Saturday, January 05, 2008

January 5 - St. John Neumann, CSsR

Immigrant bishop to the immigrants of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann's personal story reads as typically American. It has the flavor of rugged individualism dedicated to a true call, capable of overcoming all odds.

Given today's priest shortage it is amazing to find that upon completing his seminary training in Germany and although he had a exemplary record and a reputation as a linguist, he could not find bishop willing to ordain him since there were too many priests! Here is the link for his complete life story:

Undeterred, he came to the United States, was ordained by the bishop of New York and sent to minister to people at the very fringes of the Diocese in the area of Niagara Falls in the 1830s. He suffered from isolation in his diocesan assignment and upon discovering the communal style of missionary life promoted by the Redemptorists he applied for admission to the Congregation. He was a tireless missionary, traveling huge distances over arduous terrain and, at times, in fearsome weather conditions. His particular interest was that of the German immigrants, first in Baltimore and then Pittsburgh.

In 1852, at the age of 41, much to his dismay, he was named bishop of Philadelphia. As a foreigner, as man of physically small stature with a preference for simplicity, as an immigrant who spoke English with an accent (although he could by now speak six languages), he was not welcomed by the upper level of society. Yet in his 8 years as bishop he founded a model system of diocesan schools, began the Forty Hours practice of devotion to the Eucharist, founded a new religious institute: the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, and built 89 churches.

A worthy son of St. Alphonsus, like him, he made a vow never to lose a minute of time. As a bishop he was holy and indefatigable. Uninterruptedly he visited his vast diocese, on one occasion covering 40 kilometres of mountains by mule in order to confirm a young girl who was sick.

On January 5, 1860, at the age of 49, he died suddenly of a heart attack on a street in Philadelphia. He was beatified during the Second Vatican Council and canonized in 1977. In the homily on the occasion of his canonization Pope Paul VI summarized the activity of the new Saint in these words: "He was close to the sick; he loved to be with the poor; he was friend of sinners and now is the glory of all emigrants."

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