St. John Neumann: Model for Priests
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It was Sunday, December 11, 1921. His Holiness Pope Benedict XV published a decree in which he declared John Nepomucene Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, worthy of veneration by the Church of Jesus. The pope used these words:
Perhaps the very simplicity of these virtues has been misunderstood by those who thought there was no heroic degree in the virtues of the servant of God, because in their eyes the good works and holy deeds performed by Bishop Neumann are holy and good deeds which every good religious, every zealous missionary, every good bishop should perform. We do not hesitate to declare that even the most simple of works when performed with constant perfection, spell heroism in any servant of God.
The simple works of which the pope spoke were enough to convince the faithful people of the diocese of Philadelphia that their bishop was indeed a saint. Tens of thousands of them filled the streets around the Cathedral to say a last farewell to a spiritual leader who was universally revered by the entire Catholic community. With the words of Pope Benedict XV, the Church was finally recognizing that the ordinary virtues of this humble man were cause for his canonization.
It was on Holy Thursday in the year 1811 that John Neumann was born in the little village of Prachatitz in southwest Bohemia. His parents were devout Catholics and were both involved in a longstanding effort to feed the many poor and hungry peasants living in the community. His father, an elected official of the town, owned his own home and was a weaver who hired several men from the village to work on his looms. His mother was well known and respected in the community. She attended daily Mass in the village church. The couple had six children and four of them entered the service of the Church.
At an early age John showed a lively faith and an interest in studies. He was one of the few boys in the village who was chosen to continue his education with a six year gymnasium course conducted by the Dominican Fathers in a nearby city. He continued his studies with a course in philosophy and science under the guidance of the Cistercian Fathers. Here he developed a love for the natural sciences and considered studying medicine because he thought that he would not be accepted into the seminary.
Acceptance into the diocesan seminary at Budweis was not an easy matter. There were many young men applying and most of them had powerful advocates in the community speaking in their behalf. To his own surprise John was accepted and went on to conclude with distinction his courses at the diocesan seminary and the University of Prague. During this period of study the young seminarian became interested in the missionary work of the Church in America. He planned to be ordained in Bohemia and then to travel to the United States.
His superiors in the seminary tried to talk him out of his missionary plans. He was encouraged to join the Jesuits and was even offered an embassy position but his mind was made up. He passed his canonical examination for priesthood with flying colors but his ordination was delayed. His bishop was ill and decided since there was an overabundance of priests in the diocese, no ordinations would be held that year. He spent a few months at home with his family and prepared for his transatlantic trip. A collection was taken up among the townspeople to help pay for the voyage. He arrived in New York in May of 1836 and a month later was ordained a priest.
His arrival in America
Within a week of ordination the young Father Neumann was named the pastor of a parish of mostly German Catholics that covered 900 square miles in Western New York. His church an abandoned building that had no steeple, no roof and no floor was located in the town of Williamsville. This became the center of activity and his congregation flocked to it from miles around. The task was overwhelming and the young priest traveled by horse and by foot throughout the area and celebrated the Eucharist in countless villages and settlements. His congregation was so scattered that they lacked even the most rudimentary medical care. In his spare time after an 18-hour day, he studied medicine to help better serve the needs of his flock.
In these days he served a mission territory in a circle that radiated about 15 miles from his parish church. There were about 400 Catholic families under his spiritual and many times physical care. Quickly he set up a little one-room school and for a time taught the children himself for four hours a day. He loved working with the young children preparing them for First Holy Communion. His rapport with youngsters remained with him. His practice of giving a child a holy picture and a piece of hard candy continued throughout his life. It is said that when he collapsed and died on the streets of Philadelphia he had in his pocket some candy that he had been sharing with a catechism class the day before.
During his four years in Western New York he accomplished much but was dissatisfied with his personal spiritual progress. In his long hours of active ministry he felt that he was somehow neglecting opportunities for personal growth in his love for the Lord. During this time he came to realize that the Lord was calling him to enter a religious order. For a time he served as pastor of the German church in Rochester and became familiar with the work of the Redemptorists who had recently arrived in America. He saw in this religious order an opportunity for greater personal holiness and so he petitioned to become a Redemptorist. Reluctantly his bishop gave approval and with great joy in his heart, Neumann moved to the new headquarters of the order in Pittsburgh.
