Today as part of our retreat we journeyed into Philadelphia to visit the Shrine of St. John Neumann, C.Ss.R. and to celebrate Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul.
John Nepomucene Neumann was born in Bohemia (present Czech Republic) in 1811 and dreamed of serving God and his church as a priest. However, in his day there were so many candidates (what a challenge I'd love to face!) that his bishop would not ordain any of the candidates who were ready.
But John knew there were needs in the New World so with $40 to his name he set sail for New York where he looked up Bishop James Dubois. Since the bishop needed priests, especially ones with John's gift for languages (he knew eight but kept learning others until he eventually mastered eleven), he was ordained within two weeks of arrival and sent to Buffalo to tend to his newly-assigned parishioners.
As the neophyte priest felt the isolation of being on his own (some of our diocesan priests even today feel this and retreats like this help overcome this difficulty through mutual support), he joined the Redemptorists (Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer)--their first recruit in the USA.
He soon showed himself to be an extraordinarily encouraging religous and sought new solutions wherever his talents were needed and he was sent to minister. In Baltimore, he became the confessor to Bishop Kenrick who proposed him for the office of Bishop of Philadelphia. Though he did not aspire after such an office (quite the contrary!), Blessed Pope Pius IX named him to the post under obedience. A gifted administrator and zealous priest-bishop, in his five years as bishop he created fifty new parishes for the many ethnic congregations streaming toward America (Germans, Irish, Italians, etc) and during his term of office increased the number of Catholic schools from 2 to over 100. He ministered to the sick, wrote catechisms, and untiringly visited his people; he organized the Forty Hours devotion during which the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in one parish after another--a forerunner to today's Perpetual Adoration or Eucharistic Chapels.
Bishop Neumann died suddenly on the street near the cathedral whose construction he had initiated, on January 5, 1860 at the age of 48.
Money quote: "Only a poor priest, one who can endure hardship, can labour here. His duties call him far and near...he leads a wandering life. There is no pleasure, except the care of souls...the Catholic population is continually increasing...many are in extreme poverty. They live in miserable shanties, some with not even a window."
The future saint was very short: a not-imposing 5'2". One of his successors (and you will guess my interest immediately) was Edward Francis Prendergast, auxiliary bishop 1897-1911; Archbishop of Philadelphia 1911-1918. He stood rather imposingly for that day at 6'7" (from a different gene pool than yours truly).
At the cathedral this afternoon, we visited his tomb in the crypt and the rector of the cathedral brought out his crozier for me to carry for our late afternoon Mass. I just about fell over once or twice! On the way through the cathedral rectory several of us took a detour to see the XXXL size bathtub he installed when the rectory was being built (there is another in the seminary for his visits there).
My conclusion is that whether one is short or tall, bishop, priest, religious or lay person, we are all called to holiness. It's a challenging thought for the return to the spiritual exercises at Malvern retreat house. Here we are seeking to know more intimately the power of Christ's resurrection that we celebrate in word and the "breaking of the bread", just like the disciples in today's gospel on the Road to Emmaus.