Isaac Hecker Has Left Us a Legacy of Joy!
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
December 16, 2018

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Year C) on December 16, 2018, at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:10-18.

Today, we light the rose-colored candle on our Advent wreath, indicating that we are more than halfway through our Advent journey. After two weeks of the Church promoting the virtues of waiting, patience, and quiet anticipation, we now join the outside world in saying, “OK! It’s time to get excited about Christmas!”

For hundreds of years, this third Sunday of Advent has been called “Gaudete” Sunday. That is the first word (in Latin) of our second reading today, one of my absolute favorite passages in the Bible, from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Gaudete is a command to all of us: Rejoice! The Lord is near!

Today, we reflect on what joy actually is, and how we can be joyful even at moments when things aren’t absolutely perfect. We will reflect on one of the people in American Church history who has been among the best at living out the joy of the gospel: the founder of the Paulist Fathers, Isaac Hecker.

I think we need to make a glossary for religious words that have been co-opted by commercial interests. The most attractive display of the word “Believe” is on the side of Macy’s department store in Herald Square. “Faith” is the title of a Kenny G album that includes songs such as “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Perhaps we’ve lost the sense of what “belief” and “faith” mean. But today, let’s talk about joy. Zephaniah and Paul command us to rejoice. What does that mean?

Hebrew and Greek words that can be translated as “joy” appear in the Bible more than 150 times. Add in the adjectives “joyful” and “joyous,” and the verb “rejoice,” and you’ll be up to 400 mentions. These words are used to describe marriage, the birth of children, military victory, and successful harvests. The word “joy” is found repeatedly around accounts of Israel’s escape from Egypt and the restoration after the Babylonian exile.

Most of us realize that joy is something deeper, richer, and more profound than mere happiness. But what exactly does it mean? In Biblical times, the idea of “joy” was about connection, often a connection to other people, but always a connection between the believer and God.

As Pope Francis said in his first major apostolic exhortation, called The Joy of the Gospel: “I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.”

That makes a lot of sense, doesn’t it? Look at the images of Christmas: the images we use to express joy also express connection. Lowly Jewish shepherds worshipping beside wealthy Persian astrologers – it shows us the universality of our faith. Images of the madonna and child celebrate that God was born among us, walked among us, became one of us. Even our secular Christmas stories are about the joy of connection, including every Hallmark movie ever made. Ebenezer Scrooge refused to connect with other people throughout his entire adult life, but he finally finds joy in connecting with his estranged nephew, with his employee’s family, with business clients, and even with strangers on the street.

The Paulist Fathers are beginning a year-long celebration of the birth of our founder, Isaac Hecker. The 200th anniversary of his birth is December 18, 2019, and we’re taking a whole year to celebrate the gifts he has given to the American Catholic Church. We’ll be celebrating a Mass over at the University Catholic Center at 7 pm on Tuesday, his 199th birthday. Please join us!

Isaac Hecker, despite growing up on the lower East Side of Manhattan at a time when it was filled with crime, poverty, and disease, was a remarkably positive person. The youngest son in a German immigrant family, he had little formal education. He followed his older brothers into their baking and flour milling business… and like them, he briefly got involved in politics. But unlike his brothers George and John, Isaac quickly grew disillusioned with less noble characteristics of business and government. 

Hecker’s life was radically changed at the age of 22 when he had a vision of an angel. He described it this way in his journal roughly 10 months later:

I saw… a beautiful angelic, pure being and myself standing alongside of her, feeling a most heavenly pure joy. And it was if our bodies were luminous and they gave forth a moon-like light, which I felt sprang from the joy that we experienced. We were… unconscious of anything but pure love and joy…. Now this vision continually hovers over me. 

(Did you notice how many times Hecker used the word “joy” to describe this experience?) We’ll skip most of his biography, and just say that with a positive attitude, this divine vision, and whole lot of hard work, Hecker transformed from an uneducated baker’s assistant to one of the most prominent American Catholics of the 19th century. 

Hecker applied that vision of joy and positivity to everything he did. He used it when connecting with the great Transcendentalist thinkers at Brook Farm, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Bronson Alcott. He brought it to his mysticism, including his reliance on the Holy Spirit. He did it on the Redemptorist mission circuit, connecting with individual people at the back of the church as Clarence Walworth preached at the front. He did it when he was having morning coffee with the American ex-patriot community in Rome, bringing two prominent American artists into the Catholic faith. When there weren’t enough Paulists to give missions, Hecker went on the Lyceum circuit in suit and tie, speaking to non-Catholics about how he found the faith. He used that joy to connect with people by establishing the first Catholic printing press. It was at the heart of why he and other early Paulists introduced a novelty: preaching at daily Mass. Hecker used that same positivity to convince the U. S. bishops to create a Catholic University of America. As Hecker’s first biographer, Paulist Father Walter Elliot once wrote: “Never was a man a more Catholic than Father Hecker, simply, calmly, joyfully, entirely Catholic.” 

What makes Paulist parishes and Paulist ministries different from others? Some say that we, our collaborators, and our parishioners are friendly, welcoming, approachable, … and willing to laugh at ourselves. But I think at the heart of it, we live out this Biblical idea – and Hecker’s idea – of joy. Remember, joy is connection, connection with God and connection with others. 

We are all inheritors of Isaac Hecker’s legacy of joyful Christianity. So, no matter how lonely, how brittle, or how out-of-control we feel, can we make these remaining days of Advent a time for joy? Perhaps we can remember that Pope Francis’ latest apostolic exhortation is called Rejoice and Be Glad. Can we enkindle the flame in our hearts that we are infinitely loved? If we can’t bring ourselves to rejoice always and have no anxiety at all, can we at least ask the Holy Spirit to help us to rejoice more frequently and to have fewer anxieties? Then, perhaps the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.