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Life of Father Hecker online

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Produced by David McClamrock




Nihil obstat:
_Censor Deputatus._

_Archiepiscopus Neo-Ebor._


THE reader must indulge me with what I cannot help saying, that I
have felt the joy of a son in telling the achievements and
chronicling the virtues of Father Hecker. I loved him with the sacred
fire of holy kinship, and love him still - only the more that lapse of
time has deepened by experience, inner and outer, the sense of truth
and of purity he ever communicated to me in life, and courage and
fidelity to conscience. I feel it to be honor enough and joy enough
for a life-time that I am his first biographer, though but a late
born child and of merit entirely insignificant. The literary work is,
indeed, but of home-made quality, yet it serves to hold together what
is the heaven-made wisdom of a great teacher of men. It will be found
that Father Hecker has three words in this book to my one, though all
my words I tried to make his. His journals, letters, and recorded
sayings are the edifice into which I introduce the reader, and my
words are the hinges and latchets of its doors. I am glad of this,
for it pleases me to dedicate my good will and my poor work to
swinging open the doors of that new House of God that Isaac Hecker
was to me, and that I trust he will be to many.






_Archbishop of St. Paul._

LIFE is action, and so long as there is action there is life. That
life is worth living whose action puts forth noble aspirations and
good deeds. The man's influence for truth and virtue persevering in
activity, his life has not ceased, though earth has clasped his body
in its embrace. It is well that it is so. The years of usefulness
between the cradle and the grave are few. The shortness of a life
restricted to them is sufficient to discourage many from making
strong efforts toward impressing the workings of their souls upon
their fellows. The number to whose minds we have immediate access is
small, and they do not remain. Is the good we might do worth the
labor? We cannot at times refuse a hearing to the question.
Fortunately, it is easily made clear to us that the area over which
influence travels is vastly more extensive than at first sight
appears. The eye will not always discern the undulations of its
spreading waves; but onward it goes, from one soul to another, far
beyond our immediate ranks, and as each soul touched by it becomes a
new motive power, it rolls forward, often with energy a hundred times
intensified, long after the shadows of death have settled around its
point of departure.

Isaac Thomas Hecker lives to-day, and with added years he will live
more fully than he does to-day. His influence for good remains, and
with a better understanding of his plans and ideals, which is sure to
come, his influence will widen and deepen among laymen and priests of
the Church in America. The writing of his biography is a tribute to
his memory which the love and esteem of his spiritual children could
not refuse; it is, also, a most important service to generations
present and unborn, in whose deeds will be seen the fruits of
inspirations gathered from it. We are thankful that this biography
has been written by one who from closest converse and most intimate
friendship knew Father Hecker so thoroughly. He has given us in his
book what we need to know of Father Hecker. We care very little,
except so far as details may accentuate the great lines of a life and
make them sensible to our obtuse touch, where or when a man was born,
what places he happened to visit, what houses he built, or in what
circumstances of malady or in what surroundings he died. These things
can be said of the ten thousand. We want to know the thoughts and the
resolves of the soul which made him a marked man above his fellows
and which begot strong influences for good and great works, and if
none such can be unfolded then drop the man out of sight, with a
"_Requiescant in pace"_ engraven upon his tombstone. Few deserve a
biography, and to the undeserving none should be given.

If it be permitted to speak of self, I might say that to Father
Hecker I am indebted for most salutary impressions which, I
sorrowfully confess, have not had in me their due effect; the
remembrance of them, however, is a proof to me of the usefulness of
his life, and its power for good in others. I am glad to have the
opportunity to profess publicly my gratitude to him. He was in the
prime of life and work when I was for the first time brought to
observe him. I was quite young in the ministry, and very naturally I
was casting my eye around in search of ideal men, whose footsteps
were treading the path I could feel I, too, ought to travel. I never
afterwards wholly lost sight of Father Hecker, watching him as well
as I could from a distance of two thousand miles. I am not to-day
without some experience of men and things, won from years and toils,
and I do not alter one tittle my estimate of him, except to make it
higher. To the priests of the future I recommend a serious study of
Father Hecker's life. To them I would have his biography dedicated.
Older men, like myself, are fixed in their ways, and they will not
receive from it so much benefit.

