Today is the 195th anniversary of Servant of God Isaac Hecker’s birth in New York City in 1819. A quarter century later later, on his first birthday as a Catholic, the future founder of the Paulist Fathers wrote in his Diary: “It is my 25th birthday; here let me offer myself to Thee for thy service oh Lord. Is it not what I should? Am I not Thine? Thou didst create me and ever hast sustained me. Thine I am. Accept me oh my God as thine, a child who needs most thy love and protection.”
Recently, I commented briefly on the first of the three aims identified by Pope Francis for this Year of Consecrated Life, “to look to the past with gratitude” - something that should come easily to us Paulists at this time of year when we recall our founder’s birth (and also his death, which occurred on December 22, 1888). The second and third aims which the Pope has proclaimed for this Year of Consecrated Life are “to live the present with passion” and “to embrace the future with hope.” In regard to the second aim, the Pope is asking those in religious communities, having remembered our past, to then “listen attentively to what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church today, to implement ever more fully the essential aspects of our consecrated life.”
One of the things that was so strikingly distinctive about Hecker’s approach to religious life was his intense personal devotion to the Holy Spirit and his desire to promote among all an increased appreciation of and openness to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In terms of what the Holy Spirit may be saying to the Church today, Hecker saw his new community as an expression of a special grace given to meet the special needs of our epoch and thus “renew the life of the members of the Church and extend her fold.” How to do that in the quite different circumstances of the 21st century is the great challenge facing us and all religious communities - as indeed the entire Church.
The second and third aims the Holy Father has proposed for this Year are only conceptually separate. In practice they go together. Passion presupposes hope for the future and hope inspires passion in the present. Throughout his life, Hecker lived in hope – as he once wrote in a letter to a friend: “Living and working in the dawning light of an approaching, brighter, more glorious future for God’s Holy Church. A future whose sun will rise first on this continent and spread its light over the world.”
Such hope is the great gift God has given to the world in giving us his Son, Jesus, who was born into our world at Christmas and continues to live among us and renew us, Christmas after Christmas.