Bishop St. John Neumann

Bishop John Neumann (not to be confused with Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman of England) was the fifth bishop of Philadelphia. Born, raised and formed in Europe (half of his life), he matured and was forged in the American experience (the second half of his life). His virtues and behavior make him worthy of being a model for today’s clergy. He is the first male saint from North America and the only bishop! 

The year 2011 marked the 200th anniversary of his birth (March 28). His virtues and attitudes are priceless reasons to remember and commemorate this event. There was a reason that he was canonized. He continues to inspire and challenge us to follow Jesus. Totally dedicated, there was no difficulty too big to turn him away from challenges when the interests of the Church and the salvation of souls were at stake. 

In an age of growing priest shortage, it is hard to imagine that Neumann, with all his seminary studies completed, could not be ordained in present day Czech Republic for lack of pastoral openings. So he gave up the convenience and comfort of home and family and to set out to the new world. His first motivation had been to work with Indians, but when he saw all the Germans being lost because of a shortage of priests to attend to these immigrants, he once again sacrificed personal plans and wishes to embrace another choice. 

What makes Neumann an interesting person for the American clergy today are all the struggles and obstacles he endured. Few things came easy to him. The key to Neumann’s spirituality starts with the virtue: poverty of spirit. He was always ready to give up personal dreams, desires and preferences to be obedient to the will of God, as he discerned it. 

His spiritual journey began at home. He described his early years and formation: “We were brought up in the old fashioned school.” Mother went to daily Mass, even if young John was not always enthusiastic about going with her. 

This was the time of the influence of the French Revolution, of rigorism and Jansenism, in which the Church was losing her economic and cultural position. It was the age of Enlightenment, the glorification of reason, which entered into confrontation with the Faith. Neumann, like John Paul II, would discover that a strong institutional Church is a powerful tool to thwart hostile forces. 

Young Neumann was a bright student who loved scientific studies. He thought he might pursue this kind of career. His mother, however, persuaded him to try out for the local seminary. Even though he did not believe that he had much of a chance, to his surprise, he passed the entrance exam and was accepted. He never looked back. Those first years in a small regional seminary were happy ones. Near to friends and family, in a pious setting. Good solid professors as he would depict them later. At this time, he developed a great love for the Bible, especially St. Paul, who would become a source of nourishment. 

Despite the fact that he was a good student, an innate humility kept him modest and simple, an attitude he was able to maintain all his life. He learned to put his trust and confidence in Jesus. So when he was invited to apply for the larger national seminary in Prague, once again he doubted his ability or competency. To his amazement, he would be only one of four to be admitted. 

Those years were not to be happy, however, as he found his professors very anti-Roman and his seminary classmates not as enthusiastic for the spiritual life as he was. Seen derisively as super conservative or orthodox in a time of rationalistic thought, he sought out the classic masters of the spiritual life to guide him through this trying period. There he found consolation and joy while far away from friends and family. This would serve the future pilgrim who was always to be on the move.

Turns to Penance 

His was a sensitive conscience. Early he wrote in his journal as a seminarian that he would do extra fasting because he felt lax and tepid. ‘‘As far as my spiritual life is concerned, at present I am so listless that all my devotions are dry and quite monotonous. I seem to perform them just out of rote.” His first reaction was to turn to doing penances as a means to conquer what he considered his human weak points. 

But as he matured in his spiritual growth, he developed a deeper peace, less despair. “I was worse than lax most of the day, for I often actually took delight in the impure thoughts that occurred to me. I was glad that I had them and maybe even coddled them. I also let myself be roused to anger once, though briefly. I was lazy and careless about my work. I no longer value humility or make an effort to acquire it because of my tepidity, lack of love, wavering faith and my despair of recovering God’s grace…Oh, Jesus, is it possible that You may still comfort and console me? Come to me! I am Yours. Do come to me, my Jesus.” 

Here, according to Father Richard Boever, one of the leading scholars on Neumann, “the self imposed penance is lacking, and its absence is probably not an accident, not an oversight. Neumann’s self-reliance is replaced by the cry for God’s mercy.” 

In 1834, his spiritual journal reveals his ideas about interaction with others, discernment of life styles, a longing for friendships and spiritual direction. He had a self-image that suffered when he was not appreciated, yet afraid of being vain when praised. He was afraid of being criticized. That was to lead him to a habit of always trying to have a spiritual director. He was never so cocky as to believe he could do it all by himself. 

