By Lou Baldwin
Special to The CS&T

Last Jan. 10 Catholic Philadelphia celebrated the 150th anniversary of the death and birth into new heavenly life of St. John Neumann, fourth Bishop of Philadelphia.

This coming March 28 will see another milestone – the 200th anniversary of his birth into earthly life in Prachatitz, Bohemia, and on that same date his birth into Christian faith through baptism.

Two hundred years is a sufficient milestone to warrant a new biography to take a fresh look at Philadelphia’s first saint. Such a biography has been provided by Father Richard Boever, a member of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), the congregation embraced by Father Neumann in 1840, four years after his arrival in America.

This new biography is “Saint John Neumann: His Writings and Spirituality” (Ligouri Press 288 pages, $19.99).

Father Boever first became interested in Neumann when he chose him for the subject of his doctoral dissertation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

“I did it for a practical reason,” he said. Father Boever was a Redemptorist, and most of the material needed for the dissertation was available through Redemptorist archives. It was through his research that he came to love America’s first male saint.

It wasn’t because of his admitted accomplishments, including his love for the Eucharist, the establishment of schools, parishes and religious congregations, or even for his tireless travels as a missionary. Father Boever was drawn to the humanity of the saint.

As he wrote in a letter, “I found myself deeply touched by Neumann, and crying as I researched him. This response to a saint was unfamiliar to me. I admired Neumann, questioned him, and imitated him.”

This new biography, three decades later, in its first half is quite different from a doctoral dissertation. For openers, it has no footnotes and is easily read, free of academic jargon. Secondly, admittedly with some poetic license, this section is a biography in the first person. This is not a bad thing and no different than the license taken by necessity in film or stage biographies.

In any case the many direct quotations from the writings of Neumann that are included in italics clearly show the author does not stray from the facts.

We see the young pre-Vatican Council (Vatican I that is) seminarian’s disapproval for some of his liberal professors, then after completing his studies for a diocese that will not ordain him because it already has too many priests, leaving for America with absolutely no assurance an American bishop will accept his services.

We see through his writings his doubts and discouragement, his awareness of his own weaknesses, yet his humble faith in God.

An interesting fact noted by Father Boever was that during one period in Pittsburgh, Father Neumann shared quarters with Father Francis Seelos, now Blessed Francis Seelos and expected to be the Redemptorists’ next American saint.

From the writings selected by Father Boever it is quite clear that as an American missionary facing great hardships, Father Neumann’s primary focus was on the preservation of the faith among his fellow German immigrants, a group he feared was being tainted by American materialism.

Although the reason given for his becoming a Redemptorist in 1840 was a desire for community life, one has to suspect another reason was the great work being done by that congregation among German immigrants.

Just as clearly, after he was named Bishop of Philadelphia against his own wishes, he served all Catholics with no regard to nationality. He was not always understood or fully appreciated during his lifetime, but in death he has been given his due.

The second half of the book, which does have some end notes, relies on Neumann’s writings and documents, and includes excerpts from journals, letters written home, sermons, pastoral letters and the assessment of others written after his death.

What is especially striking from his notes, which were not intended for publication, are his vulnerability and self-doubt coupled with a strong love of God and a determination to share it with others at whatever cost.

Father Boever’s work, through the biographical section and excerpts from his writings, can do much in the way of presenting St. John Neumann as not simply a holy man, but human and likeable as well.

Jan. 5 marked the beginning of a jubilee year (a year and a half actually) in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of St. John Neumann.

The opening event was a feast day Mass celebrated by Cardinal Justin Rigali, his current successor as Bishop of Philadelphia, at St. Peter the Apostle Church. The Mass was celebrated at St. John Neumann’s Shrine in the lower level of the church, where the saint’s remains are encased in a glass-enclosed sarcophagus directly beneath the altar.

Another parish-wide Mass is scheduled for Jan. 9 at St. Peter Church with the Archdiocesan Boy Choir singing.

May 16-18 will feature Forty Hours Devotions at St. Peter the Apostle with Father Boever as homilist.

Although Forty Hours was celebrated in Philadelphia before St. John Neumann’s arrival, it was he, more than anyone else, who prompted the devotion as a universal practice for the diocese.

The St. John Neumann Jubilee is scheduled to close with a June 23, 2012 Mass celebrated by Cardinal Rigali at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

“Celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth and the 150th anniversary of his death is important,” said Redemptorist Father Kevin Moley, pastor of St. Peter’s and director of the St. John Neumann Shrine. “He was a great saint who gave his life to God and God’s people. He helped build 80 churches and 35 schools; you can’t do much better than that.”

In addition to many events throughout the Jubilee, the St. John Neumann Shrine is undergoing an expansion of facilities, including a new welcoming center and an elevator for the convenience of pilgrims,” Father Moley said.

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.