St. John Neumann
Lived: (1811-1860) | Feast Day: Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Perhaps because the United States got a later start in the history of the world, it has relatively few canonized saints, but their number is increasing.
John Neumann was born in what is now the Czech Republic. After studying in Prague, he came to New York at 25 and was ordained a priest. He did missionary work in New York until he was 29, when he joined the Redemptorists and became its first member to profess vows in the United States. He continued missionary work in Maryland, Virginia and Ohio, where he became popular with the Germans.
At 41, as bishop of Philadelphia, he organized the parochial school system into a diocesan one, increasing the number of pupils almost twentyfold within a short time.
Gifted with outstanding organizing ability, he drew into the city many teaching communities of sisters and the Christian Brothers. During his brief assignment as vice provincial for the Redemptorists, he placed them in the forefront of the parochial movement.
Well-known for his holiness and learning, spiritual writing and preaching, on October 13, 1963, John Neumann became the first American bishop to be beatified. Canonized in 1977, he is buried in St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia.
Neumann took seriously our Lord’s words, “Go and teach all nations.” From Christ he received his instructions and the power to carry them out. For Christ does not give a mission without supplying the means to accomplish it. The Father’s gift in Christ to John Neumann was his exceptional organizing ability, which he used to spread the Good News.
Today the Church is in dire need of men and women to continue in our times the teaching of the Good News. The obstacles and inconveniences are real and costly. Yet when Christians approach Christ, he supplies the necessary talents to answer today’s needs. The Spirit of Christ continues his work through the instrumentality of generous Christians.
“All people of whatever race, condition or age, in virtue of their dignity as human persons, have an inalienable right to education. This education should be suitable to the particular destiny of the individuals, adapted to their ability, sex and national cultural traditions, and should be conducive to amicable relations with other nations in order to promote true unity and peace in the world. True education aims to give people a formation which is directed towards their final end and the good of that society to which they belong and in which, as adults, they will have their share of duties to perform” (Vatican II, Declaration on Christian Education, 1, Austin Flannery translation).
This American saint was born in Bohemia in 1811. He was looking forward to being ordained in 1835 when the bishop decided there would be no more ordinations. It is difficult for us to imagine now, but Bohemia was overstocked with priests. John wrote to bishops all over Europe but the story was the same everywhere no one wanted any more priests. John was sure he was called to be a priest but all the doors to follow that vocation seemed to close in his face.
But John didn’t give up. He had learned English by working in a factory with English-speaking workers so he wrote to the bishops in America. Finally, the bishop in New York agreed to ordain him. In order to follow God’s call to the priesthood John would have to leave his home forever and travel across the ocean to a new and rugged land.
In New York, John was one of 36 priests for 200,000 Catholics. John’s parish in western New York stretched from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. His church had no steeple or floor but that didn’t matter because John spent most of his time traveling from village to village, climbing mountains to visit the sick, staying in garrets and taverns to teach, and celebrating the Mass at kitchen tables.
Because of the work and the isolation of his parish, John longed for community and so joined the Redemptorists, a congregation of priests and brothers dedicated to helping the poor and most abandoned.
John was appointed bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. As bishop, he was the first to organize a diocesan Catholic school system. A founder of Catholic education in this country, he increased the number of Catholic schools in his diocese from two to 100.
John never lost his love and concern for the people — something that may have bothered the elite of Philadelphia. On one visit to a rural parish, the parish priest picked him up in a manure wagon. Seated on a plank stretched over the wagon’s contents, John joked, “Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop!”
The ability to learn languages that had brought him to America led him to learn Spanish, French, Italian, and Dutch so he could hear confessions in at least six languages. When Irish immigration started, he learned Gaelic so well that one Irish woman remarked, “Isn’t it grand that we have an Irish bishop!”
Once on a visit to Germany, he came back to the house he was staying in soaked by rain. When his host suggested he change his shoes, John remarked, “The only way I could change my shoes is by putting the left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. This is the only pair I own.”
John died on January 5, 1860 at the age of 48.
In His Footsteps:
John was a Redemptorist priest. To learn more about the Redemptorists visit the Web site for Redemptorist Publications in England, www.redempt.org.
Saint John Neumann, you helped organize Catholic education in the United States. Please watch over all Catholic schools and help them be a model of Christianity in their actions as well as their words. Amen
- pfSaint. 2016. pfSaint. [ONLINE] Available at: http://hub.franciscanmedia.org/Home/pfSaint?sid=1251. [Accessed 06 January 2016].
- St. John Neumann – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online. 2016. St. John Neumann – Saints & Angels – Catholic Online. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=70. [Accessed 06 January 2016].