Apostle of the United States?

This Sunday, Jan. 27, at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in Manhattan, New York’s Cardinal Edward Egan will formally open the cause of beatification for Isaac Hecker (1819-1888), founder of the Paulists, who are celebrating their 150th anniversary this year. It is an historic moment for the Catholic Church in this country, for Isaac Hecker was a quintessential American and convert to Catholicism who wanted to convert the whole United States.

After he died in 1888, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote, “I was very sorrowful at hearing of Father Hecker’s death. I have ever felt that there was this sort of unity in our lives—that we had both begun a work of the same kind, he in America and I in England, and I know how zealous he was in promoting it.” Indeed, they both converted to Catholicism around the same time, Hecker in America in 1844 and Newman in England in 1845.

It turns out that Father Hecker’s cause of beatification is opening right about the same time that Cardinal Newman’s is ending, since the Vatican’s prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints recently announced that the Venerable John Henry Newman’s beatification is “imminent,” which presumably means that the needed miracle is in the process of being approved. (For beatification of a non-martyr, a miracle, usually an inexplicable medical cure of some sort, must be proven once the Church has approved a decree of heroic virtue for the person in question. The Church decreed Newman’s heroic virtue a number of years ago.)

John Henry Newman was a quintessential Englishman, educated at Oxford, understated, eloquent and, after his conversion to Catholicism, wholeheartedly dedicated to the Catholic Church and its propagation among his people. Likewise, Isaac Thomas Hecker was a quintessential American, born in Manhattan of a German immigrant family. He participated in reform politics in opposing Tammany Hall in the 1830s, and joined in the transcendentalist Brook Farm experiment in West Roxbury in the 1840s for six months, with the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne, after which he became a Catholic, influenced by the Boston editor and Catholic convert Orestes Brownson, himself a visitor to Brook Farm.

He became a Redemptorist priest in 1849, after studying in Europe. He wrote, “The conversion of the American people to the Catholic faith has ripened into a conviction with me which lies beyond the region of doubt. My life, my labors and my death is consecrated to it. No other aim outside of my own salvation and perfection can occupy my attention for a moment. But all other things in view of this, art, science, literature, etc., enter in as part of the means, and command my interest, and demand all the encouragement within my reach.”

The Redemptorists expelled Father Hecker at the same time they rejected his appeal to establish, in the words of Cardinal Edward Egan, “a specifically American, as opposed to Irish or German, house to serve as a center for English-speaking preachers of parish missions.” The matter ended happily, though, when “Blessed Pius IX...recognized the need for a specifically American congregation of priests in the United States and, in the course of two private audiences, authorized Father Hecker to establish one in New York.” That was the “Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle,” the Paulists, established in 1858.

Somewhat ironically, it was a French preface to a careless translation of the first “Life of Father Hecker” written by Walter Elliot, CSP that occasioned the condemnation of “Americanism” in 1899 by Pope Leo XIII in the encyclical “Testem benevolentiae.” At the time, Cardinal James Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, wrote the pope that “this Americanism, as it has been called, has nothing in common with the views, aspirations, doctrine and conduct of Americans,” including of course Father Hecker, who, as Cardinal Egan wrote, was “a man of the Church, a loyal Religious and a totally dedicated follower of the Lord.”

A specifically American contribution to the Church universal can be seen in the Church Unity Octave which we are observing this week. It began exactly 100 years ago, in 1908, among Episcopalian members of the Society of Atonement who became Catholics the following year. St. Pius X sanctioned this week of prayer for Christian Unity between Jan. 18-25, and it has since spread throughout the Church universal. Another example is Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which American Jesuit John Courtney Murray helped write and which reflects our generally positive American experience under the First Amendment of keeping the realms of Church and state separate and distinct in order to better respect religious freedom.

If Isaac Hecker is eventually canonized, he could well be considered the Apostle of the United States.

Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.