On March 28, 1811 — Good Friday, according to the family tradition — our beloved saint was born and baptized in the obscure mountain village of Prachatitz in Bohemia. He was named after the holy Bohemian martyr and patron of the confessional seal, Saint John Nepomucene.
John, the third of six children, from his earliest years evinced rare qualities that prompted many a remark for his pious character and gifted intelligence. His was a probing mind, preoccupied even at a tender age with philosophic wonder about everything in God’s creation. And from the time he learned to read, he could hardly be pried away from a book. “My mother,” he said, “used to chide me, and call me book mad, a bibliomaniac.”
Writing a short sketch of his life in later years, he recalled: “Our education was conducted in accordance with the good old Catholic method, for our parents were thorough Christians.” It is indisputably clear in all his writings that in the “good old Catholic” school, which John Neumann cherished, the name “Christian” always and only meant “Catholic.” And, indeed, his parents, Philip and Agnes Neumann (pronounced noy ‘ mahn), were deeply devout Catholics, who were well qualified for rearing a saint.
John Nepomucene Neumann seems to have been blessed with a special grace from his childhood. As a young boy regularly joining his mother at daily Mass, he showed fervent love for the Holy Sacrifice, So advanced was he in catechetical studies that by special privilege he was permitted to receive First Communion and Confirmation with boys two years his senior. Having been chosen for his modesty and recollection to be an altar boy, he always fasted before serving Mass, even on the days he could not receive Our Lord. (Remember that daily Communion was not a universal privilege until the decree of Pope Saint Pius X in 1905.)
Humility at all times was the saint’s most profound virtue. He practised it so perfectly, in fact, that his many other pious qualities became almost hidden from notice. But these were not altogether obscured. Neumann’s nephew and earliest biographer, Father John Berger, C.SS.R., gives one example: “His neighbors’ woes aroused his deepest sympathy. Once he saw a child going from door to door with a bag on his back. His heart was touched, and in his childlike compassion he exclaimed, ‘Oh, if I only had a bag, I would go about begging with the poor boy, and then he would get more!’”
Little “Johann” was often observed making gestures in imitation of a priest. He even fashioned a toy altar out of lead, which he frequently decorated with candles and flowers to “say Mass” for his small friends.
Young Master Neumann was playing with companions one day, and each was proudly proclaiming, as little boys do, what he was going to be when he grew up. John’s mother, quietly watching the performance at a distance, observed that he alone kept silent. Now mothers, especially ones as wise and holy as Agnes Neumann, have a sense about such things. Already suspecting what private dream her saintly son cherished, she later questioned him about his desires in life. “Mother,” he answered, “I would like to be something, if it did not cost so much money.”
That was as much as he would say about the matter. But still, however well he was guarding his heart, Mother Neumann now was sure God had placed in that heart a priestly vocation. And while she wisely left his secret feelings uninvaded, to no one’s notice she patiently began from that moment to protect and to nourish this holy calling with her devout prayers and chaste guidance, until such time that Our Lord would expressly summon John to His divine ministry.
Enters the Seminary
Having consistently earned the highest marks during his six years of primary education, the holy youth was recommended for advanced studies at the academy at Budweis with the scholastic note, “First Class with Distinction.” During his eight years at the academy, he cultivated a variety of strong interests. In his autobiography, Neumann wrote, “I avidly followed my bent for the natural sciences: Botany, biology, geography, physics, geology, astronomy. And I applied myself with the greatest enthusiasm to algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. . . .” He was also a musician and an accomplished artist. But the saint did not record his impressive cultural interests to boast of any mental prowess. Rather, he meant to show them as powerful distractions that had begun to interfere with his vocation to the priesthood. For he added, “When the time came . . . for me to decide for theology or law or medicine, I felt more of an attraction to the latter.”
Actually John Neumann had never lost his vocation, and medicine was really his second choice. But the seminary, already overcrowded, would accept only twenty out of the ninety candidates that year, and these would need letters of recommendations from influential people even to be considered. “Now this offering of recommendations I regarded as an innovation,” he remarked. “Consequently I would use no effort to obtain them.”
Although the obstacles appeared to be serious, Frau Neumann encouraged John to apply for admission, trusting in God’s help. In doing so, his faith was rewarded. “Without recommendations, simply at my own request, I was admitted to the seminary, and from that moment the temptation to devote myself to the study of medicine disappeared. Even my favorite pursuits, physics, astronomy, etc. I gave up almost entirely and without regret.” These worldly interests he promptly replaced with a single-minded determination to acquire as much holy wisdom as possible.
On All Saints Day, 1831, Neumann entered the Diocesan Seminary of Budweis, where he spent two of the happiest years of his life. He so distinguished himself in all subjects that he was allowed to take minor orders at the end of his first scholastic year.
His great love was the study of Holy Scripture. It was through this study, and especially in reading of the heroic labors of the Apostle of the Gentiles, Saint Paul, that his missionary spirit was first aroused. This aspiration hardened into unwavering resolve during John’s second year, for he then began to read the reports of the missionary Leopoldine Foundation, and to learn of the wonderful apostolic work of Father Frederick Baraga and the dedicated Redemptorists in America. The saint wrote, “The letters of Father Baraga and other German missionaries charmed me. One day as [a friend] and I were walking . . . the thought came to us to set out for America as soon after ordination as we should have obtained some practical knowledge of our priestly duties. . . . From that day my resolution was so firm, my desire so lively, that I could think of nothing else.”
Indeed, John Neumann fitted his entire lifestyle around this zealous plan. He had always practiced mortification, but now he greatly intensified his penances and privations in imitation of the Apostle. He withdrew himself from almost all social activity in order to devote more time to study. Above all, he concentrated intensely on languages. Among those he had been learning on his own were Italian, Czech, and French. But he needed to perfect his knowledge of these and other tongues — particularly English — for his ambitions in the missionary field.
With that primary consideration, Neumann entered the Archiepiscopal Seminary at Prague University, where he expected to find courses in French and English available. Father Curley comments: “The transfer, one of the best planned moves of his life, turned out to be one of the keenest sorrows of John Neumann’s career.”
Lifelong Trials Begin
Prague University was still incubating a body of destructive errors and heresy called “Josephinism,” an offshoot from the then-recent age of Masonic “Enlightenment,” named after Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Josephinism was thoroughly Masonic, intensely anti-papal, and ruthlessly anti-Catholic, and such were the sentiments that Saint John confronted in the seminary. He wrote: ” . . . at [that] place I met a great disappointment. . . . Nor was I satisfied with the professors of dogmatic, moral, and pastoral theology. The first was more against the Pope than for him. . . . The second was too philosophical to be understood by his hearers. The third was a thorough Josephinist. I had to do violence to myself even to listen to them, for the absurdity of their treatment of those subjects I fully understood; much less could I accept their opinions as heterodox. It is a matter of regret that in such institutions so much is done to maintain simply the appearance of learning, instead of diffusing good and useful Catholic knowledge.”
John by this time had devoured so many theological works by the saints and doctors of the Church that he had filled some thirty-eight volumes with extracts from their writings. Thus armed, he took on himself the task of writing a paper, defending papal infallibility in the face of his professors’ unorthodox views, at a time when that doctrine had not yet been defined by the Church.
