sklbaOne of the great jewels of American church history is the Congregation of Saint Paul, founded in New York in 1858 by the Servant of God, Isaac Hecker. For more than 150 years the Paulists, as they have come to be called by members and fans alike, have been an active force as “missionaries to North America.”

Influenced by the same Oxford movement in England which produced the great Cardinal John Henry Newman in the latter half of the 19th century, Fr. Hecker was a convert to Catholicism who initially joined the Redemptorists, but then felt the impulse of God’s Spirit to be more active in areas of modern communication and publishing.

The Paulists come to mind because the most recent meeting of the national Lutheran/Catholic Dialogue was held at the Paulist Center in Washington, D.C. last week. About a dozen and a half theologians, men and women alike, from both delegations met to continue our conversations regarding the theme of “Hope for Eternal Life.”

As I have indicated on other occasions, the topic is more complicated than it might seem because it includes such historically neuralgic notions as purgatory, prayers for the dead and indulgences.

For the past four years our task has been to sort out official Catholic and Lutheran teachings on these topics (as distinguished from the often excesses of popular preaching or devotion) in order to determine if any of our respective convictions in these matters are church-dividing. The group is constantly surprised to discover how much we hold in common on the questions.

The Paulist Fathers, and the seminarians currently in their novitiate at the center, once again provided gracious hospitality for our discussions. In walking through the corridors from meeting room to library to chapel to dining room, we were surrounded by evidence of their remarkable history, and engaged by the stunning art works which described their mission as a thoroughly American congregation summoned to “give the Word a human voice” and presenting “old truths in new forms.” It is the Paulist Fathers who have published the magazine The Catholic World since 1865 and devoted their best efforts to supporting the fine books of The Paulist Press.

After serious study of Fr. Hecker’s life and works, the former Archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, decreed in 2008 that this charismatic founder of the Paulists possessed heroic virtue and declared him a “Servant of God.” The cause for his canonization was then sent to Rome for a thorough study of the same material by the Holy See. If they come to the same conclusion, Fr. Hecker will receive the title of “Venerable.”

A miracle beyond any natural explanation attributed to his intercession is required before beatification, and two such miracles are needed before any consideration of his canonization. Isaac could well be another model for this “Year for Priests!”

The Paulist community is devoted to reaching out in the proclamation of the Gospel of salvation to our contemporary world, bringing peace and reconciliation to our often harshly divided society and seeking the restored unity of the church … hence the hospitality which they extend to ecumenical dialogues such as ours.

Sister of Charity of Leavenworth Susan Wood, chair of the theology department of Marquette University, is a very valuable member of our dialogue. As an expert in sacramental theology and the study of the church, she brings much wisdom and knowledge to the discussions. The Holy See has appointed her to international dialogues as well. She smiled as we traveled to the airport the past Sunday afternoon and acknowledged that she would be heading back to the Paulist Center in Washington, D.C. again later this week as a member of the Orthodox/Catholic Dialogue on which she also serves.

Once again the Paulist community will offer hospitality to yet another group of people seriously engaged in responding to the Lord’s prayer “that they all may be one.” (John 17:21)

This past week in Rome Cardinal Walter Kasper, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, held an important press conference to announce the publication of a new book titled “Reaping the Harvest.” It is a brief summary of the results of the past 40 years of the Catholic Church’s theological dialogues with the major Protestant Churches of the Reformation. He insisted that the book is a concrete sign that ecumenism is very much alive in our church, and in our contemporary world. (See story below)

The Paulists have been a significant part of that work here in the United States and we all owe them a great debt of gratitude … even if we may not have active communities of their members in residence in the archdiocese. One of their former presidents, Paulist Fr. Tom Stransky, was a great ecumenical figure in the years following the Council and remains a native son from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee of whom we are very proud!