For the next two years he spent the period of his novitiate in a dozen different communities in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Under more normal circumstances the period of novitiate would be a time of quiet reflection and prayer. For this new novice it was a time of hectic travel and turmoil. He began to wonder whether or not he had made the right decision in joining the Redemptorist Order. He found peace in his great and growing devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. In later years he described these difficult days and wrote these words to a nephew who had just joined the order.
Sadness and melancholy seize upon some novices while others are beset by love of their own ease. The temptations of the soul are doubtless as numerous as the disorders of the body, but to remain steadfast and to persevere in all this turmoil of the spirit, there is no better remedy than prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary for the grace of perseverance.
And persevere John Neumann did. After a few years as assistant at the German parish in Baltimore, he was sent to finish the construction of the Church of St. Philomena in Pittsburgh. The parish, made up of working class immigrants, was hopelessly in debt. Somehow, partly because of the holiness of his personal life, partly because of his frugal use of available funds, the large church was completed. The feat amazed both the laity and the Church hierarchy. In later years the Bishop of Pittsburgh, Michael O'Connor, was to write that Father Neumann had built a beautiful church without any money.
Far more important than the construction of a new church and rectory was the great spiritual energy that the new pastor infused into the growing parish. He established three schools within his large parish and hundreds of youngsters came to learn about the Lord. The pastor spent many long hours personally instructing the young people of St. Philomena.
During his years as rector Neumann worked very hard. He spent many long hours in the confessional. His penitents came from miles around to confess to this holy priest. He did more than his share of baptisms, marriages and preaching missions. He insisted on taking all of the urgent night sick calls. As a result of his untiring labors the spiritual life of the parish flourished and his health began to fail. Realizing that he was seriously ill, the provincial ordered him to come to Baltimore to convalesce. He was in Baltimore for a matter of a few days when Neumann received word from the Provincial Headquarters in Belgium that he had been named superior general of the Redemptorists in the United States. He and his fellow religious were shocked that a priest in ill health would be chosen to lead the order in a very difficult period in their history with great dissension existing in the ranks of American Redemptorists. He much preferred to remain a simple missionary and asked that he not be appointed to this position of authority in the order. When the authorities insisted, reluctantly he accepted his new responsibilities.
Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists
More and more bishops were depending upon the Redemptorist priests to care for the needs of the growing German population in many parts of the country. In the meantime the leaders of the order decreed that there would be no new foundations until more money and men arrived in America. Neumann agreed with this decision because he believed there must be several religious in each foundation if the priests and brothers were to live the community life. The authorities in the Belgium headquarters supported him despite the growing needs of the American bishops and the wishes of some of the missionaries.
Neumann served as superior of the American branch of the order for two years. His fellow Redemptorists and many of the laity saw in him holiness of life that offered to them a model for their own spiritual lives. He developed a regular schedule so that no matter how busy he was with the affairs of the order, he still found time for his private spiritual devotions. The burdens were awesome and he longed to return to the life of the missionary. Several times he asked to be relieved of his responsibilities as provincial. Finally a new provincial was named in January 1849.
Neumann was appointed a consultor and delighted to have the opportunity to work again with those he loved most, the children of Baltimore and the religious sisters throughout the area. He became confessor to several convents of nuns. His spiritual direction of these dedicated religious teachers was deeply appreciated. The superior of the Notre Dame Sisters, Mother Caroline, said of him, "He understood the art of fostering in others the true religious spirit, which had become second nature to himself."
His reputation for holiness and dedication spread throughout the American Church and even to the sacred congregations in Rome. The new Archbishop of Baltimore, Francis Kendrick, chose him as a confessor and openly spoke to all of the holiness of the life of Father Neumann. Appointed the rector of St. Alphonsus Church, he told his confreres how happy he was in his new position. At this time he said to a lay brother in the community, "How good it is to be a member of the Congregation and to live in America. Here we can truly love God, work much and suffer for him, and we do all this quietly and unnoticed by the world."
His happy life was disrupted one day when he found that his work was indeed being noticed by the world. One day after confession, Archbishop Kendrick told him that the see of Philadelphia was without a bishop and that he might soon have to get himself a miter. Neumann was devastated. He pleaded with the archbishop to no avail. He sought the help of his superiors in Rome and his fellow Redemptorists in America. He asked the prayers of his beloved nuns and children. He prayed long hours that his peaceful and productive life might not be disturbed. He desperately wanted to remain unnoticed.