Another disappointment to the young seminarian was finding that English was not taught at the university. Nor was he permitted to study French. But with his natural ability for assimilating languages, Neumann was able to master French so well on his own that he presented himself at an examination and received the commendation, “First Class with Distinction,” never having attended any classes. In the same manner, he ultimately became so skilled a linguist that in later years he could converse in no less than eight modern languages — not to mention his expert knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
Yet perhaps the greatest obstacle the saint had at Prague was the president of the seminary, Doctor Anthony Rost. John should have had in this man a ready counselor and spiritual guide, but he did not. On the contrary, Rost was of quite a different spirit, and a frequent antagonist to him.
What greater hazard could there be for a soul striving to perfect itself in sanctity? With all his pious aspirations, he finds himself in an atmosphere that is considerably less than holy. His fellow seminarians, affected by prevalent attitudes, not only completely lack his zeal, but belittle it with cruel delight. His instructors are weak in their faith, if not outright heretics. And worst of all, he is without a spiritual director. Were the victim of these sad circumstances anyone less than the courageously determined John Nepomucene Neumann, he would have lost his vocation. Yet this regrettable situation was only the beginning of a lifelong pattern of trials and suffering for a man destined to become a great saint of modern times.
It was under these trying conditions that John became his own spiritual guide, so to speak. In 1834, he began to write his journal, a day-to-day outpouring of the most intimate thoughts of his soul, whereby he would examine his conscience in minute detail and scrutinize his advances or failings in striving toward perfect sanctity. Here is an early entry that reveals his torment at the time: “The president’s sermon has wounded my heart. I like him now even less than ever. O Jesus, Thou knowest my sad condition. Here I am without a guide, without an adviser. Lord, teach me how to pray that I may obtain what is so necessary for me, a guide in the spiritual life. I have none to console me in my falls, to counsel me in my doubt as to whether I should enter an Order or Congregation where I might live in perfect obedience; none to direct me in my efforts to amend my life, none to point out how I may become more pleasing to Thee. O my Jesus, in my desolation I cry to Thee! Hear my prayer, send me a good confessor!”
The agony that Saint John Neumann interpreted as being a punishment for his “sinfulness,” rather seems to have been the means by which Our Lord intended to purify him, and to prepare him for his holy career. Thus it was out of love for His devoted servant that God actually increased the seminarian’s crosses at this time.
First the saint’s closest friend, Adalbert Schmid, suddenly changed his mind about accompanying the apostle to America. Then through some confusion, funds John had counted on for his missionary journey were found not to be available after all. And finally, due to an over-abundance of priests in the diocese, the bishop postponed all ordinations in Budweis indefinitely. As if this were not enough discouragement and sorrow, the poor seminarian still faced the painful task of telling his loved ones that soon he would be gone from them, probably forever.
Neumann’s journal gives witness to his determination during this, his Gethsemani: “While pondering last evening on my resolution, separation from home appeared to me so bitter that I burst into tears. My Jesus, if it be Thy will, increase my sufferings, but hear my prayers! Let my resolve be put into execution. With no other guide than Thyself, O Lord, I stand on the outskirts of an immense region full of dangers and difficulties. The final step once taken, there will be no looking back. No fond parents, no devoted brother and sisters, no kind of friends will greet my landing on those far-off shores. I shall meet none but strangers. There, indeed, I shall find unbelievers who scoff at Thee, my Jesus, but many souls also hunger to know Thy Word, O most merciful Savior!”
A kind priest who encouraged Neumann’s plans, and who knew the urgent need for German priests in America, advised the saint that since it would be at least six months before he could be ordained at Budweis, he should set out for the New World immediately, and receive Holy Orders from the bishop of Philadelphia.
Thus, in the early morning of February 8, 1836, Saint John Nepomucene Neumann braced his youthful courage and, sparing his family painful goodbyes, he quietly slipped away from home to find his way all alone to America and to a destiny of spiritual greatness.
Journey to the New World
The trip across Europe, a large part of it made on foot, continued through the season of Lent. The saint carried with him very little money — about forty dollars — and even less certainty as to how he would arrange for passage to America. It is worth noting in this connection that sometime earlier John had rushed to a blazing fire, where he fought the raging menace with such courage that the prince of the district offered to reward him with any favor he would ask. Young Neumann, however, would never ask for, or use, special privilege not even to obtain the means for reaching the United States.
Darker clouds shrouded the apostle’s ambitions in Munich, where he heard that the bishop of Philadelphia no longer needed German priests. The information was erroneous, though John had no way of knowing it. Driven by determination, however, he continued on in hopes that, upon arriving in New York, he might find a bishop who needed him. Otherwise, he would work among the Indians, trying to convert them.
On April 20, after somehow having raised just enough money to buy passage, Saint John Neumann boarded a crowded ship called the Europa at Le Havre, and at last he was on his way to his new home.
During the crossing an incident occurred which shows that in spite of the hardships, discouragements, and trials God sent to His zealous servant, He was at the same time always with the little saint, safeguarding him for the holy work he was to do. A storm arose at sea. and all passengers except Neumann had taken to their quarters. John was sitting on deck when some impulse prompted him to get up and move. No sooner had he done so when a sail yard came crashing down on the very spot he had just vacated. This was not the first time he was spared of certain death. As a three-year-old child, he tumbled through an opening onto a hard cellar flood, falling some fifteen feet, and suffered not a scratch.
On the fortieth day of the crossing, Trinity Sunday, 1836, John Neumann saw America for the first time. As a matter of precaution, however, the ship and its two hundred passengers were quarantined for a week outside New York harbor. Finally, the saint was permitted ashore at Staten Island, where he boarded a small steamboat and ferried to Lower Manhattan. Alone, unexpected, unfamiliar with the language, shabby, and, but for one dollar, without money, the holy man at age twenty-five now stood in a strange world, nervously apprehensive about his dubious future.
A letter written by the saint describes his experience: “It was the Feast of Corpus Christi, about 11:00 o’clock, when I landed in America. You can imagine how I felt. My first care was to find a Catholic church. But, not having brought along any address, I had no hope of finding a priest by asking in an entirely strange land. In spite of a constant downpour, I walked the mile-long streets of the city until evening. I found a number of churches, chapels, etc. but no Catholic church wanted to show itself. I had to put all my philological knowledge together to comprehend the inscriptions on these buildings, many decorated with ideal beauty. . . .Often there was nothing on the church roof; often a weathercock; sometimes a cross, indeed, but over the cross a weathercock. The devil, I thought, may present himself ever so beautifully, but still he must let his cloven foot be seen a little!”
The next day John found his way to the residence of Bishop Dubois, who, unbeknownst to the saint, was in desperate need of German-speaking priests. The bishop was so overjoyed at the presence of the little Bohemian that he told him to begin immediately preparing for ordination. And so, after years of increasing uncertainty John Nepomucene Neumann suddenly found the clouds of discouragement departing from him. Emotionally he scribed in his journal: “Thanks, a thousand thanks to Thee, my Jesus, for having prepared a place for me in Thy sanctuary. . . . Doubt and uncertainty have vanished like mist before the rays of the sun.”
