The first week of the year is a glorious time for North America, in that we celebrate three feast days in a row. Yesterday we feted St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first U.S.-born person to be canonized. Tomorrow we remember St. Andre Bessett, the great Canadian Holy Cross brother.
Today is St. John Neumann’s day. John Neumann was born in central Europe, in what is now the Czech Republic, and came to the United States to serve the European immigrants here. Born in 1811, he completed his seminary studies in Austria. It was the age after the defeat of Napoleon, and Europe was experiencing a strong age of religious renewal. There were many seminarians who were going to serve the Church in Europe, and John was informed that the only way he would be ordained was to go to America to work among the German immigrants there.
John Neumann arrived in New York in 1836 and, since he had already completed seminary, was ordained a priest three weeks later. He began working in rural New York and showed a true concern for the scattered Catholics under his care. He lived a strong life of prayer, and after several years sought entry into a religious order, the Redemptorists. After a formation period of less than two years, he made his vows as a Redemptorist.
It was an era when holiness and apostolic zeal were qualities desired in a bishop, and John Neumann was chosen to be the fourth bishop of Philadelphia in 1852.
The 1840s had seen a burgeoning anti-Catholic sentiment. Increasing numbers of immigrants from Europe meant that there were more and more Catholics in the U.S., and this occasioned an anti-Catholic mentality among many. In 1844 there was a wave of anti-Catholic riots which resulted in the vandalism and burning of several Catholic churches in Philadelphia. During John Neumann’s time as bishop, the Know-Nothing Party (which counted a former U.S. president among its members) perpetuated this anti-Catholic mentality.
Our saint exercised his episcopal ministry for a relatively brief time with real charity. He was personally available to the members of his flock. He was not the first to establish Catholic schools, but in response to the prevalent anti-Catholic mentality, he filled his diocese with them. He died in 1860, not yet aged 50, while walking on a sidewalk, probably to visit someone in need.
In the readings today, and in most days this Christmas season, we are reminded of the importance of charity. Most of the North American saints were famous for their charitable foundations. Besides the saints already mentioned, St. Frances Cabrini, St. Katharine Drexel and Bl. Rose Durocher also established orphanages, hospitals and schools to help disadvantaged people, especially children.
This period of the most extreme anti-Catholic activity in our post-1776 history as a nation came to a cataclysmic end with the outbreak of the Civil War. The issue of slavery and the violence of the war turned people’s priorities elsewhere, and the great example of service to those in need on the part of many Catholics during the war impressed a large number of people.
In our current anti-Catholic climate, let us, too, be people of charity. Our lives of prayer, our lives of ready service should be such as to inspire the hearts of those around us to follow Christ crucified.