. So rapidly did the disease progress that by 1871, he could not continue his work as Paulist director, pastor, lecturer and writer. He had great difficulty accepting that God, for whom he was doing such marvelous deeds, would allow him to be cut down in mid-career.
When he left for Europe to seek a cure, he told his Paulist brothers: “Look upon me as a dead man. God is trying me severely in soul and body, and I must have the courage to suffer crucifixion.” He wandered from one European spa to another, worn in body and sorely tried in spirit. He refused to despair. He struggled to believe that God was as much at work in him now as he was on the lecture platform.
He spent the winter of 1873-74 aboard a boat on the Nile River; the sail benefited him immensely. “This trip,” he wrote, “has been in every respect much more to my benefit than my most sanguine expectations led me to hope. It seems to me almost like an inspiration.”
In 1875, he returned to New York and started to work once more, although on a limited basis. His vision of a Catholic America glowed ever brighter. During the next 13 years, his horizons broadened to encompass the entire church, particularly Europe. Anti-clerical governments seriously damaged the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church during the later half of the 19th century. At the First Vatican Council, the church, asserting her rights in the spiritual sphere, issued the dogma of papal infallibility.
Following the Vatican council, Hecker wrote a remarkably prophetic essay which described the work of the Holy Spirit in the renewal of both church and state. Hecker’s theology foreshadowed by 80 years the interest of the Second Vatican Council in the role of the Holy Spirit in renewal.
Illness brought Hecker to a dark night of the spirit. He often felt God has abandoned him; he judged the efforts of his life useless. But, as the terrible blood cancer destroyed his body, his spirit found new strength. He turned back the despair; he accepted his lot as God’s will for him. The spirit within him brought him new peace and serenity.
This article is adapted from a biography of Isaac Hecker by Boniface Hanley, O.F.M. that appears on the Paulist Fathers website.