It has been noted that Neumann was not a happy go lucky type of personality. You probably would not have wanted to invite him to go on a two-week vacation, unless you were going to make of it a retreat! Introspective, a bit timid and shy, he could come across as aloof and distant. The truth might be better stated that he did not have interest or time for chitchat, idle conversations. He was too serious, a man on a mission full of love for Jesus and the conversion of sinners. 

So when his worries about his worthlessness troubled him, he conquered this by his conviction of God’s loving, merciful concern for him. He prays, “Let me grow in Your Love so that your passion and death may move my heart ever more deeply. Let my love for you prove itself in action,” a cry which would yield rich dividends in the apostolate. 

Following the spirituality of his era, Neumann put great emphasis upon growing in the virtues. That was how one cooperated with God’s grace to follow Jesus. Always aware of his sinfulness, he felt a need to confess often, accusing himself of passions (compulsions?). This practice developed in the future missionary and bishop an urge to be an available confessor for others, encouraging other priests to be accessible to hear confession. He learned eight languages so as to be able to hear confession in each person’s native tongue. 

He also found in the saints guides and inspiration. St. Teresa of Avila taught him that spirituality can be approached and based on friendship. To become a saint is to center on a Divine Friend. He would look for a loving communion with the Lord, and Neumann’s good works were done in service to Jesus. St. Augustine taught him to submit to God’s will. God speaks to the soul through the conscience. So John Neumann read many biographies of holy people. 

When it became obvious that he was not going to be ordained near to his family, with all the joys of a first Mass at home, Neumann began to plan seriously about becoming a missionary in the United States. This was a fortunate choice because between 1836 (the year he immigrated to the United States) until 1860 (year of his death), 4,300,000 immigrants arrived in the USA; 1,500,000 of those were of German origins. 

Arriving unmet in New York, walking around with one dollar in his pocket, not really knowing what to do or where to go, he found a contact which led him to the overworked bishop. When the bishop learned that Neumann was all prepared, ready to go, with his studies in order, he had a joyous John ordained within a very short time. Then it was off to the distant regions of upper New York State where so many of the abandoned immigrants were located. 

The priest’s long established spirituality sprang into action, generating impressive accomplishments. The “house” for which Neumann had zeal was the Catholic community: “I want to dedicate my every effort to your glory, to spread your Kingdom over the face of this earth which you have loved enough to become the God–Man.” His religious faith was “a faith to be lived in concrete situations.” All the effort which he exerted were directed toward the Church, “…the community of men brought together by the profession of the same Christian faith and conjoined in the communion of the same sacraments under the government of the legitimate pastors and especially the one vicar of Christ on earth, the Roman Pontiff.” 

Neumann’s pastoral presence could be summed up: I shall make Jesus known and loved. His self-awareness was so great that he became totally immersed in his ministry. It was the Lord who lived and worked through him. His zeal was an enthusiastic devotion to the cause of Christ and His kingdom, an ideal or goal to which he gave himself so tirelessly that he had several periods of breaking down from working too hard, and we might even say, he worked himself to death at the early age of 49. 

Because of the discrimination and reactions against (Catholic) immigrants, he saw the parish not just as a place of worship, but as a space for the new arrivers to find their way. He never lost that feeling he had experienced when he arrived unannounced. His work and effort were to help all those who had arrived like himself. The parish was the safety net. 

Strong parish life gave those immigrants an identity in this new melting pot. His zeal was to the Catholic community. The institutional Church with her clear lines gave distinctiveness to lost immigrants. St. John Neumann was a company man. There were the teachers and those to be taught. The leaders and those to be led. He did not seek leadership roles, was not comfortable in them, but did not shy away from the responsibilities and hard decisions that had to be made when necessary. 

Today we cannot limit ourselves only to building up the parish. There are far too many other challenges which need to be met. But zeal and ministry and openness to creative new solutions need to be just as much an integral part of our ministry as it was for him. That is a gift that St. John Neumann has passed on to us. 

Only praying is not enough. The People of God have to work and serve, to make the world a better place. Frequenting the Sacraments and praying is half of living our Faith. Remember St. James: Faith without works is dead. Zeal for the Father’s House consumed his waking hours. 

