Click here to read Cardinal Rigali’s Homily at the Mass for the 200th Anniversary Celebration of the Birth of St. John Nepomunece Neumann, Prachatice, Czech Republic

By Lou Baldwin
Special to the CS&T

PHILADELPHIA – Archbishop Edward J. Gilbert, C.S.s.R., of Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago, was the principal celebrant of a Mass in conjunction with the yearlong second centennial celebration of the birth of St. John Neumann held at St. Peter the Apostle Church in Philadelphia June 18.

Although St. John Neumann’s actual birth anniversary was March 28, this particular celebration coincided with the month of his canonization on June 19, 1977. June was also the month of his 1836 ordination to the priesthood.

It also dovetailed with Cardinal Justin Rigali’s celebration of Mass June 18 at St. John Neumann’s birthplace – Prachatice, Czech Republic. {{more}}

Archbishop Gilbert is no stranger to St. John Neumann. As the provincial for the Redemptorist Fathers from 1984 to 1993, he would stop by St. Peter’s whenever he was in Philadelphia to pray at the saint’s tomb, partly because St. John Neumann was himself a former Redemptorist provincial, he explained.

“I would pray to St. John Neumann and say, ‘You know this job and how complicated it was and you knew what to do. I need your help.’ Then I would read off my list of problems. He had his trials himself.”

One quality of his saintly predecessor that most appeals to Archbishop Gilbert was his closeness to his people during his ministry.

“I think one of the mistakes the Church has made over the years is shutting itself up in convents, monasteries and rectories. Instead of being close to the people they were inside waiting for the bell to ring, and it has stopped ringing. We have to relearn that we have to be more present to the people.”

Among the concelebrants at the Mass was Father Alfred Bradley, vicar provincial of the Baltimore Province of the Redemptorists who will soon take up the duties of pastor at St. Peter’s and director of the St. John Neumann Shrine.

He’s a Philadelphian by birth, and from the time he was little,remembers his mother taking him to the shrine. As a young man in the working world but discerning a religious vocation he would stop by the shrine to pray to St. John Neumann for advice.

“St. John Neumann’s Shrine was the place to go whenever I needed help,” he said.

A striking feature of the Mass was the procession, which included representatives carrying flags of the United States of America, Poland, Slovakia, Germany, the Philippines and Mexico, the ethnicities representative of the Fishtown neighborhood and the life of St. John Neumann, a Bohemian immigrant who became an American citizen.

“It was a beautiful celebration that brought together the many immigrant communities,” said Most Blessed Sacrament Sister Patricia Downs, director of the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel in Bensalem.

“St. Katharine Drexel and St. John Neumann had so much in common,” she said. “They both worked with the oppressed and for justice; and for the Church, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Catholic education.”

The majority of those who attended the Mass and dinner that followed at the Sheet Metal Workers Hall on Columbus Boulevard in Philadelphia were members of the laity with their own reasons to celebrate the bicentennial of a favorite saint.

“When I was sick in the hospital in 1980 he helped me, and that’s why I am here today to thank him,” Diane Spriggs said. “Also, tomorrow, his anniversary, is my granddaughter’s birthday.”

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