Father Hecker was the typical American priest; his were the gifts of
mind and heart that go to do great work for God and for souls in
America at the present time. Those qualities, assuredly, were not
lacking in him which are the necessary elements of character of the
good priest and the great man in any time and place. Those are the
subsoil of priestly culture, and with the absence of them no one will
succeed in America any more than elsewhere. But suffice they do not.
There must be added, over and above, the practical intelligence and
the pliability of will to understand one's surroundings, the ground
upon which he is to deploy his forces, and to adapt himself to
circumstances and opportunities as Providence appoints. I do not
expect that my words, as I am here writing, will receive universal
approval, and I am not at all sure that their expression would have
been countenanced by the priest whose memory brings them to my lips.
I write as I think, and the responsibility must be all my own. It is
as clear to me as noon-day light that countries and peoples have each
their peculiar needs and aspirations as they have their peculiar
environments, and that, if we would enter into souls and control
them, we must deal with them according to their conditions. The ideal
line of conduct for the priest in Assyria will be out of all measure
in Mexico or Minnesota, and I doubt not that one doing fairly well in
Minnesota would by similar methods set things sadly astray in
Leinster or Bavaria. The Saviour prescribed timeliness in pastoral
caring. The master of a house, He said, "bringeth forth out of his
treasury new things and old," as there is demand for one kind or the
other. The apostles of nations, from Paul before the Areopagus to
Patrick upon the summit of Tara, followed no different principle.

The circumstances of Catholics have been peculiar in the United
States, and we have unavoidably suffered on this account. Catholics
in largest numbers were Europeans, and so were their priests, many of
whom - by no means all - remained in heart and mind and mode of action
as alien to America as if they had never been removed from the
Shannon, the Loire, or the Rhine. No one need remind me that
immigration has brought us inestimable blessings, or that without it
the Church in America would be of small stature. The remembrance of a
precious fact is not put aside, if I recall an accidental evil
attaching to it. Priests foreign in disposition and work were not
fitted to make favorable impressions upon the non-Catholic American
population, and the American-born children of Catholic immigrants
were likely to escape their action. And, lest I be misunderstood, I
assert all this is as true of priests coming from Ireland as from any
other foreign country. Even priests of American ancestry, ministering
to immigrants, not unfrequently fell into the lines of those around
them, and did but little to make the Church in America throb with
American life. Not so Isaac Thomas Hecker. Whether consciously or
unconsciously I do not know, and it matters not, he looked on America
as the fairest conquest for divine truth, and he girded himself with
arms shaped and tempered to the American pattern. I think that it may
be said that the American current, so plain for the last quarter of a
century in the flow of Catholic affairs, is, largely at least, to be
traced back to Father Hecker and his early co-workers. It used to be
said of them in reproach that they were the "Yankee" Catholic Church;
the reproach was their praise.

Father Hecker understood and loved the country and its institutions.
He saw nothing in them to be deprecated or changed; he had no longing
for the flesh-pots and bread-stuffs of empires and monarchies. His
favorite topic in book and lecture was, that the Constitution of the
United States requires, as its necessary basis, the truths of
Catholic teaching regarding man's natural state, as opposed to the
errors of Luther and Calvin. The republic, he taught, presupposes the
Church's doctrine, and the Church ought to love a polity which is the
offspring of her own spirit. He understood and loved the people of
America. He recognized in them splendid natural qualities. Was he not
right? Not minimizing in the least the dreadful evil of the absence
of the supernatural, I am not afraid to give as my belief that there
is among Americans as high an appreciation and as lively a
realization of natural truth and goodness as has been seen in any
people, and it seems as if Almighty God, intending a great age and a
great people, has put here in America a singular development of
nature's powers and gifts, both in man and out of man - with the
further will, I have the faith, of crowning all with the glory of the
supernatural. Father Hecker perceived this, and his mission was to
hold in his hands the natural, which Americans extolled and cherished
and trusted in, and by properly directing its legitimate tendencies
and growth to lead it to the term of its own instincts and
aspirations - Catholic truth and Catholic grace. Protestantism is no
longer more than a name, a memory. The American has fallen back upon
himself, scorning the negations and the doctrinal cruelties of
Protestantism as utterly contrary to himself, as utterly unnatural;
and now comes the opportunity of the Catholic Church to show that she
is from the God who created nature, by opening before this people her
treasures, amid which the soul revels in rational liberty and
intelligence, and enjoys the gratification of its best and purest
moral instincts. These convictions are the keynote of Father Hecker's
controversial discourses and writings, notably of two books,
_Aspirations of Nature_ and _Questions of the Soul._ He assumed that
the American people are naturally Catholic, and he labored with this
proposition constantly before his mind. It is the assumption upon
which all must labor who sincerely desire to make America Catholic.

