John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
Admirers and critics
Father Neumann followed closely the progress of his parochial schools. He enjoyed conducting a lesson occasionally to relieve a teacher, and he dropped in regularly to visit the classrooms. One teacher, Mother Caroline, confessed that she had a short fuse and often lost her temper with the children. "After Father Neumann surprised me in this fault once or twice," she said, "I learned to correct it. He used to enter the schoolroom so quietly that I didn’t notice him until he greeted me with the words: ‘Sister, I thought I heard you screaming just now.’ "
Once a particular student was causing a great deal of trouble. The teachers were ready to expel him, and the parents were at their wit’s end. Father Neumann took an interest in the boy and decided to tutor him for an hour each day. The boy improved significantly, astounding his parents and his teachers.
John had loyal admirers, but it seems his critics were more vocal. "Father Neumann has only half the necessary qualities of a good superior," wrote one prominent member to the provincial, "namely, exemplary conduct and regularity. He lacks the ail-important quality in America of force or authority. He never had this and he never will."
As it happened, feeling overwhelmed and ill-suited to the hectic post, John had already written to the provincial asking to be allowed to resign. The provincial granted the request and appointed John to be adviser to his successor. He still had influence, but he no longer felt the awful burden of responsibility.
The reluctant bishop
Just when John was beginning to enjoy religious life again, he received word from Rome that he had been named Bishop of Philadelphia, under obedience and without appeal. Bishop! Philadelphia! He was stunned by the news and dropped, stricken, to his knees. Some men sell their souls to acquire power. John contemplated dying to avoid it. On the eve of his consecration he confided to a friend, "I’d rather die tomorrow than be consecrated bishop."
The first time John Neumann entered the recreation room of the rectory in his fancy new episcopal robes, he grinned at his confreres and commented wryly, "The Church treats her bishops like a mother treats a child. When she wants to place a burden on him, she gives him new clothes."
On March 28, 1852—his forty-first birthday—Father John Neumann became bishop of the largest, most prestigious diocese in the country. Many were delighted that John’s virtues had been recognized. Others were frankly skeptical. "I don’t know how to explain this decision," the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote to a fellow clergyman, "except that in their anxiety to impose some German blood into the episcopal body [the cardinals] laid hold of the first German name that presented itself."
Despite his own doubts, John threw himself into his work. "Every day was full," writes one biographer. "His diversified activities would have undermined the health of many a prelate. At one time he was writing letters; at another, drawing up the framework for a society, visiting the sick, hearing confessions, meeting visitors, or officiating at commencement exercises, laying cornerstones, conferring orders on neophytes to the priesthood—a continuous series of small actions."
John’s preaching style was unremarkable, but his solid messages moved his listeners. The secular city newspaper commented, "Bishop Neumann was not a fluent and eloquent speaker, but he more than made up for the graces of oratory by the solidity of his talent and profundity of his thoughts."
Bishop Neumann had a facility for languages. He spoke and heard confessions in French, German, Bohemian, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, and English. When he learned that some Irish Catholics in Pennsylvania could not confess because no priests understood Gaelic, he studied Gaelic. Apparently he mastered it, for on one of his visits an Irish grandmother stepped out of the confessional and exclaimed, "Ah, isn’t it grand that we finally have an Irish bishop!"