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Living After Pentecost: Words From Servant of God Isaac Hecker

On May 18th,1845, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, the future Founder of the Paulist Fathers, who had become a Catholic the previous summer, received the sacrament of Confirmation - the sacrament most commonly associated with the Holy Spirit - together with his brother George, like Isaac also a new Catholic.

In that initial period of his life, animated by a self-conscious appreciation of God’s Providence, Hecker had discerned the presence and action of the Holy Spirit in God’s providential care for him and had identified his own inner aspirations and longings with the action of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Thereafter, one of his strikingly distinctive emphases as a Catholic - in his own personal spiritual life, in his reflections regarding his Paulist religious community, and in his general spiritual teaching – would be his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to foster among the faithful an increased appreciation of and openness to the fundamental activity and inspiration of the Holy Spirit operating in each individual and in the life of the Church. Throughout his Catholic life, his unfailing commitment to the Church’s mission remained rooted in a deeply felt, intensely lived personal experience of the indwelling presence and action of the Holy Spirit:

"An act of entire faith in the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit, and complete confidence in its action in all things – in its infinite love, wisdom, power; that it is under its influence and promptings up to now my life has been led. Though not clearly seen or known, He has directed every step. On this faith, on this principle, promised to act now and in time to come. To be above fear, doubt, hesitation, or timidity, but patient, obedient, and stable." (From private memoranda made in Europe during his illness, 1874-1875, The Paulist Vocation, p. 90.)

One can discern early anticipations of Hecker’s appreciation of the mission of the Holy Spirit already in his pre-conversion period as a young spiritual seeker, searching for God among the multiple religious and cultural expressions existing in his time, most famously among the Transcendentalists and at Brook Farm. At that time, however, his search preoccupied him primarily with Christological and ecclesiological questions, and Hecker’s more properly developed reflections on the Holy Spirit were most fully expressed later in his life, largely in somewhat scattered form in mostly unpublished essays written in the 1870s and 1880s in the aftermath of the First Vatican Council and then in The Church and the Age, a collection of twelve articles published as a book in the year before his death.

Hecker was no systematic theologian and did not write as one. What he wrote was not some “theology” of the Holy Spirit but an appreciation of how the activity of the Holy Spirit is experienced in the Church and of the individual, ecclesial, and social effects which flow from openness to that divine activity in the world.

Thus, in proposing the Catholic Church as “the radical remedy of all our evils,” Hecker immediately pivoted to an exposition of the Mission of the Holy Spirit:

"It cannot be too deeply and firmly impressed on the mind that the Church is actuated by the instinct of the Holy Spirit, and to discern clearly its action, and to cooperate with it effectually, is the highest employment of our faculties, and at the same time the primary source of the greatest good to society. … The essential and universal principle which saves and sanctifies souls is the Holy Spirit. … The actual and habitual guidance of the soul by the Holy Spirit is the essential principle of all divine life. … Christ’s mission was to give the Holy Spirit more abundantly. … In accordance with the Sacred Scriptures, the Catholic Church teaches that the Holy Spirit is infused, with all his gifts, into our souls by the sacrament of baptism, and that without His actual prompting or inspiration, and aid, no thought or act or even wish, tending directly towards our true destiny, is possible."

On this basis, therefore, Hecker proposed his essential program, first, for personal Christian perfection:

"The whole aim of the science of Christian perfection is to instruct men how to remove the hindrances in the way of the action of the Holy Spirit, and how to cultivate those virtues which are most favorable to His solicitations and inspirations. Thus the sum of spiritual life consists in observing and yielding to the movements of the Spirit of God in our soul, employing for this purpose al the exercises of prayer, spiritual readings, sacraments, the practice of virtues, and good works."

And inseparably then the social renewal the world needs:

"The light the age requires for its renewal can come only from the same source. The renewal of the age depends on the renewal of religion. The renewal of religion depends upon a greater effusion of the creative and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. The greater effusion of the Holy Spirit depends on the giving of increased attention to His movements and inspirations in the soul. The radical and adequate remedy for all the evils of our age and the source of all true progress, consist in increased attention and fidelity to the action of the Holy Spirit in the soul." (The Church and the Age, pp. 22-26)

Here Hecker has effectively posited three renewals: that of the age (the world, society), dependent on that of religion (the Church), itself inseparable from that of the individual.

In a diary begun in Egypt, in 1873, he deepened his lifelong reflection on the mission of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church:

"To wish to enlarge the action of the Holy Spirit in the Soul, independently of, or without the knowledge & appreciation of the necessity of the external authority of the Church, her discipline, her laws, her worship, etc. & the spirit of obedience, would only be opening the door to eccentricity, schism, heresy, & spiritual death.

"He who does not see the external authority of the Church, and the internal action of the Holy Spirit in an inseparable synthesis, has not a right or just conception of either."

Lest there be any ambiguity about how Hecker understood “a greater effusion of the Holy Spirit in the Church,” however, Hecker himself wrote to Hewit in 1875:

“I anticipate no special outpouring of the Holy Spirit – in the miraculous sense, no more than the present action, of the action of the Church in any age was miraculous.” Through the Church and its sacraments and its worship, “the object of Christ in the church is,” wrote Hecker in his later years, “to come in personal contact with the soul, and by the power of his grace to wash away its sins, communicate to it fellowship with God as the heavenly Father, and thereby to sanctify it.” (Catholic World, 38, October 1883).

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