American Saints

The Extraordinary Within the Ordinary

He was canonized in 1977 by Pope Paul VI, and is the first American male saint. Born in Bohemia in 1811, he later joined the American Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Pennsylvania, where he built up the Catholic community. In 1852, he received a letter from Pius IX naming him Bishop of Philadelphia


A mong the saints, particularly the American saints, there are many extraordinary tales to tell. The life of the saintly Bishop of Philadelphia, John Neumann, does not easily fit into such accounts. Indeed, one biographer named him “the ordinary saint.” As an auxiliary bishop in Neumann’s own see once remarked, “No one really thought about him as material for canonization until after his death when people kept on showing up at his tomb and praying. Year after year they just kept on coming. Then we started to ask ourselves why this was happening and began our investigations.” Such an investigation leaves one stupefied. The human figure who emerges is truly striking, not so much because of the kind of works he performed, but for the stunning faithfulness and wholehearted, intelligent commitment with which he performed them. In every act, no matter how small, he left the imprint of a whole person entirely engaged with the reality in front of him. This is because, for Neumann, reality was Christ.

In southwest Bohemia
The extraordinary within the ordinary is a theme that follows John Neumann from his very origins. He was born in southwest Bohemia in 1811 to a family neither rich nor poor, neither small nor large. If known for anything, they were distinguished by their honesty, piety, and charity. John was not an overly gifted student, and struggled in mastering the basics. Nonetheless, he was very diligent, even passionate, about learning, and was highly successful at school. In his middle and high school years, he did discover a couple of strong suits, namely languages and music, the former becoming crucial to him in his later vocation. He was very short in stature, under five feet two inches, was pious, though not exceptionally so, had a reputation for unimpeachable conduct, and a strong, centered character that impressed those around him. But what stands out is his excitement in his discovery of everything that made up his world, from art and literature to philosophy and theology, and to astronomy and biology as well. Later, as a bishop, during pastoral visits to Catholic centers of higher learning, he would intervene in answering the most difficult questions about the natural sciences that had the faculties stumped for example, quickly giving the identifying name and genus for a flower that the students could not place, or reproducing a mathematical theorem that solved apparent astronomical anomalies!

In the seminary, he resolved to become a missionary in America, where tens of thousands of German-speaking immigrants had been arriving for years. He prepared for this day not only through study and prayer, but also by intense self-examination. His keen interest in reality included that mysterious “I” which was his own existence. His diaries show a consuming determination that not a single minute of his life be wasted, that every breath be spent in service to Christ. He was aware that this was a task far beyond his own capacities, and his diary is full of supplication: “Mother, I am a sinner but wish to perfect myself!” It led to dark moments; only a firm confidence in God’s mercy allowed him to persevere on this hard road.

Silent, prudent, and patient
Upon finishing his studies and announcing his intention of going to the United States, he found that his bishop would not be ordaining any candidates that year because the diocese already had too many priests. So, without ordination, without a clear idea of which diocese would welcome him, and with just a little money in his pocket, he left his family and set off on foot across Europe to then embark for America. Traveling in deep poverty, with occasional help from strangers, he managed to make it all the way to New York, where he arrived on the feast of Corpus Christi in 1836, with only a dollar in his pocket and his clothes and shoes in tatters. His letters requesting admission to the New York diocese had preceded him and so Bishop John Dubois, eager to have more German-speaking priests in his diocese, ordained him to the deaconate seventeen days later, and to the priesthood the day after that.

Forty-eight hours following his ordination, with a new suit of clothes and a very few bare necessities supplied by the bishop, he was on his way up the Hudson River on his way to Buffalo, where he would join the one other priest there who was wearing himself out caring for the needs of his wide-spread polyglot flock. Everyday he visited the outlying missions. Young Neumann, silent, prudent, and patient, would walk up to twelve hours each way to visit them, through swamps and along disappearing trails through unyielding underbrush. And he would do it all in one day since there were simply no accommodations, rough or otherwise, for him at these places. Finally, someone did give him a horse. But it was a problematic relationship and for a long time Neumann simply led the horse around by the bridle on foot, since he could not get the beast to do his bidding. Though never one to insist, Neumann did not give up easily and in the end the horse made it possible for him to make visits to groups of Catholics as far as forty miles away. All this time he was doing only and everything that a priest might do–preaching, reconciling, teaching, building, raising money, and making Christ present through the Sacraments.

