Next Sun., Jan. 25, all of our neighboring parishes will be celebrating the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. But not here at St. Austin (or at the UCC)! It is not that we have any particular dislike or hard feelings towards the Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. Rather, it falls on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Jan. 25, and as this parish has been staffed by the Paulist Fathers for over a century, we will divert slightly from the liturgical season and instead celebrate the Paulists’ patronal feast.
Perhaps it would be good to give a thumbnail review of the Paulists and our history, because next Sunday not only will we celebrate the Conversion of St. Paul, we will also be asking for your support of the Paulists in the Annual Paulist Appeal. You will be receiving an email from me about this in the next few days (if we have your current email address!).
The Paulists are a group of Catholic priests. There are some in the Church who would question if we really are Catholic, but we are. We have the proud distinction of being the first order of priests founded in the United States. We were founded to covert the United States to Catholicism.
Fr. Isaac Hecker is our founder. He grew up in Manhattan, New York City. His family owned a bakery, and they were Methodists, but rather lukewarm ones. Isaac was always a seeker and of a religious bent. He got very involved in reform politics in the 1830s but eventually became disenchanted with politics. He then moved into philosophy and some of the “new age” movements of the day, spending time with the New England Transcendentalists at communes like Brook Farm. Eventually Isaac found this approach unsatisfying as well. He then began searching religions. After studying many different Christian denominations, he became convinced that Catholicism was the true form of Christ’s Church. Interestingly, it was the Doctrine of the Communion of Saints that tipped him from Episcopalian to Roman Catholic. He was re-baptized (an abomination we would not commit today) and then joined the Catholic religious order called the Redemptorists.
After ordination as a priest in London, Isaac returned to the U.S. and was assigned to one of the Redemptorist mission bands. Redemptorists were and still are famous as preachers, and they would go around giving parish missions. Preaching dramatically and forcefully, they would fire up the withering faith of the Catholics across the land, urging them to Confession and to reform their lives.
Isaac and his friends noted that not only Catholics would come to these parish missions. Before movies, TV, radio or just about any entertainment, a lot of non-Catholics would show up for the mission to check it out and hear some good preaching. Inspired by this, Isaac Hecker and four of his Redemptorist friends, who also had grown up in the U.S. as Protestants and later converted to Catholicism, wanted to start giving missions directed at Protestants. Their goal was to share with their fellow Americans what treasures they themselves has found in the Catholic Church, and invite them also to convert to Catholicism. They hoped to make America Catholic.
At the time, the Redemptorist superiors were overwhelmed by hordes of Catholic immigrants coming into the United States. They had more work than they could already handle, and many thought all those Protestants were going to hell anyway, so it would be a waste of time and effort to try to convert them. The superiors told Isaac and his friends “NO.” Better to stay with what we know.
Fortunately, Isaac’s older brother George was really fond of Isaac, and George had made a lot of dough – in both senses of the word – in the flour and baking business, so George bankrolled a trip for Isaac to Rome to appeal over the head of his local Redemptorist superiors to the big wigs in Rome. The Roman superiors did not like the idea of an upstart from the U.S. telling them what to do any more than the American superiors did, and they threw Isaac out of the Redemptorists.
But Isaac had been canny enough to go with a pile of testimonial letters from U.S. Bishops who did really like the idea of an outreach to Protestants, so he could not be so easily dismissed. The head of the Church’s mission office (the U.S. was then mission territory), Cardinal Barnabo, was a political foe of the Cardinal who was head of the Congregation for Religious (under which the Redemptorists were goverened), and so he intervened. After several months of enjoying the sights of Rome (all the while funded by George), with Cardinal Barnabo working on his behalf, Isaac Hecker eventually got to see the Pope. Pope Pius IX said, in typical Roman fashion, “Look, there is more than enough work for everybody. You Redemptorists go do your thing, you Americans go do your thing, everybody be happy.” And so Isaac Hecker and his four friends founded the Paulist Fathers.
Today we Paulists try to take our inspiration from Isaac Hecker, and share the Catholic faith with those who do not have it, especially seekers and those with no church home. We also try to reach out to Catholics no longer active in the Church and to build bridges of understanding and fraternity with Christians of other denominations in order to heal the wounds in the Body of Christ. It is a challenging mission but a very fulfilling one. I hope that you will join us in it!