Joseph, Hecker, and Following God When the Path Isn’t Clear
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
December 19, 2018

Editor’s note: Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on December 18, 2018 at the University Catholic Center at the University of Texas in Austin, TX, as part of a special liturgy kicking off a year-long celebration of the bicentennial of the birth of Paulist founder Fr. Isaac Thomas Hecker. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8; Psalm 72; and Matthew 1:18-25.

A few years ago, a young man was in my office, struggling with his doubts about the existence of God. He said, “Why can’t God speak to me like he spoke to Joseph?” I said, “Let’s look at the passage together. It says ‘The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a dream.’ So, he had a dream that an angel spoke to him. When he woke up, do you think Joseph might have thought that he had made the whole thing up?” And even if was Joseph was confident that his dreams were from God, they only told him a few very basic things: 

  • Stick with Mary, she’s telling the truth. 
  • Name the child Jesus.
  • Take your family to Egypt; Herod wants to kill Jesus.
  • It’s safe to come back to Israel, but don’t stay in Judah; go up to Galilee.

So, was Joseph special? Did he receive specific instructions from God every day on what to do, or was Joseph like the rest of us – maybe every once in a while receiving a clear insight from God, but most of the time praying about how best to care for Mary and Jesus, and not getting a clear yes or no from God before he had to make a decision?

More than 1900 years after Joseph, another man was born who had dreams: Isaac Thomas Hecker. When he was only about three years old, young Isaac contracted a virulent strain of smallpox, and his mother Caroline explained to him that he was not expected to live. Young Isaac replied, “No, Mother, I shall not die now. God has work for me in this world, and I shall live to do it.”

With such a confident start, you’d think it would have been easy for Isaac to find his way. But it wasn’t. Hecker was cheerful even in the midst of the poverty, corruption, and disease of the Lower East side of Manhattan of Jacksonian America, but he couldn’t figure out what God was calling him to do. His older brothers started a baking and flour milling business. Isaac worked with them, pushing a bread cart through the bumpy streets, but that didn’t satisfy him. Like his brothers, he was briefly involved with the Locofocos’ political movement to fight against Tammany Hall, but he was disillusioned when he saw that many of the Locofocos were just as corrupt as Tammany Hall. What was the work that God intended for young Isaac to do?

Isaac Hecker had a vision at the age of 22, although he insisted it was too vivid to have been merely a dream. He saw an angel, and both Isaac and she were suffused with a moon-like glow, filled with a sense of pure joy and love. Hecker said that he was “charmed by [the] influence” of this vision for a very long time afterwards.

So the angel of the Lord had spoken to Isaac Hecker, just like St. Joseph. God had a “work” for Isaac Hecker to do. But what was it? Hecker had several years of seeking in front of him. So, as crazy as it sounds, young Isaac Hecker, with only  rudimentary education, went to Brook Farm, the recently-established Transcendentalist commune outside of Boston. There he rubbed shoulders, broke bread, and discussed philosophy with some of the greatest thinkers of the day, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Hecker was also briefly a guest at the Fruitlands Utopia, one of the more disastrous ideas conceived of by Louisa May Alcott’s father, Bronson. And it was during all this chaos in Isaac’s spiritual seeking that it finally became clear that Hecker was called to organized religion. But to which one? Through fervent study and prayer, Isaac was as shocked as anyone to find, at the height of the anti-Catholic nativist movement, he was called to the Roman Catholic Church.

Shortly after his baptism, Hecker received permission to study for the priesthood with the Redemptorist order. He continued studying for the priesthood in Europe, and somehow, even though his ongoing mystical experiences often led him away from the prescribed course of study, the Redemptorists still allowed him to get ordained. He was soon part of a Redemptorist mission band traveling up and down the American east coast like wildfire. The missions were huge events, bringing in standing-room-only crowds and attracting media attention. During this time, Hecker wrote two well-received books about the faith. But despite the success of Hecker and the other members of the mission band, the Redemptorists wanted (or needed?) to break the group up to meet other obligations the Redemptorists had throughout North America. When Hecker went to Rome to appeal the decision, he was surprisingly expelled from the order, since his religious superiors felt that he had travelled to Rome without the proper permissions.