A companionship to follow
But after four years his strength began to waver, and this was due to an inner struggle. He became convinced of his need to live under stricter obedience, to be accompanied in his task. It was not enough to simply do what a priest does. He needed a companionship to follow. As he wrote in a letter to his parents, “I think this is the best thing I can do for the security of my salvation. The constant supervision of religious superiors and the good example of fellow religious… spur one to lead a life more pleasing to God….” In the absence of this, he found himself uncertain of his true relationship with God, living and judging himself according to his own ideas. Thus, on October 8, 1840, he left his labors in upstate New York to join the sons of St Alphonsus in the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the first Redemptorist to take his vows in the United States.

Neumann quickly gained a reputation for his total adherence to the rule of life set down by their founder, but it was a struggle. He changed his address eight times in his novitiate year and at one point found himself back at his old post in Buffalo, isolated, weighted with enormous burdens of work and without an authoritative companionship. He was troubled. But he persisted, and finally began to make real progress in his prayer life. In the meantime, he began to truly know and love the charism of his order. In 1844, he was named Vice Regent and Superior of the Redemptorist community in western Pennsylvania. With great humility and very hard work, he and his brothers were able to build up the Catholic community there, despite a myriad of super human challenges, always handled in Neumanns’s non-assuming, self-effacing way. Once, he went out on a sick call in the middle of the night and walked into a trap set for him by a husband who did not like the advice Neumann had given to his wife in confession. The man pummeled him vigorously until his rage was satisfied. The priest simply picked himself up and, when he had recovered his breath, went on his way, returning to his duties.

A new direction
He was only thirty-five and had been in the congregation for only five years when, against his very strenuous objections, he was made the General Superior for the American houses of his order. Quietly and competently, despite much opposition, he made way in implementing a new direction for the order, focused on securing deeper roots for their charism and formation. A re-organization of the order in 1849 found Neumann placed as second in command, which afforded a change in pace, so he had time for study and reflection. His capacity for reading had always been phenomenal. Once, his sister had complained that he was not really reading the books, but simply turning the pages, so quickly did he absorb what was in front of him. Though still very hard at work in pastoral duties, he managed to put together thousands of pages of highly organized notes, two thousand in theology alone, as a first step toward publication. (Two catechisms he wrote were endorsed by the American bishops at their first Plenary Council in 1952 and were widely used in Catholic schools for the next 35 years.) In 1852, he received a letter from Pius IX naming him Bishop of Philadelphia. The letter made it clear that this was a command and that there was no appeal. His desperate protests were to no avail. The day before his consecration as bishop, he said to a confrere, his voice full of dread, “I’d rather die tomorrow than be consecrated bishop.” He not only did not feel worthy, he also greatly desired not to be set apart from his brothers.

Bishop of Philadelphia
The Catholic Church in Philadelphia was in full-expansion mode, with waves of new immigrants, largely German, arriving all the time. In addition to the innumerable and apparently irresolvable problems–pastoral, cultural, and financial–that beset him and the diocese, there was a core of his own clergy who were hostile to him. To their eyes, he did not cut a suitable figure in the exalted Philadelphian high society. He did not charm. He did not socialize with grace and wit. He was clearly uncomfortable in splendid surroundings. His preaching, while compelling in its argumentation, was not a discourse likely to please the educated American ear. He was, to put it bluntly, so ordinary. Or, as one admiring nun put it, “He was so retiring and unobtrusive that one must have been constantly coming into contact with him to appreciate him.” As part of his ordinary duties as a bishop, Neumann was determined that no Catholics, no matter how isolated in the vast expanse of his immense, intractable, and mountainous diocese be without regular pastoral visits by their bishop. Over the huge mountainous territory of his diocese he trekked for as much as five months a year. He once spent more than a whole day riding twenty-five miles to a distant outpost of the Allegheny Mountains in order to confirm a single child. In these places, he often slept on hard wood benches, there being no other accommodations.

It was in the full rush of this life, sustained by constant prayer and the memory of Christ, that John Neumann came to the end of his earthly life at the age of 49, in 1860. He was walking along the streets of the city on a typical errand when suddenly he collapsed. Within minutes he had died. In the more than seven years he had been Bishop of Philadelphia he had always avoided the crowds and sought to work in as ordinary a manner as possible. Now he had no say in it. The crowds could not be kept away. The city had never seen anything like the throng that pressed in around the bier at all hours. So much of his work had gone unnoticed except by those whom he had touched directly. However, these were a legion, and they now came forward. He had also made his wishes known that he be buried as a simple religious in the Order of the Redemptorists, and thus it was that he was not buried in the place of prelates, but rather in a place set aside for those under religious vows of obedience. This was fitting, since obedience to a Christian company had given him his full measure of embracing the reality in front of him, and for him that reality, as we have said, was Christ.