Today we celebrate the Memorial of St. John Neumann, the first American to be canonized. He was born in 1811 in Bohemia in Europe. He was studying to become a priest there when the bishop there announced there would be no further ordinations as there were too many priests. Today, this might seem impossible for us to believe but John Neumann found it to be the case throughout Europe.
He learned English and was interested in mission work. So, he wrote to bishops in America. The bishop in New York offered to ordain him to serve here. He became one of thirty-six priests serving 200,000 Catholics. He served an area stretching from Lake Ontario to Pennsylvania. So, I would imagine at least some of that was in what became our Diocese of Rochester in 1868. He later joined the Redemptorists priests until he was ordained Bishop of Philadelphia. As bishop, he served in a time when the Catholic Church was not widely accepted in America but the Catholic population was growing. He was a great promoter of the Catholic school system.
While there were “too many” priests in Europe in St. John Neumann’s day, there were “too few” in America. He came to America when it was still considering mission territory for the Catholic Church. In the years following his life, the Catholic Church grew in America to as much as 25% of the population. Much of the growth came from immigrants who established communities of people speaking the same languages centered in the parish. The culture in America continued to look down on Catholics for many years. For example, when Catholics tried to run for president, many thought a Catholic should never be president because of their ties to the pope. It was not until 1960 when John F. Kennedy was elected President before a Catholic would serve as president. Our parishes had more than enough priests.
While the Catholic church grew for decades in the United States, we are now facing large declines in church attendance. For some it is a rejection of the existence of God. Others think they can be spiritual on their own without needing any church institution. This is true for all religions in America. From fewer people coming to church, we again have “too few” priests.
God exists! We can pray on our own but we need the help of our churches to persevere in a world that is turning away from God. We need help to grow to a deeper relationship with Jesus. In the decades since the death of St. John Neumann, the way our world functions has changed greatly from modern transportation and communication. The gospel does not change but we need to find new ways to bring our faith to the world and show what Jesus taught is still relevant today.
We have much ministry to do to restore growth in our church. Knowing St. John Neumann served in a time when the Catholic Church was small and growing, let us pray for his intercession to help us in our ministry of evangelization. We also pray for more priests to serve like St. John Neumann did.
*Bibliography – The above biographical information is largely based on short biographies of him available online
- from Catholic.org – “St. John Neumann” – http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=70
- from franciscanmedia.org – “St. John Neumann” https://www.franciscanmedia.org/saint-john-neumann/