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January 5th, Memorial of St. John Neumann

St. John Neumann

In the early 1830’s a young man from Bohemia came to these shores. He was filled with a burning desire to minister to the good folks of the young American nation. Imagine a time when people from other continents wanted to come here to minister to us! The young man, John Neumann (pronounced /NOY-man/) would soon be ordained a priest of the Redemptorist order. In fact, that sacred moment took place in 1836 at the hands of New York’s Bishop Dubois. Not to cloud the issue, but Neumann’s final profession with his order actually took place in 1842 when he became the first Redemptorist to profess his vows in this country.

After working his way through several states of the Mid-Atlantic and Mid-West regions he was selected by the Vatican to serve as fourth bishop of Philadelphia in 1852. Over the next eight years he took the reins and really established that local church as the stronghold of Roman Catholicism that it would become and remain for a century and a half. He promoted the 40 Hours Devotion and built myriad churches. To this day, as one drives down I-95 through the city of Brotherly Love and looks out toward the stretching and sprawling land this side of the Delaware, one can see practically nothing but steeples. That’s John Neumann for you. But it is his work in establishing schools to go along with those steeples that really made him something to admire. Yesterday we studied and celebrated Mother Seton who established a model for how Catholic schools should exist. Today it’s all about the man who put in place the organizational structure which made it possible. Neumann’s Philadelphia Diocesan and parochial school system quickly became the norm. If you went to a Catholic grade school at your parish, thank him. If you went to a regional high school in your diocese, thank him. I am the product of Catholic education for my whole life and currently teach in a Catholic high school. Thank you Bishop Neumann!

Neumann's most recent successor, Justin Cardinal Rigali, preparing the bishop's body for reinterment.

One afternoon while visiting Philly with my mom we had a chat with the nice lady who runs the gift shop at the Shrine of St. Rita. “Have you been to the other shrines?” she asked. We quickly discovered that at least two other saints have shrines in this great town. More to the point, their two shrines actually serve as the final resting places for them. St. Katherine Drexel (a little to the north of town) and St. John Neumann are the two. Since we didn’t have time to drive too far we opted to visit Neumann’s shrine. Interesting story. Interesting place.

It seems that on the final day of his life in 1860, the bishop was out in the streets walking, as the story goes, to administer last rights to a sick man. He suddenly fell ill and collapsed about two miles from his cathedral church. He asked to be taken not there, but to a nearby parish, St. Peter’s, which was run by Redemptorists. There he died and there he was buried. During the canonization process for all saints, the Church exhumes the body to see if there are any clues or other such special things that might be seen as manifestations of God’s grace. In some cases, lo and behold, we discover that the saint’s body has not decayed and that there is no natural cause for this. Trust me on this one. It’s a little weird, a little freaky, but also a whole lot miraculous and very well documented (especially by non Christian doctors and scientists). Neumann was one of those saints. I say his body was found completely in tact (and not having been embalmed). However, we’re not novices at the whole incorruptibility thing. St. Catherine of Bologna was incorrupt but 500 years of exposure to candlelight taught those in the know that perhaps seating the corpse upright in a throne above the altar is, well, not the wisest thing to do for continued preservation. And so, our friend the bishop was placed in a glass coffin for viewing AFTER a wax sheen had been applied to his face. The first time I saw this I gasped. Imagine, you live your whole life serving God in His people and this is your reward. You get to lie down in a glass box in the basement of a church with a wax mask. Wait until November when I get into Frances Cabrini and the whole severed head thing… Yech…

The body of a saint at rest.