The following reflection is taken from a sermon entitled, “How to be Happy,” that Father Hecker preached at the Paulist Mother Church in New York City, the Parish of Saint Paul the Apostle on New Year’s Day 1863. This sermon was published in a Paulist sermon collection in 1864.
Our essential happiness in heaven consists of friendship and union with God. Is this not the privilege of all Christians who dwell upon the earth? So why are some Christians unhappy? There are Christians who know what they are here for. Everything that is true, good and noble within them urges them to comply with their religious commitments. They see that all nature around them is happy and sings for joy because it fulfills the end for which it was designed. When they enter into the church the baptismal font reminds them of the holy vows and promises made to keep God’s law and serve God. The confessionals speak to their conscience of guilt and unpardoned sin. The altar speaks to their heart the words of the Lord, “Unless you eat of the flesh of the Son of Man, you shall have no life in you.” They owe the practice of their religious duties to God, to themselves, to their families, to their friends, to society and to their country; for all of these have a right to our good example. Who can resist God and have peace.
There is another class who aim at being practical Christians. They seek to observe God’s commandments, to receive the sacraments and to be good Christians. The only problem is that they frequently forget their good intentions and fail to keep them. They are led astray by the passion of anger or avarice or sensuality. Solely for the purpose of gratification they break God’s law, violate their faith and rob their souls of peace and friendship with God. This leaves them with no true happiness. They recover and fall repeatedly, like a ship that springs a leak in almost every storm; their final ruin is more than likely. True happiness comes from the practice of those virtues which lead the soul constantly nearer to the great end of existence. How can one be happy who sees before him only impending loss?
Servant of God Isaac Hecker reminds his congregation that a relationship with God is the basis by which we understand our purpose in this life and find true happiness in what God has planned for us. Why are Christians unhappy? Because they lose their grounding in God. In a slightly different context a contemporary theologian said much the same thing - man’s happiness is found in God. Here are the words of another pastor recently preached to his congregation.
“Man is religious by nature. The image of the Creator is impressed upon his being and man feels the need to find light to give a response to the questions that concern the deep sense of reality – a response that he cannot find in himself, in progress, or in empirical science. Religious man passes through all of human history. In this regard, the rich terrain of experience has seen the religious sense develop in various forms, in an attempt to respond to the desire for fullness and happiness. “Digital man” like the cave man seeks religious experience.
What is man? What is the meaning, the aim of our life? What is moral good, what is sin? What purpose does suffering serve? Which is the true road to happiness? Man knows that by himself he cannot respond to his own fundamental need to understand. He needs to open himself to something more, to something or someone who can give him what he lacks. Only in God who reveals himself does man’s seeking find fulfillment. Let us learn to recognize in silence, in our own hearts, his voice that calls us and leads us back to the depths of our existence, so the source of life, to the source of salvation to enable us to go beyond the limits of our lives and open ourselves to God’s dimension, to the relationship with Him who is Infinite Love.”
Pope Benedict XVI spoke these words in Saint Peter’s Square in May 2011.
Paulist Father Paul Robichaud, CSP is Historian of the Paulist Fathers and Postulator of the Cause of Father Hecker. His office is located at the Hecker Center in Washington, DC.