January 5th is one of those dates that will always have a special significance for me. Like December 7th when the world recalls the attack on Pearl Harbor, or September 11, the day of the terrorist attacks that launched this country into a global campaign towards the eradication of terrorism, January 5th is a significant date when I recall the memory of Saint John Neumann, the Bishop of Philadelphia that died on this date in 1860. At the time of his death John Neumann, the German-born prelate was considered by many of his contemporaries as a pastoral and Episcopal failure in the administration of the Diocese of Philadelphia. He was often considered a poor administrator of the resources of the diocese resulting in the appointment of a Coadjutor Bishop to help him administrate the temporal resources of his Episcopal See. Often he was plagued by bouts of insecurity and feelings of personal incompetence to fulfill the job given to him by Rome. At one point, John Neumann even suggested he be translated to a different diocese, much smaller than Philadelphia where he could live out his days as a simple priest and bishop ministering to the Catholic faithful without the burdens of administration. Remember at the time the Diocese of Philadelphia included most of Pennsylvania, parts of Northeastern Maryland, the State of Delaware and most of the State of New Jersey. John Neumann ministered and travelled through this expansive diocese without the aid of a modern Pennsylvania Turnpike, the Blue Route or I-95. His transportation was simply his horse, Gertrude and together they crossed the Allegheny Mountains bringing the Sacraments to isolated Catholics wherever they might be in the area that now encompasses at least 7 dioceses.

John Neumann left an incredible legacy in the Diocese of Philadelphia. Often he is remembered for the inception of the 40 Hours Devotions, started at Saint Philip Neri Church in Philadelphia (and still a functioning parish). He established the preparatory Seminary of Saint Charles Borromeo in Glen Riddle, Delaware County, Pa., initiated the construction of the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul (the oldest building on the Ben Franklin Parkway), founded the Sisters of Saint Francis of Glen Riddle and established the foundational structure for the American Catholic School System. Not a bad legacy for a man that was constantly nagged by reoccurring feelings of inferiority and personal incapacity.

Most importantly Bishop Neumann was the conduit for the effective transmission of grace and salvation to hundreds of thousands of immigrant Catholics that hailed from European shores and wanted to call the United States, especially Philadelphia their new spiritual home. With the establishment of so called, “national” parishes, Catholics in Philadelphia in the 19th century could attend the celebration of the Mass in German, Italian, Polish, Lithuanian and a variety of other indo-European languages that identified them as newly arrived immigrants in the growing melting pot of American Society. The legacy of Saint John Neumann is a monumental precursor to the various ministries that are associated with all ethnic heritages in the American Catholic Church even to this day.

While John Neumann would have preferred to become bishop of an inconsequential diocese such as Bardstown(now the titular See of the Most Reverend Daniel E.Thomas of Philadelphia) God’s salvific plan had other things in mind for the life and legacy of John Neumann.  He died in relative obscurity while running an errand on Vine Street in Philadelphia, however the anniversary of his death is a reminder for me personally of the incredibly remarkable achievements God accomplished through the life and ministry of Philadelphia’s “Little Bishop.”

While January 5th is for most people just another day on the calendar, it should be celebrated by American Catholics as the anniversary of the birth to eternal life of a man that was truly a zealous pioneer of the Catholic Gospel in the missionary Church of the United States. Without the personal sacrifices and downright hard work and prayer of this physically miniscule man our monumental Catholic influences on all aspects of American life and culture are greatly diminished.

There was a song written for the canonization of Saint John Neumann by a sister of the community he founded that  called him, Father of the Poor. He was indeed a saint that was a paternal and pastoral guide to not only the temporal but spiritual poor. He also saw and recognized the intellectually poor with the establishment of the American Catholic parochial school system. This task alone has alleviated the plight of millions of students from intellectual and academic deficiency and provided a foundation for Catholicism to spread in our American life and society. We are indeed indebted to John Neumann for his life, his legacy and his continued intercession to God in the celestial place we call heaven.

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