"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Friday, January 05, 2007

St. John Neumann, "the little bishop"

Actual photo (1854)

American Catholics don't seem to realize how important this saint is for today. I myself realized only last night, just before retiring, that his feast was yesterday, when he received only the usual perfunctory mention in a few corners of Catholic cyberspace; that's why I've backdated this post to the 5th. Yet not only he is the only male American citizen (naturalized) ever to be canonized; he is the only American bishop ever to be canonized. At a time when Catholic bishops as a class are even less admired than men in general in this country, we need to sit up, take note of his example, and seek his help.

Neumann is a man, and a bishop, after my own heart. He emigrated from Bohemia to North America as a recent seminary graduate because, his own country having too many priests, his bishop would not ordain him. But the Western Hemisphere had too few and was appealing to the Church in Europe to send 'em over. He answered without hesitation and was ordained by Archbishop Kenrick of Baltimore. Bright, but of a more practical than intellectual bent, he mastered six languages for purely pastoral purposes. He lived and worked without complaint in conditions that no American bishop today would envision for himself; most would indeed regard them as unacceptable for virtually anybody. He joined the Redemptorists, a relatively young, Italian-based order that had only recently sent members to America, because he felt the need to live in community. Soon thereafter, Kenrick got Pope Pius IX to make Neumann Bishop of Philadelphia over the candidate's vociferous protests and appeals. Once there, Bishop Neumann grew the local church like kudzu grows itself, with the number of Catholic schools going from one to over a hundred. He died in 1860, at 49, having spent his health in service of what was still "missionary" territory for the Church. In the 20th century, three miracles were recognized by the Vatican as evidence for his canonization, formalized by Pope Paul VI in 1977.

That date was perfect for the purpose. It was a time when the Catholic Church in North America was in almost complete disarray. Following the lead of many theologians and clergy, the laity had rejected Humanae Vitae and largely reserved to themselves the right to decide which teachings of the Church they would be bound by. We're still living with that problem. Many priests and religious were abandoning their vocations; new vocations were at an all-time low; and we now know that clerical sexual abuse of minors, mostly adolescent boys, was at its height. We're living now with the effects of all that too. Just the time for the example and intercession of St. John Neumann.

Unfortunately, the point does not seem to have been taken yet. While vocations have crept upward in the most conservative American dioceses, thanks to John Paul II and orthodox bishops, the institutionalized hypocrisy about sexual sin remains in place. Most laity fornicate and contracept without any pang of conscience; serious fasting and penance seem neurotic old hat to most, when thought of at all; the Church seems divided, like the Anglican communion, into traditionalist, progressive, and squishy-middle sectors. The response of the bishops as a whole to the sex-abuse scandal has been to impose rigid bureaucratic and legal safeguards only on those under them, not on themselves. And this despite the fact that, since the scandal broke forth fully in 2002, nearly a dozen bishops have been either deposed or demoted for sexual improprieties. Far from spreading with vitality, the Church is hobbled by payouts resulting from civil judgments in the countless sex-abuse cases. Yet there has been no visible, collective penance or any other significant change in how the bishops as a whole do business. Regardless of their actual views, many bishops still carry on as well-fed, well-traveled bureaucrats. The current president of the USCCB, unlike the Vatican, does not even think that priests of homosexual orientation pose any special problem. In that attitude, he reflects chancery culture in far too many dioceses.

I'm sure that St. John Neumann would be turning in his grave if his soul were not in heaven interceding for us. His intercession would be more effective if we sought it more. Little as he was in stature and remains in reputation, we would seek his intercession more if we understood how well he represents the opposite of what American Catholics in general, and their bishops in particular, have become.

St. John Neumann, pray for us.
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