Two weeks later, on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, young Neumann received the diaconate. The following day, June 25, he was ordained to the priesthood, and again charged emotions flowed through his pen: “At last, my dearest Jesus, I have attained to that for which my soul so long has sighed! . . . Oh, far too high a privilege for me! . . . Joy above all earthly joys!” Celebrating his First Mass the next day, Father Neumann gave First Holy Communion to thirty German children whom he had been instructing during the previous two weeks.
New Priest in the New World
The sprawling Diocese of New York in those days was comprised of all that state and one-third of New Jersey. Many of its 200,000 Catholics were German immigrants. Yet there were but thirty-six priests for the whole diocese, and only three of these were German. This shortage was felt most sorely in the vast “parish” of Buffalo, spreading over some nine hundred square miles from Lake Ontario down to Pennsylvania. For there was but one priest to administer to all Catholics scattered throughout this broad frontier area. And so, only three days after his ordination, little Father Neumann, wearing a suit bought for him by a kind priest, was sent on his way to Buffalo.
At the bishop’s request, the new cleric stopped over a few days at Rochester, to assist the lone and heavily overburdened priest of that parish. During this brief sojourn, Neumann for the first time came face to face with the pitiful conditions in which he slavishly would labor for the rest of his life. Here he saw the dire spiritual consequences for immigrant Catholics in a strange and thoroughly Protestant land, unable to converse in the language of their only priest, and thus cut off, for all intents and purposes, from guidance in their Holy Faith. Eventually many had fallen away, oftentimes joining heretical sects, and the religious instruction of their children was either founded on false doctrine or abandoned entirely. The saint spoke of this in his journal: “O God, how melancholy is the spectacle in this part of Thy kingdom! Do not punish our disobedience to Thy Church in this way! Take not away the good seed; suffer not the spread of heresy and infidelity! . . . Enlighten me, strengthen me with Thy powerful grace, that I may snatch from Satan his unfortunate prey, and lead them back to Thee!”
On July 12, 1836, the holy man finally reached Buffalo, that crude yet growing town burgeoning in the midst of the sparsely settled frontier region. As in Rochester, the Catholics here, though heavily outnumbered by bitterly anti-Catholic Protestants, were still too numerous for their sole priest, Father Alexander Pax, a devout soul who quickly won the saint’s affection and admiration. Reassessing the great burden of parochial work, Father Pax proposed that one priest should tend to the populous town of Buffalo itself, and the other to families and settlements in the outlying districts. Father Neumann agreed, insisting on having the latter grueling assignment.
There were four hundred Catholic families — mostly immigrants — scattered throughout the half-million acres of densely wooded countryside in Father Neumann’s portion of the parish. In most instances the distance from the cabin of one poor household to the next was ten or more miles. And where there were enough Catholics in an area to erect a small church, as in Niagara or Batavia, it would mean a hike of as much as fifty miles for the little priest to say Mass.
But whatever the hardships, Saint John Neumann was determined that not one soul entrusted to his care would be neglected. For he fully realized his priestly responsibility for these unfortunate immigrants, strayed or cut off from the Faith of their homelands. He prayed: “O my Jesus, I, a poor, ignorant young man, have become a shepherd in Thy sheepfold. . . . Grant that not one of those confided to me be lost. . . . Teach me to live, and, if needs be, to die for my people that they all may be saved, that they all may love Thy dear Mother! . . . Mary, thou who art ever victorious over heresies, pray for all who are walking in the paths of accursed error! . . . My Jesus, what shall, I, a poor creature, do to lead many souls — yea, all souls — to Thee?”
Indeed, the little saint wanted to do just that: to help convert and save all souls in America. It was principally for this purpose that he had come to this Protestant country. And now arrived on his long-sought field of missionary labor, he set hard to work at the task.
A Tireless Apostle
Father Neumann made his headquarters at Williamsville, a small village east of Buffalo, where he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice between the four walls of an unfinished chapel that had neither floor nor roof. Anti-Catholics took advantage of this situation during Mass, by pitching rocks over the walls into the congregation. One landed on the altar one morning, narrowly missing the holy priest.
From this base the little saint energetically ventured forth to every corner of the vast territory on foot, hiking over muddy roads and rude trails, through swamps and uncut forests, by day and by night, in the stiffing heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. Plodding his way from village to village, cabin to cabin, soul to soul, he carried on his small back a heavy altar stone, vessels, vestments, books, and other implements of his sacred trade that sometimes even included a portable altar! Quite often late in the night he would be called away to someone’s bedside, and, no matter how fatigued he was from the day’s strenuous labor, he would promptly and cheerfully rush off to answer the call.
One time, while making his rounds through the forest, he collapsed in a heap at the foot of a tree, so completely exhausted and with feet so badly blistered that he could not take another step. A band of Indians came upon him, and, recognizing the kind and holy “Black Robe” who had visited their people many times, carried the saint on a blanket to the nearest homestead.
Added to the exhausting routine of his ministerial work was Father Neumann’s service as a doctor, a pharmacist, and a schoolteacher, not to mention that when he moved to North Bush, he did most of the work in building the little cabin that became his residence there.
And here it must be mentioned that Saint John at this time was practising rigorous mortification and penance. Ever the student of sacred wisdom, he read holy writings and compiled notes through all his evenings, taking no more than two hours, sometimes only one hour of sleep a night. And often, if not always as some believed, he slept on the bare floor. Frequently no smoke was seen to issue from his chimney for weeks at a time, as he would eat nothing but bread for long periods. One meal a day, consisting of a slice of bread and cheese, was not an uncommon diet for him.
Father Neumann was extremely poor, but he so loved this condition that he vowed himself to poverty for life. We understand why, when he writes of this one experience: “The chapel at Lancaster is more like a barn than a church. While preaching after Mass on the humility of Jesus, Who deigns to dwell in that poor hut as once He did in the stable at Bethlehem, my tears could not be restrained, and I was forced to discontinue my sermon.” And thus, when encouraging missionary vocations for America, he emphasized, “Only a poor priest, or one who can endure the hardships of poverty, can labor here with fruit.”
Poor as the little priest was, however, he generously sacrificed from his own meager earnings to buy furnishings for the churches in his pastorship. He even spent his last dollar building a new school at Williamsville. and, of course, he was always ready to offer whatever assistance he could to any needy soul who asked for help.
One so kind, so selfless, so charitable, and so hardworking for his flock as Father Neumann could only be dearly loved by the souls in his care. “Our pastor deserves to be framed in gold,” one mother used to tell her youngsters. Others tenderly spoke of him long after he was gone, saying: “He was a real saint!” And many, who as children had been given holy cards by the beloved priest, were to cherish these possessions as relics in their old age.
All expressed concern that the pace of his tireless zeal would crush his health. But he would simply reply: “I am a strong Bohemian mountain boy. It will not hurt me.” The truth is that like Saint Paul, his apostolic model, John Neumann was of “diminutive stature” he stood only five feet, two and one-half inches tall. And however strong he imagined he was, his physical resources could never be equal to the herculean burden of labor and penance he imposed on himself. This was eventually proved when, in 1840, even he admitted to his confessor, “Father Pax, I must give up; my health is gone.” He was, in fact, a very sick man by that time, coughing up blood and suffering violent attacks of fever.
