By CAROLE BRESLIN
In the early years of the 19th century the Catholic Church was thriving in what is now known as the Czech Republic. In England, in the meantime, the Anglican Church of King Henry VIII was also meeting with popularity. Into the English population John Henry Newman, who later converted to the Catholic Church, was born in 1801, and beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010. In Bohemia John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811. These two men with names so similar were very different in appearance and in speech, but very much alike in their love of God and education.
Neumann was born in Prachatitz which was then part of the Austrian Empire. Not much is known of his early years in Bohemia — nor is much known of his parents — except that he attended school in Ceske Budejovice. Perhaps this is because St. John was a quiet, humble man who rarely talked about himself.
When it came time for him to enter the university, he went to Prague where he studied botany, astronomy, and Church matters. He entered the seminary and applied for Ordination in the mid-1830s. By the age of 25, his gift for languages was highly developed. He knew six languages. However, his application was denied not because he was unfit but because the bishop had too many priests. (What a wonderful problem to have!)
Providentially, and happily for the young nation of the United States, he came to America, hoping that he could be ordained here. He arrived in New York with one suit to wear and virtually no money. The bishop of New York warmly welcomed John, ordaining him in June of 1836 and sending him to the industrious German laborers around Niagara, N.Y.
This was no easy task, especially since the short man could not even reach the stirrups of his horse. The winters were harsh with heavy snowfalls and bitter westerly winds. Nevertheless, he rode a horse around the widely dispersed area to minister to the sick, to catechize the Catholics, and to teach the children. In addition, he would train others as catechists to take over during his absence.
As much interaction as he had with so many German migrants who were working to fell the trees for lumber, he was lonely for fellow priests. Therefore, he decided to enter the Redemptorist order. Although accepted as a member, he did not have much time with fellow priests, since the superior sent him out to give missions as a novice.
Because he was sent away so much, the poor man imagined that he was not wanted by the order. He continued as ordered and took his vows in May 1842, making him the first priest in the United States to profess vows in the Redemptorist order founded by St. Alphonsus Liguori. His love for education resulted in the order founding many schools in the Baltimore area, where he was assigned. This was not to last long, though.
In 1852 he was named the bishop of Philadelphia. Sadly, but not surprisingly, this appointment met with much opposition. The “refined” Catholics of the city of brotherly love did not want such a simple man for their bishop. They preferred a much taller, more eloquent man for their shepherd and expressed this desire openly. In addition, the Irish migrants wanted a man of their own heritage to be bishop.
St. John, although deeply hurt by this reception, decided he would obey his superiors and do the best he could, knowing that God asks nothing more. Despite his quiet ways, he was very strict and would not ignore or turn a blind eye to the more un-Christian practices of his flock. This also brought much difficulty for the faithful man of God.
Furthermore, the Know-Nothings, a political party very much against immigrants — especially those from Ireland and Italy — caused him problems. They virulently hated the Catholic Church and sought to destroy it and wipe it out in Philadelphia. They destroyed churches, leveled convents, and burned the schools of the Catholics. This discouraged John so much that he wrote to Rome, begging to be replaced as bishop. However, the Pope would not accept his request and told John to continue what he was doing.
Most saints, who will do much work, help hordes of persons, and administer the sacraments, do not see themselves as doing much at all. Hence, even though St. John thought he was not a good shepherd, he discharged his responsibilities so successfully that he was held up as an example to the bishops who met at the Second Vatican Council.
The work for which he was admired was catechesis and visiting his flock. When he arrived in Philadelphia, there were only two Catholic schools. He spent so much time and effort in developing parishes by his frequent visits, an overseeing the establishment of schools for the children of Catholics, that soon there were over 100 schools in eight years.
To assist in this phenomenal growth, he brought in various orders of nuns and brothers to teach in the schools. He also wrote catechisms for the Germans, a Bible history, and had numerous articles published in the newspapers. In 1852, he set up a diocesan board to oversee the parochial school system, which became the model for the rest of the country.
His facility for languages helped to win over the Irish immigrants as well. In order to be a better shepherd for them, he learned the Gaelic language — one of the most difficult European languages — of the Irish so that he could hear their Confessions. One Irish lady remarked after Confession what a delight it was to have a fellow countryman hear her Confession, not knowing that he was actually from the Austrian Empire!
He was not a man to sit in office and do paperwork. Like a true shepherd, he went out to meet his flock. Every year he visited each parish and mission post in his diocese. While in the city, he would run errands. During one such errand, as he returned, he collapsed to the ground as he and his deacon neared the cathedral. As the deacon ran for the holy oils, St. John lay on the pavement. Before his assistant returned, he had died.
During the Second Vatican Council he was beatified, with his canonization taking place in 1977. His feast is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, January 5, 1860.
Dear St. John Neumann, obtain for us the zeal for the greater glory of God. May we understand our obligation to both evangelize and especially to catechize those persons entrusted to our care. May we serve faithfully, as you did, until the day of our death. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)