SAINT JOHN NEUMANN
His Writings and Spirituality
By Father Richard Boever, C.S.s.R.
266 pages, $19.99
To order: liguori.org
Why read about a young man prone to vanity, severely tempted to despair and passed over for ordination in his home country? Because he’s America’s first canonized male: St. John Neumann, born 200 years ago this year.
Redemptorist Father Richard Boever has put together Saint John Neumann: His Writings and Spirituality, the first part of which is a biography in the first person, as if written by the saint himself. Actual words from the writings of Neumann are found in italics throughout the story, and more of them are in the second part of the book, which includes some of his pastoral and personal letters.
From the time Neumann arrived in America in 1836 to his death in 1860, he had a profound influence on many aspects of Catholic life. In fact, he occupies a unique place in the history of the Church in America. Yet, he almost wasn’t ordained.
In his early 20s, Neumann wrote, “Lord, I am beginning to feel that awful state of depression coming over me again! I lose all yen for prayer because you have seemed to turn a deaf ear to my cries.”
Neumann found the solution to his problem by giving up his desire for consolation and replacing it with prayerful surrender to Providence. He wrote: “I no longer look for comfort from either heaven or earth. You, Divine Master, can judge whether such are necessary for me. I propose to worry no more over the aridity you send me. You, my God, are the font of both aridity and grace.” He then expressed thanksgiving for learning this from the Lord and proceeded to complete his seminary training.
However, because of a lack of open positions for priests in Bohemia, Neumann was not ordained there. He had already been considering missionary work in America, and so he decided to travel to the New World for ordination.
One of the notable areas in which Neumann’s influence shone brightly was that of education, which he knew was essential to form solid Christians. He stated plainly, “If any danger threatens the Church, it is the lack or the insufficiency of Christian education.” He countered this threat by writing what became known as the Baltimore Catechism and starting Catholic schools in Philadelphia after becoming bishop of that diocese. It was the first Catholic school system in the country.
Despite such landmark accomplishments, there is a curious shortage of Neumann biographies, and perhaps an even greater shortage of his own writings. However, there is a good share of them in this book, and they reveal the saint’s perceptive, persevering and pastoral soul. These qualities are present in the second part of the book as well, which begins with a reprinted journal article very similar to the first-person biography. In fact, the article is so similar that it is mostly redundant.
Neumann asked early on, “What sort of a priest would I be with all the sins I have ...?” His own life gives us the answer: With prayerful trust in God, he became America’s first canonized man.
Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.