‘A son of our shores, a saint for our times’: U.S. bishops vote to support cause for Paulists founder’s canonization

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Paulists founder
A painted portrait of Father Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist community. On Nov. 14, 2023 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted in support of his cause for sainthood. (OSV News photo/courtesy Paulist Fathers)

(OSV News) — Father Isaac Hecker was a Catholic convert, a religious community founder, a missionary and a pioneering Catholic publisher. He also may one day be recognized as a Catholic saint.

The U.S. bishops voted Nov. 14 to support his cause for canonization, which was initiated by the Paulists Fathers, the order Father Hecker founded, and launched in 2008 by the Archdiocese of New York.

Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee presented the cause to the bishops during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall plenary assembly in Baltimore.

Cardinal Dolan called Father Hecker “a son of our shores, a saint for our times.”

“Like those Apostles on Pentecost Sunday, he (Father Hecker) was on fire to share this (the claims of Catholicism) with everyone for the rest of his life,” he said. “Two-fold was his purpose: To make the Catholic faith appealing and accessible and compelling to a skeptical, and at times hostile, population, and then to educate and encourage Catholics in their own faith, enabling them to become ambassadors for Christ.”

The bishops voted 230-7 to support the cause, with two abstentions.

‘A saint for our times’

“Isaac Hecker was a seeker,” Paul Snatchko, director of marketing and communications for the Paulist Fathers, told OSV News Nov. 14. “He was someone who spent his whole life seeking to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit within himself.”

Father Hecker was born in 1819 in New York. As a child, he suffered smallpox and his parents expected him to die. Instead, he said to his mother, “No, Mother, I shall not die now. God has work for me in this world, and I shall live to do it.”

As a teen, he joined his brothers in a baking business. At age 19, he met Orestes Brownson, an influential public intellectual who later converted to Catholicism, and Hecker began to explore the spiritual life and reflect on the relationship between religion and democracy, living for a time in Transcendentalist utopian communities. That search would eventually lead him to the Catholic Church at age 24.

A sculpture of Father Isaac Hecker, who founded the Paulists in 1858, is seen Nov. 19, 2022, at the Hecker House, the Paulist House of Mission and Studies in Washington. Father Hecker is a sainthood candidate with the title “Servant of God.” (OSV News photo/LNJ Designs courtesy the Paulists)

The following year, he felt called to join the priesthood and was ordained in London for the Redemptorist congregation in 1849. He was among four Redemptorists sent to the United States to give missions in English-speaking parishes. Nine years later, Pope Pius IX dispensed him from his vows to the Redemptorists, and he founded the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, better known as the Paulists, a new congregation to evangelize in America.

Father Hecker was part of a secular speaking circle and launched the Catholic Publication Society, which would later become the Paulist Press. From 1869 to 1870, he attended the First Vatican Council as a theological adviser. He also became ill with a chronic disease that some historians believe was leukemia. After convalescing in Europe for several years, he returned to New York City, where he died in 1888. He is interred at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulist mother church in New York.

Spiritual but not religious

“Father Hecker was someone who, like many people today, was spiritual but not religious for the first 25 years of his life,” Paulist Father Ronald Franco, the postulator overseeing the diocesan phase of cause for canonization, told OSV News Nov. 14. “But then he found what he was looking for, and then he devoted the rest of his life to sharing what he found with the rest of his countrymen.”

A posthumous French translation of a biography of Father Hecker sparked controversy about his views on Catholicism and Americanism, and that may have stalled the launch of a cause for his canonization, Father Franco said.

“Contrary to most common views (at the time), Hecker believed that American Roman Catholicism and American democracy could become quite compatible. They’d be good partners,” he said. “Hecker really stressed this, that there are aspects of American culture that would make it receptive to Catholicism, if we interpreted it correctly, and that Catholicism in turn should appreciate what was good in American culture at a time when the general tendency was to see American culture as a dangerous threat to Catholic life.

“So he had a more optimistic, hopeful attitude towards how the church would flourish in American society, and of course he believed very strongly that the church had the answer to the divisions that were such a problem in our society,” he continued.

In 2008, Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York opened the cause for Father Hecker’s canonization, giving the Paulist founder the title “servant of God.”

Examination of life and writings

Father Franco said that theologians are currently evaluating Father Hecker’s copious writings, and it may be several years before the cause is ready to advance to the Holy See’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. If the cause progresses, the pope would declare him “venerable.” If a recognized miracle was attributed to his intercession, he could be beatified, and then with a second approved miracle, canonized.

In the meanwhile, Father Franco aims to spread awareness of Father Hecker’s life among American Catholics and encourage people to develop a devotion to him, including praying for miracles through his intercession.

Father Franco noted that in 2014 while he was pastor of a Paulist parish in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of his parishioners claimed to be healed of a tumor after praying for Father Hecker’s intercession. The situation was investigated, but there was not enough information establishing the tumor’s original presence to declare it a miracle, he said.

Snatchko said that Father Hecker might be of particular interest to people suffering from chronic illness, especially blood diseases, and for people wrestling with Catholicism.

“He struggled with his faith, and he always asked questions,” he said. “It’s really the Holy Spirit … and trying to figure out what the Holy Spirit is asking you to do in your life. … That’s what he was about. And if more people did that in our world, it would be for the better.”

Maria Wiering

Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.