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Hello, slackers! Our saint for today, St. John Neumann, was the first U.S. bishop to be made a saint.
If you were a child in one of the schools or churches of his day, you would most likely know him as someone who came to you riding on a horse (which he may have struggled to dismount because he was short), spoke with an accent (because he was an immigrant), and would be sure to throw you rock candy if you showed yourself to be a diligent student, rather than a slacker, in his class.
St. John Neumann, also known as “The Little Bishop,” was a lover of God, a lover of God’s people, and a lover of learning.
First, St. John Neumann was a lover of learning. He learned eight languages before immigrating to the U.S. from what is the present day Czech Republic, where he had studied theology in Prague. As a priest, he became a schoolteacher, wrote catechisms, and promoted the growth of Catholic education. While serving in Baltimore, he saved a religious group of black women, founded in 1827 to educate children of slaves, from dissolution. While serving in Philadelphia, he made this city the center of Catholic education in America, growing enrollment by a factor of eighteen within two years.
Second, although St. John Neumann was himself little, he had great love for other people! He knew that the agapē love of God is not a feeling, nor does it ever sit on its hands. Rather, this love gets up, goes out, and uses what God has given. Overflowing with God’s love, Neumann was obedient to Christ’s command to go to all nations and preach the gospel.
When he heard about the great need for German-speaking pastors in America, he knew God was calling him—for sure… 100%, so he hurried and went, even before being ordained or invited. He said about this time, “My resolution was so strong and lively that I could no longer think of anything else.” When he arrived in New York, he found out he had been invited while on his way, and he was immediately ordained.
As a priest, he preached widely and threw himself into pastoral care, which was clearly his passion. This deeply humble, self-effacing, soft spoken man made himself available day and night to his parish. He counseled many. He cared for immigrants, who were mostly poor, and was known to visit both the sick and condemned prisoners. In Philadelphia, he created a religious community of women, the Sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis, to care for the poor and sick. In his free time, he also learned a ninth language, Gaelic, in order to better minister to Irish immigrants.
Third, St. John Neumann faithfully loved God with all of his heart, mind, soul and strength. He lived to turn situations into glory to God, not wanting glory for himself. Never having wanted any position of authority, he tried to avoid being appointed a bishop at all costs; but he lost that battle when the pope appointed him to the role in Philadelphia despite his objections. In everything he did, St. John Neumann served with all of his strength, never letting sickness slow him down a bit. St. John’s chosen prayer was, “Passion of Christ strengthen me.” The indwelling Christ certainly did!
As followers of Christ, we desperately need passionate saints like John Neumann to whom we can look. We need to know people in whom we can see the living Christ. These saints are people from our world who speak to us, as the Apostle Paul did to the Corinthians, “be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1, KJV). St. John Neumann was such a man.
I choose to end today’s reflection with the following quote from St. John Neumann’s diary: “Deprive me of everything, my God, but not of the desire to unite my will to your will in perfect resignation!”
Jason Hayward became a Christ follower as a teenager in the early 90s and is a little different today compared to back then. He married his high school sweetheart and is a father of two young women. He’s been an engineering professor for the last 15 years, and prior to that he spent 8 years as a Naval officer. He lives in East Tennessee, where he has been affiliated with a couple of jail ministries for the past 10 years. He’s also a lover of biographies and the Bible.