The cause of sainthood for one of New York’s own took another small step forward Tuesday, as U.S. bishops held a canonical consultation on the cause of beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker.
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 with two abstentions, to support the cause of beatification and canonization on the diocesan level.
Isaac Thomas Hecker was born on December 18, 1819, in New York City, to John and Caroline Hecker. Isaac began formal education in 1826 but stopped after his maternal grandfather’s death. He then worked as an apprentice at a local Methodist newspaper. He later joined his older brothers in their successful bakery business, which allowed them to support his growing interest in spirituality. Isaac spent years exploring various contemporary religious ideas, but none fully satisfied his reason or conscience. Eventually his search would take him to the Catholic Church, which “burst upon my vision as the object to which all my efforts had been unintentionally directed. It was not a change, but a sudden realization of all that had hitherto obscurely captivated my mind, and secretly attracted my heart.”
Embracing his vocation, Hecker joined the novitiate for the Redemptorists and was ordained to the priesthood in 1849. Father Hecker embarked on missions, promoting moral reform and a higher Catholic standard of living in the United States. In 1858, Father Hecker, along with other American Redemptorists, sought to establish an English-speaking mission in the United States, which led to their departure from the Redemptorist order. They formed a new community, the Congregation of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle, which is today known as the Missionary Society of Saint Paul the Apostle, commonly known as the Paulist Fathers, committed to evangelizing and building up the Catholic community in the United States.
Father Hecker’s vision extended beyond parochial missions to addressing the broader societal challenges of the 19th century, emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in individual lives and in guiding the Church. He saw the Church as an essential unifying force in a fragmented society, capable of overcoming division. His teachings emphasized personal conversion, the Church’s authority, and the interaction between faith and reason. In his later years, Hecker’s focus broadened to address global issues, and he explored the significance of immigration in building a united society. Father Hecker’s final work, “The Church and the Age,” encapsulated his theological reflections that emphasize the importance of the Holy Spirit’s influence in the Church and the individual.
Father Hecker died at the Paulist Fathers’ residence in New York City on December 22, 1888, after battling numerous illnesses over the last years of his life. He left behind a legacy of recognizable holiness and his reputation for sanctity was evident in his own lifetime and has continued to inspire pastoral and missionary zeal in the Church down to today.
Hecker continues to provide an inspirational model for our contemporaries to think about the search for God, the experience of conversion, the giving of oneself heroically in service, the furthering of the Church’s mission, and attentiveness to the direction of the Holy Spirit.
The Archdiocesan Inquiry phase of the cause of beatification and canonization of the Servant of God Isaac Thomas Hecker was formally opened by Cardinal Edward Egan in the Archdiocese of New York in January 2008.
— OSV News contributed to this article.