Jesus commands that the universal faith of the Church is to be preached locally and lived out personally. The celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. John Neumann gives us the opportunity to reflect on this command.
The Church is truly “Catholic”
We have recently celebrated the liturgical Solemnity of Pentecost, which recalls the beginning of the Church. In his homily for this year’s celebration, Pope Benedict XVI recalled the true Catholic nature of the Church of Christ. He said: “The Church is Catholic from her first moment; her universality is not the fruit of the successive inclusion of various communities. From the first instant, in fact, the Holy Spirit created her as the Church of all peoples; she embraces the entire world, she transcends all limits of race, class, nation; she breaks down every obstacle and brings all men together in the profession of the One and Triune God. From the beginning, the Church is One, Catholic and Apostolic: this is her true nature and as such it must be recognized. She is Holy, not thanks to the ability of her members, but because God Himself, with His Spirit, creates, purifies, and sanctifies her always” (Homily, 12 June 2011).
Building upon this foundation, Jesus gave to His Church the “mission mandate,” to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth, with the assurance of the presence of the Spirit of Truth.
Many countries throughout the world celebrate those who first brought them the gift of the Faith, according to this mission mandate. We think of St. Patrick, who went to Ireland; St. Augustine of Canterbury, who went to England; St. Thomas the Apostle, who evangelized parts of India; St. Boniface, who brought the Gospel to the German peoples, and many other early preachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the United States, we have a somewhat unique reality concerning our reception of the faith. Since this part of the world, as we know it, was evangelized comparatively late in the Church’s history, we have been the beneficiaries of missionaries and immigrants who often came to the United States from countries which had been evangelized centuries before. In this way, we have received the faith as a dual legacy: from missionaries such as St. Isaac Jogues and his companions, who came from France, and Blessed Junipero Serra and his confreres, who came from Spain, as well as Catholics who came here from other countries, which had already been evangelized, and the priests and Religious Sisters who came here to care for their spiritual needs. A wonderful example of this dual legacy is our own St. John Neumann, whose two-hundredth birthday celebrations we observe this year.
Anniversary celebrations for the birth of St. John Neumann
St. John Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 and passed his infancy and youth in Bohemia, which had long before been evangelized. He entered the seminary in his native land, but desiring to work among the newly-arriving immigrants in the United States, he left his own country and his loved ones and came to the United States. He was ordained a priest in 1836 and, after a few years, entered the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redemptorists, founded in the previous century by St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787). Father John Neumann was appointed Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. With great holiness he fulfilled his office as Bishop of both a cosmopolitan city and a far-flung diocese. He eventually became the first canonized Bishop from the United States.
I have just returned from the Czech Republic, where I represented Pope Benedict XVI, as his Legate to the celebrations held on the occasion of the “two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of this zealous and outstanding Pastor and preacher of the truths of salvation” (Letter of Appointment of the Papal Legate, 8 May 2011). My role as Papal Legate was to represent the Holy Father’s person and, particularly, to express the sentiments of love which bind him to the people of Prachatice, where John Neumann was born, as they celebrate the birth of their native son. Last year, in anticipation of this anniversary, the present Bishop of the diocese in which Prachatice is located, along with a delegation, visited Philadelphia. In the Letter appointing me as his Extraordinary Envoy to these celebrations, Pope Benedict also wrote: “As you speak of this distinguished man of the Church and of his untiring activity, you will encourage all those who participate in the event to show by the example of their daily life and by the renewed zeal of their piety a special love for Christ and the Gospel.”
What a joy and honor it was for me, as the successor of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia, to return to the place of his birth and give thanks, in the name of the Holy Father, to that land and people, evangelized many centuries ago, who sent their son to our own country to spread the message of Christ and His Church! What a splendid example of the perennial faith of the universal Church being brought from one local Church to another, when John Neumann came from his native place to Philadelphia, and now a return visit in thanksgiving from this local Church of Philadelphia to the place of his birth.
I would like the faithful of this Archdiocese to know that I brought to St. John Neumann’s birthplace the prayers and affection of all of you. In my homily at the Mass for the 200th Anniversary celebration, I said: “I carry with me the sentiments of esteem and the prayerful regards of the people of Philadelphia. The City of Brotherly Love, the birthplace of the United States of America, is the final earthly home of St. John Neumann. For eight years, he tirelessly served the Church in Philadelphia as our fourth Bishop. He accomplished so much through his zeal for parish life, his dedication to Catholic education, and his burning love for the Eucharist. His shrine, located at the Church of St. Peter the Apostle in Philadelphia, is a place of devout pilgrimage. Thousands of people continue to seek the intercession of our beloved “Little Bishop,” and the faithful of Philadelphia remain grateful to the people of Prachatice for the great gift of your heroic and beloved native son” (Homily, Prachatice, 18 June 2011).
Living out our faith personally
Although Jesus sometimes preached to great crowds and although his followers in preaching His message have brought the faith to millions and millions of people over the centuries, the Christian life is always meant to be lived out personally. Just as Jesus loves us with an inspanidual love, He asks for our personal love in return. We do this by our profession of faith in words, but most especially by the living out of that faith in our lives as Christians.
This was the burning desire of St. John Neumann as both priest and Bishop: to bring each person entrusted to his care, whether in the great cosmopolitan city of Philadelphia or the backwoods places he traveled to, into a closer union with Jesus. This is why he founded the Catholic Schools in the United States as we know them; this is why he founded the Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia and this is why he introduced the great devotion of the Forty Hours into the United States, beginning with our own St. Philip Neri Parish in Philadelphia. In all his labors, and in the trials, disappointments, and misunderstandings which came his way, he united himself to the sufferings of Jesus. Indeed, his episcopal motto was: “Passion of Christ, strengthen me.”
All of us in this great archdiocese give thanks for the legacy of St. John Neumann and for the physical and spiritual blessings we continue to receive because of him and through his intercession. He came to Philadelphia from Prachatice to preach the one faith of the Church of Christ. The challenge remains for each of us to live out that universal faith in a personal way, with the help of his example and intercession.
23 June 2011