Today (January 5th) is the Memorial of St. John Neumann. He was born in Bohemia in 1811. He came to the United States and was ordained a priest for the Diocese of New York in 1836. At that time, the diocese reached as far as Buffalo. In his first assignment, Neumann was sent to the Niagara area. (On his way there he stopped for a few days in Rochester, NY where he celebrated Mass and a baptism). In 1840 he transferred to the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). In 1852 he became the Bishop of Philadelphia.
In those days, Catholicism was a growing religion in the United States. Catholics faced rejection, if not persecution, for many decades. (This reminds me of today’s gospel when Philip tells Nathanael he has found the one of whom Moses spoke, Jesus, of Nazareth. Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth.”)
As Bishop in Philadelphia, Neumann worked for the establishment of parish schools and parishes to serve the Catholic immigrants.
In its early days, the United States were officially “mission territory” in the Catholic Church. Many missionaries, like Neumann, came to America to offer our Catholic faith to the natives and to serve the needs of the immigrants. Today there are many more Catholics in the United States than in Neumann’s time. In fact, today Catholicism is numbered as the largest single denomination in America. Yet, I can’t help but think that our nation has once again become “mission territory.”
According to sacramental records, with baptisms and people who come into our Catholic faith, there are more Catholics than ever. However, how many people are there who have been baptized or received into the Catholic Church but now, seldom, if ever, practice our faith?
I see it in the people who comes for marriage and to have their babies baptized. They admit they don’t come to church often. I see their coming for the sacraments as hope that the seed of faith is still alive inside them. I always try to work with them as opportunity to encourage them to invite them back to the practice of the faith.
People are fallen away from the faith for different reasons. Some do it because their own personal beliefs are contrary to what our Church teaches. Others question the existence of God. They might think that science can explain everything (see my article “Catholic Teaching and the Question of Evolution“) or that the existence of the evil we see in the world proves that either God doesn’t exist or, at least, God doesn’t care.
With all this in mind, I wonder if the United States, along with much of the “old world,” should be named as “re-mission territory.” I believe that one of the most important needs facing our Catholic faith is the need to re-evangelize people to understand not just what our Church teaches but why. Some don’t know about our faith at all. Others know something about what our Church teaches but can’t really make it their own faith until they understand why we believe and teach. If we can help them here, we can help them see how our faith is still relevant.
Maybe I am biased because I love to learn and teach about our Catholic faith. What do you think?