04
Jan
13

A “greater effusion of the Holy Spirit”: Isaac Hecker’s hopes for renewal

Hecker via wikimedia commonsIn one of William Booth’s songs, he famously penned the line, “We want another Pentecost.”   Booth and his holiness movement counterparts placed a heavy emphasis on the Holy Spirit in their preaching, teaching, praying, and worshipping – an emphasis that David Rightmire has termed a “pneumatological priority” (see his article in the most recent Wesleyan Theological Journal and his book, Sacraments and The Salvation Army).

As I’ve noted here before, my dissertation compares the Booth and Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist Fathers, a Roman Catholic movement from the same time period.   Although the two men are quite different in many ways, Hecker’s theology could also be said to evidence a certain “pneumatological priority.”

Hecker was possessed by a life-long quest for the renewal of human society.   He came to believe that societal renewal could only be achieved if individuals were renewed, and that such individual renewal could only come through religion.  As a devout Catholic, he believed that the Catholic faith was the one true religion, and therefore placed the Catholic Church at the heart of his vision for social renewal.

His particular emphasis on the direct work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals, however, was somewhat unique among Catholic authors of his day.  While he drew on traditional Catholic sources, his particular way of emphasizing the Spirit’s direct work went against the grain of the majority of Catholics in his day, and raised some eyebrows.   He put the Spirit’s work in the individual Christian at the centre of his vision of renewal.  As John Farina has summarized, for Hecker, “The cure for the world’s problems was Spirit-filled individuals” (An American Experience of God: The Spirituality of Isaac Hecker, 150).

Hecker via bustedhaloHowever, unlike Booth, Hecker was keen to safeguard against potential fanaticism by grounding the immediate work of the Spirit upon individuals in the external authority of the church, which he also credited to the Spirit’s presence.

These twin emphases are abundantly clear in his book The Church and the Age.  Of individual renewal by the Spirit, Hecker writes:

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, 26).

The other side of the Spirit’s two-fold action, however, is found in the church’s external authority.

The action of the Holy Spirit embodied visibly in the authority of the Church, and the action of the Holy Spirit dwelling invisibly in the soul, form one inseparable synthesis; and he who has not a clear conception of this twofold action of the Holy Spirit is in danger of running into one or the other, and sometimes into both, of these extremes, either of which is destructive of the end of the Church (Ibid., 33).

Hecker 2 via wikimedia commonsOf course, most Protestants will note that individual discernment of the Spirit’s voice often comes into conflict with the discernment of those in ecclesial authority.  Church life is often filled with these types of conflict, and this raises questions about Hecker’s claim of an “inseparable synthesis” between the Spirit’s action in individuals and in the church’s authority structures.   When push comes to shove, how do we know which side is really hearing the voice of the Spirit?  As we would expect, Hecker takes the traditional Catholic line:

From the above plain truths the following practical rule of conduct may be drawn. The Holy Spirit is the immediate guide of the soul in the way of salvation and sanctification; and the criterion, or test, that the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, is its ready obedience to the authority of the Church. This rule removes all danger whatever, and with it the soul can walk, run, or fly, if it chooses, in the greatest safety and with perfect liberty, in the ways of sanctity (Ibid., 35).

In spite of his clear affirmations of the ultimate authority of the church over individual believers, Hecker was still accused of leaning too much towards Protestantism by some of his contemporaries.  While these concerns were probably overblown (as we might expect in the nineteenth century, given the state of Protestant-Catholic relations), he certainly shared a “pneumatological priority” with William Booth and his contemporaries, and some of his writings seem to point to a desire for “another Pentecost.”
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