Fruits of Holiness
Until then, however, John continued to drive himself relentlessly. And his zealous missionary efforts continued increasingly to harvest such good fruits that when Bishop Dubois made a pastoral visit, he was astonished to find just how much the saint had accomplished. Even Neumann himself had to confess to this success, though he was careful to avoid admitting how much of it was due to his work and prayer: “In respect to our holy religion, affairs are progressing well. Catholicism is spreading, and the zeal of the faithful is on the increase. Many of my good people have acknowledged that they consider their souls’ salvation furthered by coming to America. For in Europe . . . they did not feel half the earnestness and zeal that now animates them.”
One learns to penetrate the extraordinary humility of this magnificent saint, to discover his singular merit in such achievements. As has been shown, the faithful of this vast parish were not all that faithful, and they certainly were not zealous before Saint John came. When, therefore, he matter-of-factly says “Catholicism is spreading,” we must realize that since he was the only priest roaming the Buffalo wilderness, it was he who was doing all the spreading!
Berger writes: “Father Neumann’s fervent prayers for the conversion of infidels and heretics were productive of a rich harvest of souls. . . . Sometimes his journal speaks of whole families under instruction, either for baptism or reception into the Church.” Here are some lines which initiate us into the secret of his success: “The recitation of the Rosary for my stray sheep is always productive of abundant fruit. I will redouble my zeal in this sweet and efficacious devotion.”
Consider now this holy man’s apostolic zeal in marked contrast to the subtle but noxious heresy of religious indifferentism, which was already then spreading both here and in other countries, and which would be condemned by two popes later in that century. That Saint John Nepomucene Neumann stood staunchly opposed to this monstrous error is made clear by his remarks in a private letter. “How I wish that B’s admirers could dispute for a short time with our American heretics! It would be the very best means of removing his doubts. As soon as a man separates from the Church and her doctrines, even in one point, he becomes unreasonable, illogical, falls into doubt, and ends in obstinate heresy.”
In the same correspondence, the saint added comments about the fanaticism of the “innumerable kinds and varieties” of Protestant sects in this country, and summarized, with this illustration: “If one attends a Methodist meeting, he imagines himself carried back to the times of Elias and the priests of Baal. All are praying aloud, though not in concert. One shouts, another screams; some weep, some sing; while others, turning deadly pale, fall to the floor, foam at the mouth, groan as if in agony, and roll about convulsively, having, as they blasphemously assert, received the Holy Ghost.” [Not unlike the crazed assemblies of "charismatics" and "pentecostals" of today! -Ed.] “It would be worthwhile to advise our European skeptics to attend one of these sensational meetings. They would, without doubt, carry away a belief in the existence of the devil. That the Catholic Church alone is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic is convincingly brought home to our Catholics here, for the truth enters by both eyes and ears.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Lest there be any confusion about the meaning of his last sentence, we quote from Saint John’s explanation of the Ninth article of the Nicene Creed, from the catechism he wrote several years later as Bishop of Philadelphia:
“Q. 12. Can we be saved in every religion? A. No; we can be saved only in the religion that Jesus Christ has taught.
“Q. 13. Where do we find this religion of Jesus Christ? A. We find it in the Roman Catholic Church.
“Q. 14. Why is the Roman Catholic Church the true Church of Jesus Christ? A. Because only she has the four marks of the true Church of Jesus Christ.
“Q. 15. What are the four marks of the Church of Jesus Christ? A. The true Church of Jesus Christ must be: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.”
Wolves amongst the Flock
The fanatical sects posed a serious danger in Father Neumann’s parishes, as their adherents went from door to door trying to seduce the faithful. And to make their false doctrines more alluring, they added the promise of better financial security for those poor Catholics who would renounce the Holy Faith. For economic boycott was practised in various forms by the hateful sectarians as a cruelly effective weapon against Catholicism. And unfortunately, a number of souls were drawn away in this manner. Father Neumann’s heart was torn with anguish whenever he learned of these instances, and he redoubled his prayers and penances in behalf of the apostates: “Today has been a very painful one for me. I heard of the apostasy of one of my parishioners. My heart is pierced with sorrow. . . . O my Jesus, [for his soul] I will pray, fast, and with the help of Thy grace, sacrifice life itself.”
Once the saint met the enemy head on, when he was asked to debate with several Baptist preachers at a nearby meeting-house. So confident were the Protestants that they would win over this mild-mannered priest, that they began circulating word that Father Neumann was going to “convert.” Unfortunately for them, every one of the preachers went down in resounding defeat in the first round of each exchange as even the Protestants themselves admitted in shame. The holy priest was so eloquent that the Baptists suffered the loss of many followers who chose to enter the fold of the One True Church.
But the Protestants were not the only source of danger. Saint John wrote of a worse one. “Much scandal has been given in these parts by the arrival of unworthy priests who come here merely to lead a reckless life amid the confusion of heresies. . . . That the evils existing among our people are very great is, indeed, only too true. . . . Still, we must allow that apostasy from the Faith, considering the evil influence exercised everywhere by heretics, is not so frequent as one might suppose; nay, the number of those who return to the bosom of the only saving Church balances the loss sustained by such defections. The gain would surely be greater if earnest priests were more numerous. . . . If any others entertain the same desire [to come to America], I beg you to examine whether their religious principles agree with the Roman Catholic Church. Otherwise it would be well for them to provide the means for a speedy return.”
Without question, the loss of parishioners to heretical sects, even if heavily offset by large numbers of his converts to Catholicism, gave such suffering to the little saint that it must have contributed considerably to the eventual failing of his health. And there were many parochial problems as well, such as the widespread and destructive trustee system, that added to his strain all on top of the crushing pastoral work load that he carried.
In 1839, Wenzel Neumann came to America to join his older brother as a lay helper. But while his assistance was of much benefit to John, it only allowed the priest to expand his labors. And in the end Father Neumann was working harder than ever, hastening the day when, with ruined health, he would depart the Buffalo frontier.
Even severe illness, however, is not enough to stop a determined saint as long as he has any strength left in him to do God’s work. And certainly the indefatigable John Neumann, who had vowed never to waste a single moment, would not have let chronic fever and internal bleeding alone deter him.
The fact is that Saint John suffered with another, more agonizing affliction — one that had continually beset him since his days in the seminary — an affliction of the soul. For in spite of all his holy ambitions and accomplishments, all his prayers and penances, his sacrifices and privations, Father Neumann was convinced that he was but a wretched sinner. Isolated as he was in this raw wilderness, and constantly exposed to its worldly influences, he found himself still deprived of satisfactory spiritual guidance. Fearing that he might lose his soul if left in that hazardous state, he, like the Cure of Ars, had temptations of running away: “To escape the terrible responsibility resting upon me, I sometimes thought of abandoning my flock, of fleeing to some distant solitude where I might lead a hidden, penitential life. . . .”
An acquaintance, Father Joseph Prost of the Redemptorists, mystically seemed to sense the priest’s spiritual plight when, in writing to Father Neumann, he closed his letter with the Scriptural admonition: Vae soli! (“Woe to him who is alone!”) This, of course, was to suggest subtly that John consider joining the Redemptorist Congregation. Father Prost’s pointed counsel struck its mark squarely, for Neumann, a long-time student of the writings of Saint Alphonsus, had much in common with the Redemptorist spirit. And, now convinced that the only way he could save his soul was by entrusting it under perfect obedience to the guidance, care, and protection of a religious order, the young saint promptly decided to enter the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. On October 13, 1840, having obtained the bishop’s approval, the diminutive priest set out for the Redemptorist foundation in Pittsburgh, followed a few weeks later by Wenzel Neumann, who became a lay brother in the order.
