Reflecting on Isaac Hecker and the Conversion of St. Paul

A few months ago, I was sitting with some of the young adults at our parish in Austin and I casually mentioned the name of Issac Hecker.  The response to that name was, “Who’s that?”  And initially the response took me off-guard because for the past three-and-a-half years, much of my conversation has centered around the founder of the Paulist Fathers.

So when I preached this past weekend for the Paulist Appeal, I thought it would be a good opportunity to focus on Hecker and how his story relates to the conversion of St. Paul.  Because I seemed to get a good reception on the homily, it is printed below. It does cover some good history of the community that supports Busted Halo, The Paulists, but you certainly won’t be expected to contributie for simply reading.

Of course if you WANT to, no one will stop you. :)

When our founder Isaac Hecker was born in 1819, America was not yet 50 years old.  Think about that for a second… we are farther away today from the Beatle’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan than Isaac Hecker was from the Revolutionary War.  America, this brand new experiment in human history, was just learning how to walk.  And people were asking questions like, “What kinds of values are we going to have?”  “What kind of people are we going to be?”

Hecker 1And as Isaac grew older in the midst of this extraordinary time, he saw his own life as being directly caught up in those very questions.  But he also sensed something stirring inside of him, something that bordered on the mystical.  Because if Paul’s conversion was that of a Big Bang, Hecker’s conversion consisted of a slow burn that unfolded over many, many years.

Isaac was born a Methodist and he knew that God was at work in his life but he didn’t know how.  So to discern where those stirrings were leading him, he went to Massachusetts go live with the Transcendentalists.  Now of course, many have observed that the Transcendentalists were essentially the hippies of the early 1800s… and while he didn’t encounter Jerry Garcia, his path crossed with the great literary thinkers of the day, people who were shaping that very question on what it means to be an American, like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

And in Massachusetts he drank in all of these ideas and aspirations for America… but the interior stirrings didn’t stop.  Eventually his thoughts turned from social reform to religion.  It was during this time that he began to see that the stirrings moving inside of him was actually the Holy Spirit… and that Holy Spirit was driving him to the Catholic Church.  So soon after being baptized a Catholic in New York City, he became a priest.  But not just any priest…

Because like Paul, when Isaac had his conversion experience he realized that what he had been given by God was not just for him.  Like Paul, he took seriously the Jesus’ command today to ‘Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News.’   And like Paul, he chose as his focus on a place that didn’t immediately make sense.  Whereas Paul chose to engage the Pagan world of the Greeks and Romans—people who were barely familiar with Judaism let alone Jesus—Isaac sought to preach Catholicism to America, a place where Catholicism was in the extreme minority and seen of as out of place and “too European” for this brand new world.

To which Hecker responded, “I am a better American because I am Catholic; I am a better Catholic because I am an American.”   He responded that America and the Catholic Church were not enemies, but friends.  Friends who compliment one another, friends who need one another.  And to carry out that message, the Paulist Fathers were created in order to bring Old Truths in New Forms, to proclaim the Good News in OUR OWN day and age.

Look, I have to confess something…. I was a little nervous in preparing for this Paulist Appeal; I’ve never really done a “money talk” before.  And I originally thought I’d talk about our video and internet ministries, our outreach to young adults, our reconciliation efforts, and of course our evangelization activities… all of this really great, cutting-edge stuff.  I also thought of the importance of supporting our retired (and not-so-retired) Paulists… as well as our “cute and darling” seminarians.

And because in a time when American culture is growing increasingly secular, Hecker’s mission is more important than ever.  In this time when a lot of people are suggesting that the 21st Century and religion are incompatible, the Paulists continue to spread the Good News that says modernity and Catholicism are not enemies, but friends.  But then I looked in the bulletins for the past few weeks and read what some of you had to say about the Paulists.

As I read these quotes I realized something—it’s not just the people who wrote some nice quotes… but I need the Paulists.  Because although I may be wearing this collar, I have doubts sometimes, I have struggles sometimes, and I need a prayerful community to take those questions and struggles to.  I need a place where faith, hope, and love not only remain… but are enacted in the people around me.  And yes, I need a place where it’s not a shock to see a priest greeting people after Mass wearing a Hawaiian shirt.

I only got to know Fr. Jim for about two months before he passed last November.  But we would have breakfast every Wednesday at the diner up the road for our weekly conversation.  In truth it wasn’t really a “conversation”—it was basically him talking for 90 minutes while I stuffed Pumpkin Pancakes into my mouth.  But during that time he would tell me stories about his priesthood.  One morning he told me about the time when a parishioner came to tell him that her family would be moving to a different city; the woman was concerned that they would not find a place like this parish where they were going.  To which he responded, “What you have been given here is not meant for you alone.  Now go out and share that which you have been given.”

The best reason I can think of is that the Paulist Appeal allows our community to do a lot of important things, but the biggest thing the Appeal does is it allows us to take what we have been given here at St. Austin’s and share it outside of these walls.   Look, it wasn’t that long ago when I too had a mortgage payment, when I was working a full time job and had bills to pay.  And I also know that for a lot of people, things are harder now than they were three years ago when I last made a mortgage payment.

So given these circumstances, I want to extend both our heartfelt gratitude and our prayers for the support all of you have and continue to show to the Paulist Fathers; for taking what you have been given and sharing it not only with the Paulists but with those outside of these walls you may never meet.  
Thank you and God Bless.

Father Tom Gibbons was ordained a Paulist priest in 2012. Prior to becoming a priest, he spent time as a Jesuit Volunteer in Phoenix, AZ, working with immigrants in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. He's also worked as a graphic designer and web developer, serving nonprofits like Success For All Foundation, Baltimore City Head Start, and Catholic Relief Services. He previously wrote a blog entitled “Kicking and Screaming” for Busted Halo. After serving as a deacon at Holy Trinity Parish in Georgetown, Washington, D.C., Father Tom was sent to St. Peter’s Church in Toronto, where he first served as Associate Pastor and then as the Parish Administrator. In 2016, he produced a documentary on the founder of the Paulist Fathers, entitled “Isaac Hecker and the Journey of Catholic America” – featuring celebrity voices of Martin Sheen, Matt McCoy, and Bob Gunton. Father Tom is currently at work on a new documentary investigating the complicated legacy of the Catholic Church in California with the film “Junipero Serra: Statue of Limitations,” scheduled for release in 2022. In addition to his work as Vice President of Paulist Productions, Father Tom also performs pastoral work at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church and Transfiguration Catholic Church in Los Angeles, CA.