The Little Bishop

His name is John Nepomucene Neumann. He was Bishop of Philadelphia between 1852 and 1860. He was just over five feet high. He was a very unique man.

Poverty was widespread. On one visit to a rural parish, the pastor had only a manure wagon to pick him up. Seated on a plank stretched over the wagon’s contents, Bishop John joked, “Have you ever seen such an entourage for a bishop?!” Close to the people.
He could hear confessions in at least six languages… Spanish, French, Italian, German, Dutch and English. When Irish immigration started, he learned Gaelic so well that one Irish woman remarked, “Isn’t it grand that we have an Irish bishop!” The Gospel always goes beyond. Zeal for the spread of the Gospel.
During his only visit back home in Europe, one day he arrived at the house soaked in rain. When his host suggested he should change his shoes, Bishop John remarked, “The only way I could change my shoes is by putting the left one on the right foot and the right one on the left foot. This is the only pair I own.” Humor in distress.
Who was he? Born in Bohemia of a German father and a Czech mother, he grew in a normal family of six.

When he was 20, even though what he really wanted was to study medicine, he found himself in a seminary in Prague! When the time came for his ordination, the Government gave orders that there should be no more priests because Bohemia had an overabundance of priests! Times change!! So he decided to go to the States, ask to be ordained there and work with the emigrants. The man of God always finds a way out…

He arrived unannounced in Manhattan in 1836 after a rough, forty-day crossing of the Atlantic. The then Bishop of New York, was happy to see him as there were only 36 priests for the 200,000 Catholics in the area and ordained him just two months after his arrival, on 28 June 1836.

His prayer that night? “I pray that You give me holiness, the grace to ask pardon to all the living and dead and that one day we may all be together with You, our dearest God.”

His first assignment was Buffalo. There he was given a choice between a comfortable parish in the city or a more difficult one in the country. He chose the latter. Saints like challenges! The priest walked miles from house to house. “There is no pleasure here except the care of souls,” he wrote in his diary.

In the summer of 1840, feeling the need of community life, Father John joined the Redemptorists in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I think this is the best thing I can do for the security of my salvation,” he wrote to his family.

Then twelve years later, the big blow. Pope Pius IX made him Bishop of Philadelphia “under obedience and without appeal”. He tried desperately and fruitlessly to stall the nomination. As his Episcopal motto he put, “Passion of Christ strengthen me”.

He was a Bishop only eight years but in that relatively short time, he revolutionized the diocese. “A Bishop in America,” he informed his aged father, “has to do everything himself, and by his own hand.”

He had to face a lot of internal resistance, because he was not wanted by many Catholics because all the previous Bishops were Irish, while he had a German background. Besides his appearance, manner and speech did not impress many!

Undaunted, he plunged into his duties with vigor. Regarding the construction of churches and schools as top priority, he managed to build fifty churches and one hundred schools in only eight years! He defied all odds.

He introduced the Forty Hours devotion on a diocesan scale. He gave new impetus to a number of congregations of nuns. He kept himself always close to his people.

And then the sudden end. While doing some errands, he had a stroke. Rushed to the hospital, he died there. He was only 48 years old.

On his beatification, Pope Benedict XV said, “Perhaps the simplicity of these virtues will be misunderstood . . . We shall not pause to remark that works - even the most simple when performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties - spell heroism in every servant of God.”

Every man has a secret. Bishop Neumann’s secret? He always remained true to his inner self.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.