A Redemptorist Father
John Nepomucene Neumann became the first novice of the newly established American branch of Redemptorists on November 30. Scarcely has he begun his year’s novitiate anticipating peaceful study, spiritual solitude, and efficacious counsel when he realized that these were vain hopes. For the labors of this small and holy band of missionary Fathers were in such demand that, shortly after Father Neumann had arrived in Pittsburgh, the priest assigned to be his novice master was sent to Baltimore. and the one other priest at the foundation was called away for mission work so often that the saint, besides being left to serve as parish priest, had to stand in as his own novice master and superior.
John stopped writing his journal when he entered the Congregation. But some years later, he commented on this period in a letter: “There was no novitiate in America at that time, and no novice master, but an overwhelming amount of work to be dispatched. I daily made two meditations and two examens of conscience with the community, spiritual reading in private, and a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. I also recited the Rosary, and that was all.”
But that was not all, as far as the difficulties of his novitiate were concerned. Almost immediately, he was sent into the field, preaching missions, assisting parish priests, and settling parochial disputes. His residence was changed that year no less than eight times. Throughout all this, he was constantly frustrated in his anxious attempts to catch up with his wandering and busy novice master, Father Tschenhens. And when on occasion he did manage to find Tschenhens, he was often tested rather harshly by this priest. “You had better return to your former missions,” the novice master would bark. “You will never persevere with us.”
About this time Saint John must have felt his joining the Redemptorists was another well planned move gone awry, like his decision to transfer to the Prague seminary some years earlier. He was denied almost all of the spiritual direction and formation that is customarily due a novice religious. He was shuffled about as though he were a homeless, unwanted orphan. And the disheartening treatment frequently accorded him by Father Tschenhens only gave greater cause for his apprehensions.
As if this were not enough, Father Neumann underwent another trial when, assigned to preach a long series of missions in several different states, he arrived in Ohio. Here he met the Bishop of Cincinnati, who greeted him with an alarming report that the American Congregation of the Redemptorists was dissolving. The bishop then urged Neumann to stay on in Ohio, offering him a local pastorship. Anyone else, whose vocation for the life of a religious was plagued with such discouragements, would have yielded after hearing this grave report and accepted the bishop’s good offer. But John had lived his whole life storming the fortresses of hopelessness, simply armed with unswerving faith. So the saint politely turned down the pastorship and continued on in his assignment. As it turned out, the bishop’s information was completely false.
Here we see why John Nepomucene Neumann is called “the common man’s saint.” For his greatness is not so much in his endurance of terrific hardships and sufferings, or his extraordinary virtue, or his splendid achievements for the glory of God and the souls of men. Indeed, he was renowned for all these, of course. But the richest crown for this magnificent saint was earned by his persistent and unshakable faith. Through all the discouragements and disappointments of his weary career, through the long spiritual droughts that parched his soul, through his never-ending uncertainty of whether he was giving his best to God’s work, his remarkable faith in Jesus and in Our Blessed Mother never wavered. And by this alone he was able to meet an abundance of common challenges and difficulties with uncommon greatness.
But God did not entirely hide His particular providence from this faithful, if yet bewildered, servant. During his novitiate, John related to Father Tschenhens a strange and unsettled dream. He had seen himself in Baltimore, where a prelate was trying to force poor Father Neumann to become a bishop against his will. As the prelate was dragging this struggling victim to a church where he was to be consecrated, the much frightened priest awoke. Father Tschenchens rather contemptuously rebuked his innocent novice for entertaining fancies that were contrary to the Redemptorist spirit. Nevertheless, that dream would come true in every detail twelve years later.
A “New Man”
On January 16, 1842, after a long and arduous novitiate, John Neumann, at the age of thirty, became the first Redemptorist to make his vows in America. A chronicler light-heartedly recorded the event with a German pun: “In truth, a new man [ein neuer Mann ] for our Congregation.” But Father Neumann noted the occasion with profound joy and conviction, saying: “I now belong, body and soul, to the congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.”
He was first assigned to St. James parish in Baltimore. From this base he regularly traveled to distant mission posts, bringing the consolations of the Holy Faith to the vast numbers of immigrants, who long had been deprived of them in the New World. The enormity of this task is reflected in the saint’s comments. “The few [priests] we have are sadly out of proportion to the ever-increasing wants of the faithful. There are Catholics who have not been to confession for many years, and there are young people of nineteen or twenty who have nothing of Catholicity about them, saving their baptism and all this from the want of priests. The longer this need continues, the more difficult it will be to reanimate faith and the fear of God.”
Assisting one other priest at St. James Church, John was equally dedicated to his parish work, administering the sacraments and, his happiest chore of all, instructing children in catechism. With all these heavy parochial and missionary responsibilities, Father Neumann still managed to labor amongst souls outside the Church’s fold. Hardly a Sunday would pass without the baptizing of converts. Sometimes there were as many as thirty non-Catholics taking instructions in the Faith.
The extraordinary success of Father Neumann in both parish and mission work is due to his keen understanding of people, an understanding, as one writer describes it, born of experience and an intense interest in bringing others spiritual peace and comfort. In recognition of these and other outstanding qualities, the pious Redemptorist, in March of 1844, was appointed rector of St.Philomena’s parish in Pittsburgh, where he had begun his novitiate four years earlier. Here again he performed with the same zeal he had shown in all his past positions, and against many of the same handicaps. But he also confronted certain problems that were new to him.
One of these was the flagrant proliferation of secret societies. This era, remember, had produced the likes of Karl Marx, that infamous degenerate and hack hireling of the conspiratorial League of the Just (later known as the Communist League). As Father Neumann observed, many Germans like Marx, raised in an atmosphere of Protestant liberalism and reckless philosophies, had a proclivity for secret Masonic cults. This germ was carried into America with the wave of early nineteenth-century immigrants, thus engendering the evil danger which Saint John described as follows: “Secret societies have been formed lately among infidels and non-Catholics; for instance, the Freemasons, the Oddfellows, and the Order of Red Men. All assert that the only object of their association is fraternal benevolence and mutual support. But this is merely a specious cloak. The very oath tendered by them, viz., secrecy as to what goes on in their meetings, is a sufficient reason to suspect their intention, and to warn Catholics against communication with them. . . . Under pain of exclusion from the sacraments, the Provincial Council has forbidden Catholics to join such societies. Notwithstanding the prohibition, many have been enticed into them, and the sad consequences are that they have fallen away from the Faith.”
Father Neumann fought strenuously against these devilish cults. And he encouraged using every means to restrain Catholics, as he said, “from joining secret societies, from too intimate intercourse with heretics, from the reading of Protestant and immoral books, etc.,” all of which dangers were attendant upon the same problem. Among his remedies was the formation of new societies: the Confraternity of the Rosary, the Confraternity of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, and the confraternity for a Good Death.
