John Neumann, Pioneer Saint
Pioneer in Catholic education
One of John’s most important contributions as bishop was to nurture and promote Catholic education. Within a month of his consecration he had established a Board of Catholic Education consisting of the pastor and two laypeople from each parish. His dream was to have. a quality Catholic school in each parish. After one year in Philadelphia he happily wrote home, "Much has been done for the schools. The number of children in them has increased from five hundred to five thousand."
Pope Pius XII said, "It was principally through the prodigious efforts of Bishop Neumann that a Catholic school system came into being and that parochial schools began to rise across the land."
Patron to the poor
When John was not out of town visiting parishes he made a point of being accessible to his flock. "The bishop was most approachable," one visitor said. "Never did I find any trouble obtaining an interview, no matter how trifling the necessity. I have never met with more humility, simplicity, or condescension in anyone. He seemed to put himself at the disposal of everyone." He was considered an "easy" confessor. When one concerned priest mentioned this to him, John replied, "Penance is a sacrament of mercy."
In his dealings with the poor, some thought him naive and foolishly indulgent. The poor learned to wait until the bishop got home to ring the bell. They would get three or four times more when he answered the door. Once a woman was caught coming back a second time in one day. A worker at the rectory was about to take the gift from her when the bishop intervened. He said the woman’s need must indeed be great if she had to come a second time.
Although his position required that he mingle with important people, John Neumann never felt at ease in the company of the rich and famous. Once he and another priest were invited to a sumptuous meal in the elegant home of a distinguished Catholic couple. John ate very little and was unusually reserved and quiet.
The next day he and the priest were invited to a simple meal in a poor family’s log cabin. Here John took an animated part in the conversation and seemed in especially high spirits. The priest could not help but comment on the change he’d observed. John remarked, "Yesterday we were treated to a well-filled table, empty forms of politeness, and useless conversation. Today we had the charming simplicity of a pious Catholic home."
John was always at home with children. One woman was surprised to come upon the Bishop of Philadelphia bent over a microscope in the middle of a group of ragged children. He was enjoying immensely their squeals of astonishment as he revealed to them the hidden life in a drop of water.