The fourth bishop of Philadelphia
The Archbishop of Baltimore proposed the name of John Neumann as the new bishop of Philadelphia. Many were surprised; others were upset by the selection. The behind the scenes maneuvering that brought about the appointment of this saintly man as a bishop against his express wish is an indication of the work of Divine Providence through human instruments. Some were opposed to him because he was a German. Others because he was a religious priest who gave up his position as provincial. Others because he was quiet and unassuming and obviously did not want to be bishop. Others because of his appearance he was short and dumpy and had only one rumpled suit. Despite his own opposition and the doubts of others, on March 19, 1852 Pope Pius IX appointed Father John N. Neumann, C.SS.R. as the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia. On the night before his consecration, the new prelate confided to a fellow Redemptorist these words, "I'd rather die tomorrow than be consecrated bishop."
The reluctant bishop threw himself into his work. His waking hours were consumed with activity as he tried to meet the needs of the 170,000 Catholics in a diocese that included the eastern half of Pennsylvania, the entire state of Delaware and the southern part of New Jersey. His genuine concern and the holiness of his life won over those who were disappointed in his appointment. Even the society ladies of his see city came to love him once they were able to get past his humble and unassuming appearance. They too were struck by the holiness of his life.
Immediately he set forth plans for a vast expansion of the parochial school system. Somehow he found time to compose a new catechism of Christian Doctrine to help in the religious instruction of the young people of his diocese. Shortly after his consecration he joined 37 of his brother American bishops at the First Plenary Council of Baltimore. At the council the new bishop shared his concerns for the cause of Catholic education and encouraged other prelates to build additional parochial schools in their dioceses.
Upon his return from Baltimore he resumed his hectic schedule of long hours of meetings and long travels through his vast diocese. One of his first projects was the adopting of a Central Board of Education for the diocese of Philadelphia. The central board was to consist of the bishop and the pastors and two laymen from each parish. The board first of its kind in the Catholic world provided a general appeal to the faithful for aid in the vast school building program. It formed the basis for the present day system of parochial schools in our country.
Great period of growth
The outstanding leadership of the new bishop resulted in the greatest period of growth in Catholic schools anywhere in the nation. Old schools that had been moribund suddenly came back to life. New schools were under construction in many of the parishes of the diocese. This was not only true in the see city but in smaller places in the diocese like York, Lancaster, Bristol and Potsville. In 30 months of concentrated effort under the direction of Bishop Neumann, the number of parish school children rose from 500 to 9,000. The Philadelphia Catholic School system became the envy of every diocese in the country.
In addition to the huge school construction projects, there was a corresponding growth in the number and size of parish churches. Neumann encouraged this expansion program. He also solved some of the lay trustee situations that had plagued the local church for many years. In doing so he gained the respect and admiration of both the Protestant and Catholic communities.
In 1854 at the invitation of the Holy Father, Neumann went to Rome for the solemn proclamation of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. He also made his official report to the pope who congratulated him on the great achievements of his first years as bishop. He took time to visit his family home in Prachatitz. When his townfolk honored him as bishop, Neumann, in characteristic fashion, told them that if another priest from his hometown went to America with him, he would have been consecrated before him.
He returned home to his see city at the time of its greatest growth. Thousands of immigrants swarmed into the port of Philadelphia. Many of them were Irish, German and Italian Catholics. Neumann was always the most accessible of bishops. He was constantly involved in the erection of new parishes and the construction of new churches and schools. Those who knew him at the time said that he was awake and working twenty hours a day. He took a leadership role in attacking the ever-increasing venom of anti-Catholic bigotry and gained the affection of most fair-minded people in his diocese.
With the erection of a new diocese in Brooklyn and Newark, Philadelphia became the largest see in America in number of Catholics and number of churches and schools as well. Overwhelmed with the enormous task, Neumann asked the Holy Father for help. He offered to become bishop of a smaller diocese. Instead the pope named Bishop James Wood to serve as his coadjutor bishop.
Reverend Daniel F. McSheffery is a priest of the Archdiocese of Hartford with 35 years experience in parish ministry. He has served parishes in urban, suburban and rural communities. At present he serves as the pastor of the Parish Community of St. Augustine in North Branford, Conn. He has spoken to clergy conferences, adult education groups, and given parish missions and retreats. His articles have appeared in many Catholic magazines and newspapers.
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