Bishop and innovator for the Gospel
Feast: January 5
On a freezing winter’s day in 1860, John Neumann collapsed in the snow on a Philadelphia street. After a life given totally to the Gospel he was simply worn out. He died there in the cold without celebrating the sacraments that he might have hoped for at the time of his death. He was just 48 years of age, and at the time of his death, the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.
John Neumann was born in Prachatitz, Bohemia on March 28, 1811. His parents were Agnes Lebis and Philip Neumann. After schooling in 1831, he entered the seminary in Budweis, and later went on to theological studies at Charles Ferdinand University in Prague. But when the time came for his ordination, his class was informed there would be no ordinations that year. “I already have as many priests as are needed”, said the bishop.
John was not one to take “no” for an answer. So he wrote to bishops all over Europe, but the same message kept coming through: “we have sufficient priests”. With the shortage of priests in Australia and New Zealand today, the abundance in Europe during John Neumann’s time is hard for us to imagine.
Young John Neumann then undertook the study of English and worked in a factory with English speakers. He also wrote to bishops in North America seeking ordination. He received a reply from the Bishop of New York who agreed to ordain him for the United States. So he sailed the Atlantic to take up his calling in a new frontier land.
After ordination, John was one of just 36 priests serving nearly a quarter of a million people. His parish was enormous, covering thousands of miles. He met the challenge and was available to the people on his long pastoral journeys.
When John Neumann heard of the Redemptorists he applied to join them, the first priest in America to do so. He was professed on January 16, 1842, aged 30.
A good and holy man, John was also very bright. He spoke six languages which allowed him to be pastorally effective among America’s new immigrants. He was appointed the Major Superior of the North American Redemptorists and prepared them to become an autonomous province within the congregation.
Just ten years after joining the Redemptorists, John was named Bishop of Philadelphia. As bishop, he founded what we know today as the Catholic school system. While his priesthood was for the people during his eight short years as bishop, he also built 80 churches and started the construction of Philadelphia’s cathedral. He wrote numerous articles and published two catechisms.
Like St Alphonsus, John Neumann lived for the Gospel and for what it could do to bring people into God’s embrace. He was beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1963 and canonised by him in 1977.