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
rural parish, the pastor had only a
wagon to pick him up. Seated on a plank
over the wagon’s contents, Bishop John
“Have you ever seen such an entourage
a bishop?!” Close to the people.
He could hear confessions in at least
languages… Spanish, French, Italian,
Dutch and English. When Irish immigration
started, he learned Gaelic so well
Irish woman remarked, “Isn’t it grand
we have an Irish bishop!” The Gospel
goes beyond. Zeal for the spread of
During his only visit back home in
one day he arrived at the house soaked
rain. When his host suggested he should
his shoes, Bishop John remarked, “The
way I could change my shoes is by putting
the left one on the right foot and
one on the left foot. This is the only
I own.” Humor in distress.
Who was he? Born in Bohemia of a German
and a Czech mother, he grew in a normal
When he was 20, even though what he
wanted was to study medicine, he found
in a seminary in Prague! When the time
for his ordination, the Government
that there should be no more priests
Bohemia had an overabundance of priests!
Times change!! So he decided to go
States, ask to be ordained there and
with the emigrants. The man of God
finds a way out…
He arrived unannounced in Manhattan
after a rough, forty-day crossing of
Atlantic. The then Bishop of New York,
happy to see him as there were only
for the 200,000 Catholics in the area
ordained him just two months after
on 28 June 1836.
His prayer that night? “I pray that
me holiness, the grace to ask pardon
the living and dead and that one day
all be together with You, our dearest
His first assignment was Buffalo. There
was given a choice between a comfortable
parish in the city or a more difficult
in the country. He chose the latter.
like challenges! The priest walked
from house to house. “There is no pleasure
here except the care of souls,” he
in his diary.
In the summer of 1840, feeling the
community life, Father John joined
in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I think
is the best thing I can do for the
of my salvation,” he wrote to his family.
Then twelve years later, the big blow.
Pius IX made him Bishop of Philadelphia
obedience and without appeal”. He tried
and fruitlessly to stall the nomination.
As his Episcopal motto he put, “Passion
Christ strengthen me”.
He was a Bishop only eight years but
relatively short time, he revolutionized
the diocese. “A Bishop in America,”
his aged father, “has to do everything
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
while he had a German background. Besides
his appearance, manner and speech did
Undaunted, he plunged into his duties
vigor. Regarding the construction of
and schools as top priority, he managed
build fifty churches and one hundred
in only eight years! He defied all
He introduced the Forty Hours devotion
a diocesan scale. He gave new impetus
a number of congregations of nuns.
himself always close to his people.
And then the sudden end. While doing
errands, he had a stroke. Rushed to
he died there. He was only 48 years
On his beatification, Pope Benedict
“Perhaps the simplicity of these virtues
will be misunderstood . . . We shall
pause to remark that works - even the
simple when performed with constant
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
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission
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