He laid stress on the natural and social virtues. The American people
hold these in highest esteem. They are the virtues that are most
apparent, and are seemingly the most needed for the building up and
the preservation of an earthly commonwealth. Truthfulness, honesty in
business dealings, loyalty to law and social order, temperance,
respect for the rights of others, and the like virtues are prescribed
by reason before the voice of revelation is heard, and the absence of
specifically supernatural virtues has led the non-Catholic to place
paramount importance upon them. It will be a difficult task to
persuade the American that a church which will not enforce those
primary virtues can enforce others which she herself declares to be
higher and more arduous, and as he has implicit confidence in the
destiny of his country to produce a high order of social existence,
his first test of a religion will be its powers in this direction.
This is according to Catholic teaching. Christ came not to destroy,
but to perfect what was in man, and the graces and truths of
revelation lead most securely to the elevation of the life that is,
no less than to the gaining of the life to come. It is a fact,
however, that in other times and other countries the Church has been
impeded in her social work, and certain things or customs of those
times and countries, transplanted upon American soil and allowed to
grow here under a Catholic name, will do her no honor among
Americans. The human mind, among the best of us, inclines to narrow
limitations, and certain Catholics, aware of the comparatively
greater importance of the supernatural, partially overlook the

Then, too, casuists have incidentally done us harm. They will quote
as our rule of social conduct in America what may have been tolerated
in France or Germany during the seventeenth century, and their
hair-splitting distinctions in the realm of abstract right and wrong
are taken by some of us as practical decisions, without due reference
to local circumstances. The American people pay slight attention to
the abstract; they look only to the concrete in morals, and we must
keep account of their manner of judging things. The Church is
nowadays called upon to emphasize her power in the natural order. God
forbid that I entertain, as some may be tempted to suspect me of
doing, the slightest notion that vigilance may be turned off one
single moment from the guard of the supernatural. For the sake of the
supernatural I speak. And natural virtues, practised in the proper
frame of mind and heart, become supernatural. Each century calls for
its type of Christian perfection. At one time it was martyrdom; at
another it was the humility of the cloister. To-day we need the
Christian gentleman and the Christian citizen. An honest ballot and
social decorum among Catholics will do more for God's glory and the
salvation of souls than midnight flagellations or Compostellan

On a line with his principles, as I have so far delineated them,
Father Hecker believed that if he would succeed in his work for
souls, he should use in it all the natural energy that God had given
him, and he acted up to his belief I once heard a good old priest,
who said his beads well and made a desert around his pulpit by
miserable preaching, criticise Father Hecker, who, he imagined, put
too much reliance in man, and not enough in God. Father Hecker's
piety, his assiduity in prayer, his personal habits of self-denial,
repel the aspersion that he failed in reliance upon God. But my old
priest - and he has in the church to-day, both in America and Europe,
tens of thousands of counterparts - was more than half willing to see
in all outputtings of human energy a lack of confidence in God. We
sometimes rely far more upon God than God desires us to do, and there
are occasions when a novena is the refuge of laziness or cowardice.
God has endowed us with natural talents, and not one of them shall
be, with His permission, enshrouded in a napkin. He will not work a
miracle, or supply grace, to make up for our deficiencies. We must
work as if all depended on us, and pray as if all depended on God.

God never proposed to do by His direct action all that might be done
in and through the Church. He invites human co-operation, and
abandons to it a wide field. The ages of most active human industry
in religious enterprises were the ages of most remarkable spiritual
conquests. The tendency to overlook this fact shows itself among us.
Newman writes that where the sun shines bright in the warm climate of
the south, the natives of the place know little of safeguards against
cold and wet. They have their cold days, but only now and then, and
they do not deem it worth their while to provide against them: the
science of calefaction is reserved for the north. And so,
Protestants, depending on human means solely, are led to make the
most of them; their sole resource is to use what they have; they are
the anxious cultivators of a rugged soil. Catholics, on the contrary,
feel that God will protect the Church, and, as Newman adds, "we
sometimes forget that we shall please Him best, and get most from
Him, when, according to the fable, we put our shoulder to the wheel,
when we use what we have by nature to the utmost, at the same time
that we look out for what is beyond nature in the confidence of faith
and hope." Lately a witty French writer pictures to us the pious
friends of the leading Catholic layman of France, De Mun, kneeling in
spiritual retreat when their presence is required in front of the
enemy. The Catholic of the nineteenth century all over the world is
too quiet, too easily resigned to "the will of God," attributing to
God the effects of his own timidity and indolence. Father Hecker
rolled up his sleeves and "pitched in" with desperate resolve. He
fought as for very life. Meet him anywhere or at any time, he was at
work or he was planning to work. He was ever looking around to see
what might be done. He did with a rush the hard labor of a missionary
and of a pastor, and he went beyond it into untrodden pathways. He
hated routine. He minded not what others had been doing, seeking only
what he himself might do. His efforts for the diffusion of Catholic
literature, THE CATHOLIC WORLD, his several books, the Catholic
tracts, tell his zeal and energy. A Catholic daily paper was a
favorite design to which he gave no small measure of time and labor.
He anticipated by many years the battlings of our temperance
apostles. The Paulist pulpit opened death-dealing batteries upon the
saloon when the saloon-keeper was the hero in state and church. The
Catholic University of America found in him one of its warmest
advocates. His zeal was as broad as St. Paul's, and whoever did good
was his friend and received his support. The walls of his parish, or
his order, did not circumscribe for him God's Church. His choice of a
patron saint - St. Paul - reveals the fire burning within his soul. He
would not, he could not be idle. On his sick-bed, where he lay the
greater part of his latter years, he was not inactive. He wrote
valuable articles and books, and when unable to write, he dictated.

