Mar 29, 2012

Relics of St. John Neumann visit Washington as one of last tour stops


(CNS photos/Bob Roller)

By Mark Pattison
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A 15-month "year" celebrating the 200th birthday of St. John Neumann made a stop in Washington March 28, which would have been the saint's 201st birthday and the 160th anniversary of his episcopal ordination as bishop of Philadelphia.

Relics of St. John Neumann, also known as St. John Nepomucene, came in a reliquary made specifically for the anniversary to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, where an afternoon of veneration of the relics was bookended by two Masses.

Known as "the little bishop" because of his height -- he was 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-3, according to Redemptorist Father Matthew Allman, who traveled with the relics from Philadelphia -- the saint was "tiny, but his heart was big," Msgr. Walter Rossi, rector of the shrine, said during the first of the two afternoon Masses. "He did such great work for God's people."

St. John Neumann (often pronounced "NEW-min" but sometimes pronounced "NOY-min" to reflect his Bohemian heritage) was the first Redemptorist priest sent to America. Born in the modern-day Czech Republic, he was the first American male saint. He also is regarded as the founder of the Catholic parochial school system.

Father Allman told Catholic News Service that "it's been a tough time" in Philadelphia, where a blue-ribbon commission recommended in January the closing of dozens of Catholic schools throughout the archdiocese, with some of them merging to form regional schools.

"We've been praying for his (the saint's) intercession," the priest said.

Even the Catholic school at the parish to which Father Allman is assigned had been recommended for shutdown to merge it with a second parish school and create a new entity. Ultimately, the closure recommendation for the second school was revoked and it will become a "mission school." "We don't know what a mission school is," Father Allman said. "They're still working on the details of that."

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia ultimately decided to keep open the four Catholic high schools slated for closure because of a new foundation formed to support them.

St. John Neumann knew four languages before he came to the United States, and learned English, French, Italian and Gaelic to minister to Catholic immigrant populations. He made only one trip to his native Europe once he dedicated himself to missionary work in America. That was in 1854 for an "ad limina" visit and to hear Pope Pius IX proclaim the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, that Mary was conceived without sin, as a dogma of the Catholic faith.

It was fitting for the saint's relics to come to a shrine dedicated to the Immaculate Conception, Father Allman said. "He wouldn't go for" the stained-glass likeness of himself or for the shrine's Czech chapel, but otherwise "he would feel at home here," the priest said in his homily.

The reliquary contains a "first-class" relic, a part of the person's body. A piece of a bone from the saint is embedded in the lid of the box. The reliquary also contains "second-class" relics, something that had touched his body or something that he was associated with, and a "third-class" relic, generally something that touched the body after death, or something that had touched the grave.

According to the Redemptorists, these relics inside include St. John Neumann's cilicium and discipline, a piece of his original coffin, and vestments that once dressed his remains which are displayed under the altar at St Peter's in Philadelphia.

Many Catholics confuse St. John Neumann with Blessed John Newman, especially since their surnames can be pronounced the same way.

Father Allman said he likes to distinguish the two this way: "St. John Neumann was an American missionary. Cardinal Newman was an English cardinal," who was a leader in the Oxford Movement and switched from the Anglican Church to the Catholic Church in his 40s. Cardinal Newman, beatified in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, was an 18th-century theologian whose book "Idea of a University" helped define Catholic higher education.

"We can pronounce it NOY-min, but we think he adopted NEW-min when he came to the United States," Father Allman told CNS. "His name was punned: 'a new man for a new world.'"

The relics return to Philadelphia after a visit this spring to a Redemptorist parish in Bethpage, N.Y. Over Father's Day weekend, June 16 and 17, the relics are to go to a retreat house in Malvern, Pa. The "Neumann Year" concludes June 23 with a Mass and ceremonies at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.