By Cardinal Justin Rigali
Archbishop of Philadelphia
As we prepare to celebrate the 200th anniversary of St. John Neumann’s birth on March 28, we take this upcoming event as our topic this week.
Consolation and challenge
When I was appointed Archbishop of Philadelphia in 2003, one of my first thoughts was that I would have a canonized saint as one of my predecessors! While bishops of a number of dioceses in other parts of the world, where the Church has been established for a much longer time, may share that distinction, Philadelphia is the only diocese in the United States to have this honor. It may be said that my response to this fact was, and is, one of both consolation and challenge: consolation, because I can have a special claim to Saint John Neumann’s intercession and challenge, because I am called to imitate him and his apostolic spirit more intimately.
It may be said that those two thoughts, consolation and challenge, are placed before all of us when we look at the lives of the saints. The Church publicly acclaims those whom she judges to be in heaven, not because the saints need this acclamation, but because we need their example and intercession. In looking at the saints and their lives, we can be consoled at the thought that we have these special friends in heaven, with whom we can have an intimate relationship. However, the fact that we can point to saints who have had a similar vocation to ours when they were on earth, along with similar challenges and crosses, also challenges us to respond to the universal call of holiness we received at our Baptism. Let us be motivated by these thoughts as we briefly look at the life of the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, and at the events planned for the celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth.
Who is St. John Neumann?
John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Prachatice, Bohemia, which was then part of the Austrian Empire, and which is now part of the Czech Republic. He was a very fine student and had a facility for languages, as well as an interest in botany and astronomy. Experiencing a vocation to the priesthood, young John studied theology at the University of Prague, and applied to the local seminary. Since there was already a large number of priests in Bohemia, John left his homeland for the United States where he could work with the newly arriving immigrant Catholics, especially those from Germany.
He was ordained a priest in New York in 1836, and began working among German Catholics who were living in small, isolated communities near Buffalo. In 1842, Father Neumann joined the Redemptorist Congregation, which had been founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) in Naples, in 1732. St. Alphonsus had founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists) to work with those who lived in isolated areas or who were poorly trained in their faith. John Neumann zealously took up this spirit of the Founder, and was the first to profess vows as a member of the Redemptorists in the New World.
This is why this anniversary year of his birth is not only dear to us in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, but also to the members of the worldwide Congregation of the Redemptorists, for whom St. John Neumann is one of their crowning glories.
Father Neumann served as the pastor of several parishes in Pittsburgh and Baltimore and as the Vice Provincial of the Redemptorists. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1848. In light of his pastoral zeal, and the effective work he had carried out among the faithful, he was appointed the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.
The diocese of Philadelphia in 1852 was, in many ways, very different from what it is today! It comprised a tremendous area, which contained not only the city of Philadelphia, which was considered the cultural capital of the United States, but also many isolated pockets of Catholics living in distant regions from the city. Bishop Neumann made many strenuous journeys throughout his diocese to visit and instruct even the smallest groups of the faithful. He endeavored to learn the languages of the different immigrant groups so that he could preach and hear confessions in their own language.
John Neumann’s ongoing contributions to our Archdiocese
The effects of holiness cannot be measured in material terms, but there are several activities of St. John Neumann, undertaken during his time as Bishop here, that have had long-lasting effects and which benefit us to this day.
The Forty Hours Devotion: Bishop Neumann brought with him from Europe the practice known as the Forty Hours Devotion, when the Most Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed for the adoration of the faithful for a period of three days. The first Forty Hours Devotion in the United States was conducted at our own St. Philip Neri Church at 2nd and Queen Streets in Philadelphia. You may want to make this beautiful Church one of your places of pilgrimage during this “Neumann Year.” This year is also a time for all of us to renew our fidelity to the Forty Hours Devotion and to adoration of our Lord, truly present in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
The Parochial Schools: Saint John Neumann is considered the founder of the parochial schools in the United States. During his time as Bishop here, he increased the number of parochial schools from two to 100, along with establishing close to 90 parishes throughout his far-flung diocese. This amounted to founding almost one parish a month during his episcopacy!
Religious Founder: Bishop Neumann, together with Mother Mary Francis, founded the Sisters of Saint Francis in 1855. Their original Motherhouse in Philadelphia was later transferred to Glen Riddle, hence the commonly accepted name of “Glen Riddle Franciscans,” for this community of dedicated women who have been such a blessing for the archdiocese for so many years.
Bishop Neumann also encouraged and welcomed the arrival of other communities of Sisters to exercise their apostolate in the schools, including the School Sisters of Notre Dame.
The humility of St. John Neumann
Jesus tells us in the Gospels: “Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matthew 11:29).” As a faithful follower of Jesus, John Neumann was a man of great humility. Each year, on the Feast of St. John Neumann, we read in the Liturgy of the Hours a very touching letter he wrote to the Holy See. It seems that there was some talk of spaniding the large diocese of Philadelphia and, for some reason, Bishop Neumann had been given the impression that it was thought that he wanted to resign his episcopal office.
Attempting to clarify the situation to the Holy See, in great humility, Bishop Neumann wrote: “I have taken this burden out of obedience, and I have labored with all my powers to fulfill the duties of my office, and with God’s help, as I hope, not without fruit. When the care of temporal things weighed upon my mind and it seemed to me that my character was little suited for the very cultural world of Philadelphia, I made known that it seemed opportune to me to request my translation (transfer to another diocese). I am much more accustomed to the country, and will be able to care for the people and faithful living in the mountains, in the coal mines and on the farms, since I would be among them. I desire nothing but to fulfill the wish of the Holy Father whatever it may be.”
Bishop Neumann remained in Philadelphia, and he collapsed and died on a Philadelphia street on January 5, 1860 at the age of 48. He was buried in the basement crypt of the Redemptorist Church of St. Peter at 5th and Girard Streets in Philadelphia.
Due to his reputation for sanctity, many came to pray at his tomb and reported answers to their prayers. Eventually, his body was exhumed and the Altar in the Crypt Church at St. Peter’s, with Bishop Neumann’s remains underneath, has become a great place of pilgrimage. He was declared Blessed by Pope Paul VI in 1963 and proclaimed a saint in 1977.
It is a great honor for us to have this Shrine to our fourth bishop in our own city of Philadelphia, and we are so grateful to the Redemptorists for the care they give to this Shrine and their zeal in promoting devotion to their confrere and our fourth bishop. There are many activities planned for what is called “Neumann Year, 2011-2012,” which I opened by being the celebrant and homilist at the Mass in honor of St. John Neumann on January 5.
I urge you not only to pray through the intercession of Saint John Neumann for your own special needs, but also to join in as many of these activities as you can. You can find many of these activities listed in your parish bulletins, in the “Catholic Standard and Times,” and through the website the Redemptorists of the Baltimore Province have set up at http://www.redemptorists.net/neumann/.
May St. John Neumann intercede for all of us!