He was enthusiastic in his work, as all are who put their whole soul
into what they are doing. Such people have no time to count the dark
linings of the silvery clouds; they realize that God and man together
do not fail. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm. It fits a man to be a
leader; it secures a following. A bishop who was present at the
Second Plenary Council of Baltimore has told me that when Father
Hecker appeared before the assembled prelates and theologians in
advocacy of Catholic literature as a missionary force, the picture
was inspiring, and that the hearers, receiving a Pentecostal fire
within their bosoms, felt as if America were to be at once converted.
So would it have been if there had been in America a sufficient
number of Heckers. He had his critics. Who ever tries to do something
outside routine lines against whom hands are not raised and whose
motives and acts are not misconstrued? A venerable clergyman one day
thought he had scored a great point against Father Hecker by jocosely
suggesting to him as the motto of his new order the word "Paulatim."
The same one, no doubt, would have made a like suggestion to the
Apostle of the Gentiles. Advocates of "Paulatim" methods have too
often left the wheels of Christ's chariot fast in the mire. We
rejoice, for its sake, that enthusiasts sometimes appear on the
scene. The missions of the early Paulists, into which went Father
Hecker's entire heart, aroused the country. To-day, after a lapse of
thirty or thirty-five years, they are remembered as events wherever
they were preached.

His was the profound conviction that, in the present age at any rate,
the order of the day should be individual action - every man doing his
full duty, and waiting for no one else to prompt him. This, I take
it, was largely the meaning of Father Hecker's oft-repeated teaching
on the work of the Holy Ghost in souls. There have been epochs in
history where the Church, sacrificing her outposts and the ranks of
her skirmishers to the preservation of her central and vital
fortresses, put the brakes, through necessity, from the nature of the
warfare waged against her, upon individual activity, and moved her
soldiers in serried masses; and then it was the part and the glory of
each one to move with the column. The need of repression has passed
away. The authority of the Church and of her Supreme Head is beyond
danger of being denied or obscured, and each Christian soldier may
take to the field, obeying the breathings of the Spirit of truth and
piety within him, feeling that what he may do he should do. There is
work for individual priests, and for individual laymen, and so soon
as it is discovered let it be done. The responsibility is upon each
one; the indifference of others is no excuse. Said Father Hecker one
day to a friend: "There is too much waiting upon the action of
others. The layman waits for the priest, the priest for the bishop,
and the bishop for the pope, while the Holy Ghost sends down to all
the reproof that He is prompting each one, and no one moves for Him."
Father Hecker was original in his ideas, as well as in his methods;
there was no routine in him, mental or practical.

I cannot but allude, whether I understand or not the true intent of
it, to what appears to have been a leading fact in his life: his
leaving an old-established religious community for the purpose of
instituting that of the Paulists. I will speak so far of this as I
have formed an estimate of it. To me, this fact seems to have been a
Providential circumstance in keeping with all else in his life. I
myself have at this moment such thoughts as I imagine must have been
running through his mind during that memorable sojourn in Rome, which
resulted in freeing him from his old allegiance. The work of
evangelizing America demands new methods. It is time to draw forth
from our treasury the "new things" of the Gospel; we have been long
enough offering "old things." Those new methods call for
newly-equipped men. The parochial clergy will readily confess that
they cannot of themselves do all that God now demands from His Church
in this country. They are too heavily burdened with the ordinary
duties of the ministry: instructing those already within the fold,
administering the sacraments, building temples, schools, and
asylums - duties which must be attended to and which leave slight
leisure for special studies or special labors. Father Hecker
organized the Paulist community, and did in his way a great work for
the conversion of the country. He made no mistake when he planned for
a body of priests, more disciplined than usually are the parochial
clergy, and more supple in the character of their institute than the

Online LibraryWalter ElliottLife of Father Hecker → online text (page 1 of 42)