This was a shock and a devastation. So Hecker, at this point, one of the most prominent Catholics in America, appealed to Cardinal Alessandro Barnabo, the Prefect for the Propagation of the Faith. Barnabo helped negotiate a way for Pope Pius IX to grant Hecker and his four Redemptorist companions permission to start their own congregation while not making the superior general of the Redemptorists look bad.

And that is how Isaac Hecker, feeling certain from the age of three that he was called to do a special work for God, eventually founded the Paulist Fathers roughly 35 years later. It was not a straight path by any stretch of the imagination. 

Isaac Hecker had been a spiritual seeker for much of his life, but once he found his way, he went forward with gusto. He was thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly American… which was a radically new concept. Most people at the time considered the two to be at odds with each other, but Hecker believed that the Church had gifts for the American culture, and that the American culture had gifts for the Church. As one contemporary wrote of Hecker’s vision and enthusiasm for the Church in America: “He is putting American machinery into the ancient ark and is getting ready to run her by steam.” Isaac Hecker, “The Steam Priest,” founded a community of men who are willing to think outside the box, to use contemporary concepts to explain the gospel, and to not take themselves too seriously in the process. And such a view of Catholicism has touched the lives of millions of Americans over the past 160 years.

Coincidentally, the gospel passage we hear almost every year on the birthday of Isaac Hecker is the same gospel passage on which Hecker gave his most famous homily, on March 19, 1863 at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. Hecker claimed that Joseph is a great role model for each of us, struggling to figure out how to follow God. And I quote:

To find God and be one with God, 
a solitary life in the desert was not necessary to St. Joseph.  
He was in the world, and found God where he was.  
He sanctified his work by carrying God with him into the work-shop…  
Our age is not an age of martyrdom, nor an age of hermits, 
nor a monastic age.
Although it has its martyrs, its recluses, and its monastic communities,
these are not, and are not likely to be,
its prevailing types of Christian perfection.
Our age lives in its busy marts, in counting-rooms, in work-shops, in homes, 
and in the varied relations that form human society, 
and it is into these that sanctity is to be introduced.
St. Joseph stands forth as an excellent and unsurpassed model 
of this type of perfection.

In other words, although Joseph played a unique role in salvation history, like the rest of us, he had to make it up as he went along. Praying, trusting, doubting, experimenting, rarely having absolute certainty that he was following God’s will. It’s no wonder that Joseph is a patron of the universal church!

When people asked Isaac Hecker about his vision for the Church and for the Paulists, he simply referred to this 1863 homily. Back then, the idea that holiness was to be pursued in the workplace and the home might have sounded a bit surprising. Today, it doesn’t surprise us as much, thanks in part to the ideas of Vatican II, Pope Paul VI, and Pope Francis. Cardinal Egan was very enthusiastic to open the cause for the canonization of Isaac Hecker 10 years ago. We now officially call him a “Servant of God.” You can support his cause for canonization by learning more about him, and learning how relevant his ideas are to us today.

When he was a young man, St. Joseph found himself in a unique role in the salvation of the world. He followed his dreams, traveled to exotic places (including Egypt), and continued to try to follow God’s will. When Isaac Hecker contracted smallpox as a young boy, he believed that God had saved him so that he could do something great in service for God. He also had dreams, traveled to exotic places (including Egypt), and continued to try to follow God’s will.

St. Joseph and Isaac Hecker struggled their entire lives to discern the will of God. Why should it be any different for the rest of us? We have to make it up as we go along. So, friends, how do we live out Isaac Hecker’s legacy today and into the future? We simply need to do five things:

  • Trust in God. 
  • Pray. 
  • Question. 
  • Experiment.  
  • Follow our dreams.