Catholics in America – Founder of first order of Catholic priests in U.S.

The 19th century saw the rise of many notable ecclesiastical figures — John Henry Newman, Nicholas Wiseman, Rafael Merry del Val, and of course Giovanni Maria Mastai-Ferretti (Pope Pius IX) and Gioacchino Vincenzo Pecci (Pope Leo XIII). In America, one of the most important was Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Congregation of St. Paul, or Paulist Fathers.

This first order of Catholic priests to be established in the U.S. began in 1858 through the work of Hecker, the son of a Methodist mother and agnostic father. Like so many of his time, the young Isaac was forced to work from childhood, but reportedly used to read philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” while kneading bread in a town bakery. The thoughtful and reflective adolescent eventually came to know author Orestes Brownson, and like him became a professed Catholic.

Hecker saw as his mission an attempt to offer a rational and non-polemical apologetic defense of Catholicism to the Protestant majority in America.  He and his confreres sought to meet other Christians in all variety of public forums: state university campus ministries, Catholic centers of information in urban centers, even mobile trailer chapels pulled through the rural South, the bastion of American anti-Catholic prejudice. They sought to change hearts and minds with spoonfuls of theological honey, opining that the barrels of intransigent vinegar of condemnation had failed to attract enough flies to authentic conversion. (That well-worn saying originally comes from St. Francis de Sales by the way).

Hecker’s legacy continues over a century later as the Paulist Fathers make clear on their website: “Today the Paulists are committed to evangelization of the unchurched, reconciliation of alienated Catholics, and ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. These Paulist mission directions are consistent with the vision of Father Isaac Hecker and flow from the call of the Second Vatican Council. Paulists preach the call to come and explore Catholicism as did the first Paulists. They seek to invite, reconcile and renew alienated Catholics and communicate the Gospel through the means of their age.” Toward this effort, they are involved in publishing and the Christian mass media.

There has recently been a push within Catholicism to instill and perfect what has been called “the New Evangelization,” the effort stemming from Paul VI’s encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi to “go into the whole world” and repackage the unchanging truths of faith in contemporary modes of thought and communicative patterns. Benedict XVI even established a pontifical council devoted solely to this end on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in 2010. Fittingly, the two greatest missionaries in the history of Christianity serve as unofficial patrons for this movement. The New Evangelization both emphasizes the hierarchical structure so associated with the seat of Peter, and simultaneously calls Christians to wander Ulysses-like as did St. Paul to preach the good news of salvation in ever-changing contexts and radically foreign cultures.  John Paul II’s extensive travels often brought about the comment that while “he is Peter” (tu es Petrus) in a unique way, he is also in some sense the successor and heir to this unique charism of Paul.

The Paulist Fathers obviously take this evangelizing vocation with great seriousness and zeal. Perhaps the “gentile” cultures of today are not polytheistic pagans of the Areopagus in ancient Athens, or virulent nativist Catholic-baiters as in tragic eras of American history, but rather twitterbug undergrads “blogging it out” from their laptops between Xbox marathons who need to be convinced that “tolerance” isn’t the same as lazy indifference to their own and others’ religious traditions. Those fields are white for the harvest, but the co-laborers in that vineyard may still be all too few. Hecker’s project of serving as the gadfly to American culture by cajoling, convincing and communicating the importance of the Catholic message despite the reservations of a sometimes hesitant audience continues to transform and renew itself in a multitude of potential occasions, moments, and social locations of evangelization.

Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

About Author