Other difficulties faced in his post as rector of Saint Philomena’s were not entirely unfamiliar to the saint. There was, for example, the problem of the financial zeal of certain Protestant sects, reminiscent of what he had confronted in Buffalo. But here he found a new twist: He discovered a common practice of poor Catholic parents to entrust their children to the homes of wealthy Protestants, who could provide ample comforts of life which the Catholic families themselves could not afford. “This is a crying evil,” Father Neumann wrote. “American Protestants . . . use every means to check the spread of Catholicism. They receive Catholic children into their homes with the secret intention of destroying their faith. And as they make fair promises, the foolish parents think themselves fortunate in having so well provided for their little ones. They will one day weep over their folly, but then it will be too late!” The remedy he proposed in this matter was the foundation of Catholic institutions and the funding of religious orders, such as the Sisters of Charity, to take charge of them.
Superior of American Redemptorists
As rector of the Redemptorist in Pittsburgh, John Neumann was highly esteemed and dearly loved by his confreres. His tireless zeal, devoting long hours in the confessional and administering other sacraments, and his exacting care in preparing his sermons, gave inspiration to all. Moreover, he accorded his fellow Fathers with as much kindness and care as if they were his sons, even pulling rank, so to speak, to monopolize the onerous duty of answering sick-calls during the night. When the other Fathers insisted that they should share this work, he would reply: “You need all the rest you can get. I cannot sleep at night, so I may as well go myself.”
Could not sleep, indeed! He would not sleep! For the little saint was up almost all night, every night, hard at prayer and work. It was in these late hours that he wrote his catechisms, and compiled thousands of pages of copious notes for a Bible history.
So generously did Father Neumann give of himself, without letup, that his old illness returned, this time evincing more serious symptoms. The Fathers repeatedly urged him to consult a physician, and to rest himself. But he would merely reply with a smile: “It is nothing. I shall be well soon.” Finally, on orders from his superior he did see a doctor, who diagnosed a tubercular condition that could be fatal if the saint would not leave Pittsburgh immediately, and rest. On this word, he was promptly ordered to convalesce in Baltimore.
The rest was a short one. At the end of two weeks, on February 9, 1847, John received a letter from Holland, sent some three months earlier by the Provincial, naming him Vice-Regent of the American Redemptorists.
The appointment stunned and even terrified the humble priest, who judged himself incompetent to fill so critical a position. Nor was he without cause for concern, for the Congregation’s young American branch, then in the throes of many difficulties, had not yet been established as a separate province. And, for the lack of that status, its superior would have the unenviable responsibility for administration of the order, without practicable decision-making authority to cope with matters where such authority was essential. As a consequence, many internal problems were to arise that would find our poor saint caught in impossible dilemmas and victimized by painful criticisms from almost every side.
Far from his heart though the desire for this new post was, Father Neumann, out of obedience and love for the Congregation, accepted the assignment with all its weighty problems and promptly went to work, never giving any thought to his illness. His achievements as vice- regent were many and impressive, fully justifying the Provincial’s description of him as “the wisest, the greatest, and the best among all the Redemptorists in America.”
The order was heavily laden with debt when the resourceful new administrator took command. Lacking any substantial sources of revenue, he not only somehow managed to alleviate the critical financial difficulties, but was able to erect additional Redemptorist foundations that were so badly needed. New churches and schools as well were made possible through his vision and industriousness.
Bishop of Philadelphia
When Father Neumann’s tenure as American superior of the Redemptorists terminated, he returned to his missionary work happy with anticipation of being able to live out the rest of his days as a simple, obedient son of Saint Alphonsus. And except for being appointed rector of St. Alphonsus’ Church in Baltimore, he did enjoy a peaceful period of relative obscurity. But not for long.
Toward the end of 1851, the new Archbishop of Baltimore and former Bishop of Philadelphia, Francis P. Kenrick, chose John Neumann for his confessor. Deeply impressed by the profound wisdom, radiant holiness, and keen administrative abilities of this soft-spoken little priest, Kenrick was soon convinced that Father Neumann was the best candidate to replace him in the vacant see of Philadelphia, and eagerly sent that recommendation to Rome. One day the Archbishop hinted to Saint John that he might soon have to get himself a miter. Poor John was struck with horror at the thought. Falling on his knees, he tearfully pleaded with the prelate to use his influence to spare one so “unworthy” from so high a dignity.
Neumann was so alarmed over the prospect of being made bishop that he wrote to the Procurator General of the Congregation in Rome, urging him to use all power within his means to prevent the appointment. But he did not stop there: Besides anxiously begging many friends to unite their prayers with his own, he also required religious houses to conduct novenas “to ward off a great danger from one of the dioceses in America.” The Fathers of his own convent, too, were asked to recite the seven penitential psalms daily — all this to avert what he considered would be “a calamity for the church.”
But the designs of Almighty God were not to be thwarted. When the saint returned home to his room one day, he discovered on his table an episcopal ring and pectoral cross, left there for him by Archbishop Kenrick. There was no mistaking their meaning. The terrified priest hastily locked the door and sank to his knees. Morning came and found him still kneeling there, praying for deliverance from the impending fate. He soon received the Papal bull, wherein Pope Pius IX had written: “I command Father Neumann under formal obedience to accept the diocese of Philadelphia without further appeal.”
Under another command, the last he would be given as an ordinary Redemptorist Father, he was instructed to compose a brief sketch of his life for the Congregation. The short, humble autobiography concluded with these lines: “Tomorrow, March 28th, my birthday, which this year falls on Passion Sunday, I shall, if nothing prevents it, be consecrated bishop in St. Alphonsus’ Church, by Most. Rev. Archbishop Kenrick. But do Thou, O Lord, have mercy on us! Jesus and Mary, pity me! Passion of Christ, strengthen me!” This last sentence became his motto as bishop.
That same evening, John confided to his confreres: “If Our Lord gave me the choice either to die or to accept this dignity, I should prefer to lay down my life tomorrow, rather than be consecrated bishop. For my salvation then would be more secure at the Judgement Seat of God than if I appear before it burdened with the responsibility of a bishopric.”
On Passion Sunday, 1852, John Nepomucene Neumann was consecrated amidst solemn ceremonies. In his sermon to German parishioners, and again when visiting the Catholic schools of the parish the next day, he emotionally bade farewell to his loving flock, blessing them and urging all to maintain a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin. On Tuesday he set out to take charge of his see.
A Stormy See
The diocese of Philadelphia, then one of the largest and most important in the United States, embraced two-thirds of Pennsylvania, the western part of New Jersey, and all of Delaware. It consisted of 113 parishes, with only a hundred priests to administer to a population of 170,000 Catholics. And it offered many a trying challenge to its new shepherd.
Most immediate among them were two conflicting problems: enormous debts, and still greater, a critical need for more churches and schools. A capable administrator, Bishop Neumann could have concentrated his energies and attention on the first problem, and let the other wait until such time that building programs could proceed on a more stable financial footing. His predecessor, in fact, had halted construction on Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral with that same consideration. But heaven takes no account of ledger sheets where needy souls are concerned. And neither would John Neumann. For his weightiest concern was providing for the Irish and German immigrants endlessly streaming into the country during this era.
Hence, while applying his talents as best he could to the task of reducing diocesan debts, he continued throughout his administration to test the limits of revenue and credit to erect needed institutions of every variety. And for this he came under sharp criticism from other American prelates, who failed to understand the saint’s zeal.
