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ISAAC THOMAS HECKER (1819-1888)

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Originally appearing in Volume V13, Page 195 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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ISAAC THOMAS HECKER (1819-1888)  ,
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American
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Roman Catholic priest, the founder of the "Paulist Fathers," was born in New York City, of German immigrant parents, on the 18th of December 1819 . When barely twelve years of age, he had to go to
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work, and pushed a baker's cart for his elder brothers, who had a bakery in Rutgers Street . But he studied at every possible opportunity, becoming immersed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, and while still a lad took
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part in certain politico-social movements which aimed at the
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elevation of the working man . It was at this juncture that he met
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Orestes Brownson, who exercised a marked influence over him . Isaac was deeply religious, a characteristic for which he gave much credit to his prayerful
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mother, and remained so amid all the
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reading and agitating in which he engaged . Having grown into young manhood, he joined the
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Brook
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Farm
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movement, and in that colony he tarried some six months . Shortly after leaving it (in 1844) he was baptized into the Roman Catholic Church by Bishop McCloskey of New York . One
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year later he was entered in the novitiate of the Redemptorists in Belgium, and there he cultivated to a high degree the spirit of lofty mystical piety which marked him through
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life . Ordained a priest in
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London by Wiseman in 1849, he returned to
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America, and worked until 1857 as a Redemptorist missionary . With all his mysticism, Isaac Hecker had the wide-awake mind of the typical American, and he perceived that the missionary activity of the Catholic Church in the
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United States must remain to a large extent ineffective unless it adopted methods suited to the country and the age . In this he had the sympathy of four
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fellow Redemptorists, who like himself were of American birth and converts from Protestantism . Acting as their agent, and with the consent of his
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local superiors, Hecker went to Rome to beg of the Rector Major of his Order that a Redemptorist novitiate might be opened in the United States, in order thus to attract American youths to the missionary life .

In furtherance of this

request, he took with him the strong approval of some members of the American hierarchy . The Rector Major, instead of listening to
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Father Hecker, expelled him from the Order for having made the journey to Rome without sufficient authorization . The outcome of the trouble was that Hecker and the other four American Redemptorists were permitted by
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Pius IX. in 1858 to form the
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separate religious community of the Paulists . Hecker trained and governed this community in spiritual exercises and
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mission-preaching until his
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death in New York City, after seventeen years of suffering, on the 22nd of December 1888 . He founded and was the director of the Catholic Publication Society, was the founder, and from 1865 until his death the editor, of the Catholic
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World, and wrote Questions of the Soul (1855), Aspirations of Nature (1857), Catholicity in the United States (1899) and The Church and the Age (1888).project of Catholic enterprise . From the American priesthood, Father Hecker stood out conspicuous for sturdy courage, deep interior piety, an assertive self-initiative and immense love of
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modern times and modern liberty . So they took Father Hecker for a kind of
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patron saint . His biography (New York, 1891), written in
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English by the Paulist Father Elliott, was translated into French (1897), and speedily became the
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book of the
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hour . Under the inspiration of Father Hecker's life and character, the more spirited section of the French clergy undertook the task of persuading their fellow-priests loyally to accept the actual
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political establishment, and then, breaking out of their
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isolation, to put themselves in touch with the intellectual life of the country, and take an active part in the work of social amelioration . In 1897 the movement received an impetus—and a warning—when Mgr O'Connell, former Rector of the American College in Rome, spoke on behalf of Father Hecker's ideas at the Catholic Congress in Friburg . The conservatives took alarm at what they considered to be symptoms of pernicious modernism or " Liberalism." Did not the watchword " Aliens au peuple " savour of
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heresy ? Did it not tend toward breaking down the divinely established distinction between the priest and the layman, and conceding something to the laity in the management of the Church ?

The insistence upon individual initiative was judged to be incompatible with the fundamental principle of Catholicism, obedience to authority . Moreover, the conservatives were, almost to a man,

anti-republicans who distrusted and disliked the democratic abbes . Complaints were sent to Rome . A violent polemic against the new movement was launched in Abbe Maignan's Le Pere Hecker, est-il un saint ? (1898) . Repugnance to American tendencies and influences had a strong representation in the
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Curia and in powerful circles in Rome . Leo XIII. was extremely reluctant to pronounce any strictures upon American Catholics, of whose
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loyalty to the Roman See, and to their faith, he had often spoken in terms of high approbation . But he yielded, in a measure, to the pressure brought to bear upon him, and, early in
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February 1899, addressed to Cardinal Gibbons the Brief Testem Benevolentiae . This document contained a condemnation of the following doctrines or tendencies: (a) undue insistence on interior initiative in the spiritual life, as leading to disobedience; (b) attacks on religious vows, and disparagement of the value in the
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present age, of religious orders; (c) minimizing Catholic
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doctrine; (d) minimizing the importance of spiritual direction . The brief did not assert that any unsound doctrine on the above points had been held by Hecker or existed among Americans . Its tenour was, that if such opinions did exist, the Pope called upon the hierarchy to eradicate the evil . Cardinal Gibbons and many other prelates replied to Rome .

With all but unanimity, they declared that the incriminated opinions had no existence among American Catholics . It was well known that Hecker never had countenanced the slightest departure from Catholic principles in their fullest and most strict application . The disturbance caused by the condemnation was slight; almost the entire laity, and a considerable part of the clergy, never understood what the

noise was about . The affair was soon forgotten, but the result was to strengthen the hands of the conservatives in France . (J . J . F.) The name of Hecker is closely associated with that of " American-ism." To understand this movement it is necessary to comprehend the tendency of events in Catholic
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Europe rather than in America itself . The steady decline in the power and influence of French Catholicism since shortly after 1870 is the most remarkable feature of the
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history of the Third Republic . Not only did the French State pass
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laws bearing more and more stringently on the Church, under each succeeding
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ministry, but the bulk of the
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people acquiesced in the policy of its legislators . The clergy, if not Catholicism, was rapidly losing its hold over the once Catholic nation . Observing this fact, and encouraged by the
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action of Leo XIII., who, in 1892 called on French Catholics loyally to accept the Republic, a
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body of vigorous young French priests set themselves to check the disaster . They studied the causes which produced it .

These causes, they considered to be, first, the clergy's predominant sympathy with the monarchists, and in its undisguised hostility to the Republic; secondly, the Church's aloofness from modern men, methods and thought . The progressive party believed that there was too little cultivation of individual,

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independent character, while too much stress was laid upon what might be called the
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mechanical or routine side of religion . The party perceived, too, that Catholicism was making scarcely any use of modern aggressive modes of propaganda; that, for example, the Church took but an insignificant part in social movements, in the organization of clubs for social study, in the establishing of settlements and similar philanthropic endeavour . Lack of adaptability to modern needs expresses in short the deficiencies in Catholicism which these men endeavoured to correct . They began a domestic apostolate which had for one of its rallying cries, "Allons au peuple,' —" Let us go to the people." They agitated for the inauguration of social
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works, for a more intimate mingling of priests with the people, and for general cultivation of
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personal initiative, both in clergy and in laity . Not unnaturally, they looked for inspiration to America .

End of Article: ISAAC THOMAS HECKER (1819-1888)
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