Father of Parochial Schools 

Thus he came to be considered the father of the Catholic parochial school system. One pastor of a new parish said that it was not possible to also build a school. Neumann said he understood the problem, but that he would have to find another priest who could do the job! Suddenly that pastor found that it was possible to build a school! 

He wrote a Catechism that went through over 35 editions. It would be the cement that held together all those diverse nationalities arriving at the same time from such different places. While Protestants tended to subdivide into many factions, Catholics stayed as one in spite of their different languages, multiple cultures and diverse origins. A clear and simple study of their faith kept them as one. 

Not a gifted orator by nature or personality, Neumann’s spirituality gave his message a power which nourished the poor and simple, even some of the rich and sophisticated listeners of Philadelphia’s upper classes. 

When he became bishop of Philadelphia, he realized how large his diocese was, how it was impossible to give adequate coverage. So he proposed to divide a vast area into two parts. He would take the larger, more rural section, and leave the city and its wealthier parishioners to someone else. Once again he was trying to avoid the limelight, to not be in first place, to be overlooked. 

Another aspect of St. John Neumann’s spirituality was his love and devotion to the Eucharist, which was most clearly manifested in his promotion of the Forty Hours Devotion. Initially the clergy of Philadelphia greeted this introduction with coolness and indifference. The huge crowds that suddenly appeared changed their minds quickly. The devotion spread quickly to many other dioceses and was popular up to the time of Vatican II. 

Whether something like the Forty Hours Devotion should be revived or not is open to discussion. There is no doubt, however, about the central role of the Eucharist in each faith community’s life. St. John Neumann calls us as pastors to celebrate with joy and enthusiasm, to prepare well our homilies, to make worship a rich, nourishing experience which empowers people to face the challenges of living their faith in today’s world and to feel the love of Jesus in their daily lives. Maybe services with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament would enflame the hearts of the faithful for the Eucharist and ministry. 

The only time that Neumann returned to his roots was when he went to Rome in 1854 for the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception. When he returned to Philadelphia he wrote glowingly about the Blessed Virgin Mary,  

“Never, Christian brethren, never can we admit that she was for one moment the slave of the devil. . .the Virgin who was destined to be the Mother of God, the Spouse of the Holy Spirit, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Mediatrix of Mankind, To whom, with more reason, propriety, confidence and veneration can we turn than to a being whom, from all eternity God has so loved and honored? ...At the same time, no more powerful friend have we with God! The humbler of our chief enemy, Satan, she is in a noble sense, the strength of the weak, the Help of Christians ... No day should be allowed to pass without some actual proof of your confidence in her protection, of your perpetual joy and gratitude for her Immaculate Conception and for all the other graces, glory and the power which God has bestowed upon her.” 

Or, in another pastoral letter, he wrote eloquently, “To whom, with more reason, propriety, confidence and veneration can we turn than to a being whom, from all eternity God has so loved and honored?. . .At the same time, no more powerful friend have we with God! The humbler of our chief enemy, Satan, she is in a noble sense, the strength of the weak, the Help of Christians. . . . No day should be allowed to pass without some actual proof of your confidence in her protection, of your perpetual joy and gratitude for her Immaculate Conception and for all the other graces, glory and the power which God has bestowed upon her.” 

St. John Neumann’s poverty of spirit allowed him to give up and renounce everything to find the pearl of great price; his humility and confidence in the Lord gave him hope and courage; his immersion and zeal in working for the Kingdom achieved incredible successes; his devotion to the Eucharist and Mary inflamed the hearts of generations of Catholics. 

In Lumen Gentium, No. 50, when different types of saints are being described, there is the line about those saints who were not martyrs “whom the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues and the divine charisms (are) recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful.” For that phrase, the Council cites Benedict XV’s message concerning the heroism of the virtues of our good bishop. All those virtues are ample reasons to convince us to live our Faith and face up to the new challenges that await us. TP 

[P.S. Anyone interested in having a Parish Mission or a course based on St. John Neumann’s spirituality can call me at 636-744-5499 or e-mail me at for more information.] 

FATHER KIRCHNER, C.SS.R., ordained a priest in 1966, spent 39 years in the Amazon, has been a pastor many times and also did formation work. He received a degree in Moral Theology in Rome, and currently works and lives at Liguori, Mo.