Saint John, for that matter, was something of an enigma to other bishops, for his methods and manners differed from theirs in many ways. Though automatically dispensed from his vow of poverty, he still practiced it in every aspect of his existence. He avoided pomp and ceremony as much as possible. His episcopal residence was kept furnished very plainly. He maintained no secretarial staff, but instead personally answered all the voluminous correspondence that regularly arrived on his desk. Visitors at all times of the day could feel free to call and be graciously received by the Bishop himself. And whatever their needs, be it money, guidance, or other forms of help, they would never leave unsatisfied.
Bishop Neumann was ever a friend to the impoverished. Money spent little time in his pockets, as he was skillful in promptly slipping it into the hands of the poor. In the same way he deprived himself of clothes, linen, shoes, and other necessities. One Sunday a priest scolded him for his shabby appearance, and pleaded that he change into a better coat. “What shall I do?” the bishop answered. “I do not have another.” This was true, because he had just given his best coat to a beggar.
On another occasion a priest found our saint in his room obviously very ill, and yet lying on a bare plank. Told that in his condition he should be in bed, the Bishop replied, “Why, I am just as comfortable here.” But the priest rejoined, “You are not as comfortable there, and you have no right under these circumstances to do as you please. You are a bishop; you belong to your diocese.” His conscience aroused at this thought, the saint obediently left his penitential couch and went to bed.
The poverty and simplicity of the holy man’s style of living occasionally prompted misguided criticism from his fellow bishops, though to a man each conceded his holiness. Some were outrightly caustic in their character assaults. These few rather pompous individuals considered him too common, too crude to share the lofty dignity of their high ecclesiastical office, much less did they think him fit to rule so significant a see as the diocese of Philadelphia. Plainly embarrassed to be associated by rank with one who disdained splendor and frivolity, who more often dressed in tattered clothes than in episcopal robes, and who preferred to dine with the poor than with the rich and famous, these prelates registered numerous complaints with Rome belittling even his German accent and mannerisms.
Hurt though he was by such attacks, Saint John would not defend himself against them. He simply went quietly about his duties neither changing nor explaining his pious ways.
Man of Holy Duty
Always mindful that one day he would have to give an account of his stewardship before God, John was attentive to every detail of his responsibility as bishop. No Sunday ever passed without his preaching in one or several churches. During the first few weeks of his residence in Philadelphia, he called at all the religious communities, orphanages, hospitals, and other Catholic institutions in the city to evaluate their spiritual and temporal conditions. And at his earliest opportunity he set out to make his pastoral visitation to every parish in his charge, even the smallest and most distant. He would remain at each for several days, examining the overall state of the parish and, as was his duty, making an exacting inspection of the church, altar, sacred vessels, etc.
At the same time, these pastorals served as something akin to a mission, with the Bishop preaching to the parishioners and giving special instruction to the children, all the while making himself available to anyone who would like to talk with him.
He also spent long hours in the confessional. Numerous immigrants were disadvantaged in having priests who, not knowing the foreigners’ tongues, could not hear their confessions, Bishop Neumann, having trained himself in many modern languages, was often the only confessor these people could find. He was such an expert linguist, in fact, that he was able to hear a man’s confession in Polish, a tongue he had never learned. And he taught himself Gaelic, which was spoken exclusively by some of the Irish immigrants.
One such, an old Irish woman who spoke no English, and who had long sought in vain for a priest who knew Gaelic, was led by Divine Providence to John Neumann. To her great joy, the saint heard the woman’s confession in her own tongue, and gave her absolution. “Praise be the good God!” the old soul cried, as she left the confessional. “It’s an Irish bishop we have at last!”
In administering Confirmation again the good Bishop was scrupulous in his duty. On the day before administering the sacrament he would personally give final instructions to the candidates and examine each one, being insistent that all should be thoroughly prepared before they are confirmed. If he found any not sufficiently instructed, he would not hesitate to postpone the ceremony for a few days, and spend that time remedying the deficiency. Nor was it at all unusual for him to make long, strenuous journeys into the wilderness just to confirm the children of a single isolated Catholic family.
“Father of Parochial School System”
Authorities in Rome had been anxious to have John Neumann consecrated at an early date, in order that he could participate in the First Plenary Council of Bishops to be held in the United States. The ten-day Council convened in May of 1852 and benefited highly from the eminent qualifications of the country’s newest bishop. One distinguished prelate remarked afterwards: “I had an opportunity during the Council in Baltimore to admire Bishop Neumann’s wonderful memory and extraordinary theological attainments. He had a solution for every question posed. What edified me most of all was his unruffled composure, which betokened deep humility and perfect self-control. I always regarded him as a saint.”
Among the pressing matters before the Council was that of education and schooling for Catholic youth. The American bishops, agreeing on the urgent need for catechisms, examined the two composed by Saint John and heartily approved them for distribution in the nation’s dioceses. (Both editions were subsequently in use for thirty-five years, before being replaced by the Baltimore Catechism.) But more significantly, Bishop Neumann was the leading figure in winning the council’s support for an ambitious program to erect more and better-organized parochial schools.
The fact is that John had long maintained, “Our Catholic youth can be saved only by Catholic schools.” Highly critical of public education, he wrote years earlier: “The public school system in the United States is very liberal in theory; but in reality it is most intolerant towards Catholics. It cannot be doubted that the young mind is influenced by the irreligious dispositions of the teacher. Even the textbooks selected for use are injurious to Catholic children. They are merely heretical extracts from a falsified Bible, and histories which contain the most malicious perversion of truth, the grossest lies against the doctrines and practices of the Catholic Church. . . . These circumstances combine for the spiritual ruin of Catholic children.”
One of his acts as Bishop of Philadelphia was to organize and head the Central Committee for the Education of Catholic Youth, whose purpose was to map out a complete practical system of education for the diocese, and then to raise funds to assist each parish in the construction and maintenance of schools. This venture proved so successful that it served as the inspiration and the pattern for other dioceses to follow. Rightly, then, is Bishop Neumann hailed as the Father of the Parochial School System.
It should also be mentioned in this connection that more than one struggling religious order, saved from dissolution by the saintly prelate, regards him as its American founder. And, too, he established the first Italian parish in the United States. But the variety of firsts attributed to this holy man of vision are too numerous for us to mention, save for one other.
Having an intense love for the hidden Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Saint John was anxious to introduce Forty Hours Devotion in this country. Other bishops, however, tried to discourage him. They pointed out that the “Know-Nothing” Party, a militant anti-Catholic force set up by the Masons, posed too serious a danger to proceed in carrying out this holy ambition at the time. For it was feared these thugs would retaliate against it by burning churches, as was their practice where Our Lord was exposed for veneration.
The good Bishop could come to no decision on the matter. Working late one night, struggling over the issue, he heard a mystical voice telling him: “Fear not profanation; hesitate no longer to carry out your designs for My glory.” Immediately the saint expedited an order for all parishes in the diocese to schedule the devotion. And, as the voice had promised, there were surprisingly no repercussions.
