A Bishop to Imitate

HE SPARED HIMSELF IN NOTHING. Essays on the Life and Thoughts of St. John Nepomucene Neumann, C.Ss.R. Edited by Joseph F. Chorpenning, O.S.F.S. (St. Joseph’s University Press, 5600 City Avenue, Philadelphia, Pa. 19131, 2003), 236 pp. HB $35 plus $4 for S&H.

Fr. John N. Neumann, C.Ss.R. was the first U.S. male citizen to be canonized (1977) in the United State (beatification in 1863). St. Joseph’s Jesuit University in Philadelphia undertook to publish these nine essays to honor this devotee of Jesuit spirit.

Born of a German father and a Czech mother in 1811, at a time when Czech national consciousness had not yet developed to inspire creation of a separate state, John was named after the legendary St. John Nepomucene (Nepomuk) whose conflated figure proceeded from his medieval origins into three distinct periods of Czech history, the late 14th and 15th centuries, the Baroque, and the 19th century. Nepomuk is venerated purportedly for having been thrown into the Charles River in Prague by a king who vainly pressured the Saint to reveal his Queen’s confessional secrets. The Jesuits promoted the cult of Nepomuk as a counter‑weight to the influence of John Hus, the Czech disseminator of John Wycliffe’s heretical writings, as a way to advance the Roman Catholic restoration after the collapse of Napoleonic Europe. Fr. Neumann always regarded Nepomuk as his “patron and consultor” all the more so since he was unable to find a spiritual director during his seminary days. Then as a student in Prague from 1833-35, Neumann suffered much from his teachers and mentors who had been tainted by the naturalistic ideas of Emperor Joseph the II (1780 to 1790) as that monarch tried to implement a mix of French enlightenment ideas, Gallicanism, Jansenism, and Febronianism. The skimpy textbooks and unorthodox professors of Neumann’s time decided him to avoid the study of French romantic writers such as Lamenais, de Maistre, and de Bonald in order to concentrate on the traditional dogmatic and ascetical teachings of Christendom. One might say that he taught himself as he recorded his struggle in his Spiritual Journal.

He suffered much from discouragement, tepidity, vanity, and pride, and constantly sought after virtue and perfection, a missing ingredient in the Roman Catholic revival following the Congress of Vienna. In brief, John was conscious of so many personal failings that God could make a Saint out of him.

Fr. Neumann came to the United States in a roundabout fashion. His bishop in Bohemia decided not to ordain any more priests since the diocese had more than enough. Returning to an earlier idea, he decided to become a missionary priest. Arriving in New York City on May 26, 1836 with one dollar and dressed in shabby clothes, he was accepted for the diocese of New York. Ordained the next year the 26-year-old priest initially worked around Buffalo and Rochester utilizing the recently completed Erie Canal. Hungry for community life, he joined the Redemptorists in Philadelphia. He ministered to the people in Baltimore and Pittsburgh until Pope Pius IX made him Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852; he worked in an area comprising half of Pennsylvania, all of Delaware, and southern New Jersey. Imitating the vow of St. Francis Ligouri, he never lost a moment’s time.

His spiritual life concentrated on the Blessed Mother, interceding with St. Joseph. With St. Teresa of Avila, Bishop Neumann could claim that he always received through St. Joseph’s intercession whatever he asked. In 1846 the American Bishops chose Mary as the Immaculate Conception to be patroness of America. In 1849 Neumann was chosen as one of the five bishops to attend the proclamation in 1854.

When his cause toward beatification became serious in 1921, many thought that he was not sufficiently exemplary to inspire Catholics to holiness of life. One consultor, completely opposed to his “ordinary manner,” God conveniently disposed of by “killing” him in a barbershop.

Pope Benedict XV concluded that the simple works of the venerable Neumann were graced with perfection because carried out with unremitting constancy. In a footnote in the 7th chapter of the dogmatic constitution of the Church the second Vatican Council declared Neumann’s spiritual heroicity as justification for anyone who attained holiness through “the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues Bishop John Nepomucene Neumann became the paradigm for future saints who showcase the balanced, consoling, and encouraging doctrine about heroic holiness” (Alfred C. Rush C.Ss.R. page 189). (Fr. Rush is the 9 th contributor to this volume of essays.)

This is an inspiring group of essays. I plan to find a statue of this Saint to place in a prominent position in the Catholic Church in Waldport, Oregon. One comment springs to mind. The Catholic world of post Vatican II is not unlike the Catholic world of post Vienna (1815-1850). The spirit of liberalism has eviscerated Catholic teaching, spiritual direction is at low ebb, and “The new theology” has decimated the numbers of candidates in seminaries, novitiates, and convents because traditional Catholic wisdom has been repudiated.

Rev. Gerard G. Steckler, S.J.

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