January 4, 2018

Saint John Neumann, Redemptorist Bishop

Saint John Neumann

January 5th the Church observes the memorial of the 19th century Redemptorist Bishop John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia. His life was marked by incessant travel, service and compassion. John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811, in Bohemia [now the Czech Republic] to a poor but religious family. As a young seminarian, he longed to be a missionary priest in America. Traveling to the United States, Neumann looked for a bishop to ordain him.

He mastered Italian, Spanish, English, French and Gaelic besides speaking his native German and Bohemian. Neumann's early priesthood was difficult and lonely, working with poor farming immigrants near Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York. Eventually, he found companionship among the Redemptorists, a religious order that ministered to the German-American population. Neumann professed his priestly vows and five years later, owing to his remarkable leadership abilities and vast pastoral skills, became the Redemptorist Order’s first American superior.

Visiting houses from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Baltimore his skills in administration were likewise recognized by the Vatican which named him a bishop at the age of 41. If anything, his travelling during his eight years as bishop intensified. While organizing the finances of an immense diocese and structuring the modern Catholic school system in the States, he set up forty hours of Adoration in every parish, founded an order of nuns and commenced or completed the building of more than 80 churches (nearly one per month of his prodigious episcopate).

How could Neumann have travelled, built and organized so much in such a short amount of time? As bishop, Neumann chose as his motto “Passion of Christ strengthen me.” This gives us an insight into his spirituality. Our Lord’s Passion has less to do with the love of pain than with the pain of love. John Neumann lived the Paschal mystery; the example of a Redeemer who emptied himself for our salvation, even when that meant a violent death The Passion of Christ is reenacted whenever a mother finds time for her bored child, when a person says no to an affair, when a student realizes going to Mass is for his benefit. Jesus’ Passion is present when virtue guides decisions, when justice is restorative not vindictive and in any human action that embraces selflessness and rejects sin.

At 48 years of age, completely exhausted from all his apostolic endeavors, Bishop John Neumann collapsed in the street on January 5, 1860. His incorrupt remains rest beneath the altar of the lower Church in Saint Peter's Church in Philadelphia. O God, who called the Bishop Saint John Neumann, renowned for his charity and pastoral service, to shepherd your people in America, grant by his intercession that, as we foster the Christian education of youth and are strengthened by the witness of brotherly love, we may constantly increase the family of your Church. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with You. Amen.

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