Dogma of the Immaculate Conception
John Nepomucene Neumann was likewise a devoted client of the Queen of Heaven. What great joy was his, therefore, when in October of 1854 he received a formal invitation from the Holy Father to be present in Rome for the solemn promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God! How honored did the pious lover of Mary feel to be able to share in this Her triumph over error and falsehood! He anxiously began preparing for the trip at that very moment. But before leaving, he issued a lengthy and inspiringly beautiful Pastoral Letter, heralding the forthcoming sacred proclamation, and urging powerful devotion to Our Lady under the title of the Immaculate Conception. “Henceforth and forever,” he rejoiced, “all generations of true believers shall invoke Mary, Mother of God, as the ever immaculate virgin, conceived without stain of original sin.” On his return he would issue another letter extolling the Immaculate Queen of Heaven, and asking pastors of the diocese to celebrate Her triumph in their churches with a triduum.
In Rome, Bishop Neumann was a guest at the Redemptorist convent in Monterone. During his two-month stay there he wore the habit of the Congregation much of the time, preferring it to the episcopal clothes in which he never did feel comfortable.
It is interesting to note in this regard that many months earlier, some asserted to him that his consecration as bishop, automatically terminated his membership in the Redemptorist order. This suggestion deeply disturbed John, because he had entered the Congregation as a means of saving his soul. In his doubt and anxiety he wrote to the Holy Father, asking for a clarification of his status. Pope Pius IX assured him that, having accepted the burden of the bishopic out of obedience, he would still remain a Redemptorist in good standing. From then on the holy prelate continued to visit the Redemptorist house in Philadelphia once a week, and to make a one-day retreat there monthly. On his visits he vested in the habit, and insisted on participating as an ordinary confrere in the community’s prayers and exercises, even sharing in the kitchen chores.
When the saintly shepherd was received in an audience with the Pope, His Holiness greeted him, saying: “Bishop Neumann of Philadelphia, is not obedience better than sacrifice?” By this the Holy Father let on that he was not only still mindful of the command by which he had to constrain the humble servant to accept the bishopric, but also that he was conscious of the saint’s extraordinary piety and missionary zeal.
It seems possible that, as some believe, Saint John Neumann was given the honor of holding the book from which the Vicar of Christ read his epic pronouncement on December 8, 1854, proclaiming: “We declare, pronounce, and define that the doctrine which holds that the Blessed Virgin Mary in the first moment of her conception by the singular favor and privilege of Almighty God in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved immune from all strain of original guilt, has been revealed by God and therefore must be firmly and constantly believed by all faithful.”
Filled with tender sentiments, Saint John wrote of the event, saying: “To describe the solemnity of December 8th would be greatly beyond my power. . . . I thank God that, to the multiplied graces already bestowed upon me, He has added this of having been present in Rome on that day.”
Leaving the Eternal City, our sainted Bishop set out for Prachatitz to visit his family, whom he had not seen in almost twenty years. While en route his trunk containing many holy relics acquired in Rome was lost in transit, and all inquiries made to locate it proved fruitless. Greatly lamenting the loss of the sacred treasures, he turned to Saint Anthony for help. As he was praying, a young man appeared from nowhere, and announced: “Right Reverend Bishop, here is your trunk.” The saint, his attention wholly absorbed in the recovered parcel, momentarily lost all thought of its finder, until it occurred to him that there was no way this stranger could have known who he was or even that he was a bishop. For John had been traveling in the plain apparel of a priest, and there was nothing about his appearance to indicate his rank. The saint then quickly turned to question the young man, but found he had completely vanished!
Bishop Neumann had planned to make his arrival in his hometown as quiet as possible. but word of his approach had preceded him. And the people of Prachatitz, not to be denied the joy of welcoming the town’s most celebrated native son in a style befitting his noble honor, received him with as much ceremony as if the Pope himself had come to visit. He was led by a splendid procession to his family home, where his aged father, heart throbbing with emotion, lifted the little saint in his arms, and bodily carried him up the stairs.
The reunion, as can be imagined, was a tender and joyful one. Unfortunately, it also had to be short one, for the dutiful prelate was not a man to leave his responsibilities unattended.
Last Days of the Saint
Indeed, those pressing responsibilities increased with each succeeding year, as the ever-rising tide of immigrants into the diocese continued to add to the shepherd’s pastoral concerns. New churches had to be built. Parish priests, too, were in short supply, which meant new seminaries had to be erected and staffed. New schools and teachers were desperately needed, and hence so also were colleges and academies. Number with them new hospitals and orphanages as well. And with all this essential expansion and construction of facilities came new debts, with very limited financial means for meeting them.
In the eighty months that John Nepomucene Neumann served as Bishop, he erected eighty new churches — one for every month of his rule — not to mention the beautiful Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Without giving a complete account of the many other institutions he built and staffed, we can roughly gauge his enormous administrative burden from the fact that a few years after his death the see of Philadelphia was divided into five separate dioceses.
Actually, it was Bishop Neumann who first requested such a division. At the same time, dreading he might be unfit and unworthy to continue governing the Philadelphia diocese, he begged to be relieved of its charge, and given a smaller one, such as that of Erie, Pennsylvania. But authorities in Rome valued his holy and capable leadership too highly to remove him from one of the country’s most important sees. Instead, they simply appointed a coadjutor, Bishop James F. Wood, to assist him.
For all the help Bishop Wood was able to provide, however, Saint John could not be persuaded to slacken his grueling pace by even the slightest degree. Before long the strain was again telling on his frail health, this time more gravely than ever before.
One January day, he wrote a letter apologizing for not being able to visit a nun in Reading. “I am not feeling well these last few days,” he confessed, “otherwise I might have gone up to see Mother Theresa.”
The next day, January 5, 1860, the Redemptorist Father Urbanczek called on the saintly prelate, and found him looking quite ill. When the good father inquired how he felt, Bishop Neumann replied: “I have a strange feeling today. I feel as I have never felt before. I have to go out on a little business and the fresh air will do me good.” But then he added a strange remark, which Father Urbanczek would not understand until later. He said, “A man must be ready, for death comes when and where God wills it.”
The bishop then hurried off to the local express office, to mail a chalice to the pastor of a rural parish. This done, he was heading back to his home when, as he approached the corner of Philadelphia’s Thirteenth and Vine, he began to stagger. His knees then buckled, and the diminutive Bishop collapsed motionless on the steps of one of the private residences.
Two bystanders rushed to his aid, carrying him into the house where he was laid on the floor to await a physician. but it was too late. John Nepomucene Neumann breathed forth a sigh or two, then his beautiful soul departed for its eternal happiness.
Several days later his body was solemnly interred at the Redemptorist Church of St. Peter in Philadelphia, where it rests today beneath the main alter.
Holy Scripture tells us: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” (Ps.115:15.) By the simple and sudden death of Saint John, God shared with us some of the preciousness He found in this holy soul. A girdle of iron wire was discovered wrapped so tightly about the saint’s body that it cut deeply into his flesh. Were it not for the suddenness of his death, we might never have known of this severe penance obviously long practiced by John Neumann.
And so, today, America has a new saint. His footsteps can be traced through thousands of towns as far west as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as far south as Richmond, Virginia, and as far north as Canada. He has left us countless monuments, in the forms of churches, cathedrals, and schools, by which to remember him. Though he worked but one known miracle in his lifetime — that of curing a young child — he has blessed many of us with heavenly favors wrought through his powerful intercession.
And he has given us something else to remind us of his presence in our homeland. He has given us the Holy Catholic Faith!
Saint John Nepomucene Neumann, Pray for us!