This incredible holy bishop did so many wonderful things but one of my favorite stories concerns the promotion of the 40 Hours Devotion of Adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
At the time of his episcopate there was a strong anti-Catholic sentiment in Philadelphia and having had two churches burned and another barely saved, priests were advising the Bishop, John Neumann, not to proceed with introducing the 40 Hours of continual adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, believing it would somehow increase the hostility already directed against the Church.
The Bishop had a decision to make and then something happened to make up his mind to proceed with the devotion of the 40 Hours of Adoration:
One night, he was working very late at his desk and fell asleep in his chair. The candle on the desk burnt down and charred some of the papers, but they were still readable. He awoke, surprised and thankful that a fire had not ignited. He fell on his knees to give thanks to God for protection, and heard His voice saying, "As the flames are burning here without consuming or injuring the writing, so shall I pour out my grace in the Blessed Sacrament without prejudice to My honor. Fear no profanation, therefore; hesitate no longer to carry out your design for my glory."
He introduced the practice of 40 Hours Devotion at the first diocesan synod in April, 1853, and the first devotions began at St. Philip Neri Parish, an appropriate place since that St. Philip had begun that very devotion in the city of Rome. The holy Bishop then introduced the program for the whole diocese, so that each parish would have Forty Hours Devotion during the course of the year. He wrote a booklet for the devotions and obtained special indulgences for the faithful attending them. The Forty Hours Devotion was so successful it spread to other dioceses. At the Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1866, the Forty Hours Devotion was approved for all Dioceses of the United States.
(Let us ask St. John Neumann, lover of the Blessed Sacrament, to pray for us now and that we will again see the 40 Hours Devotion of Adoration grow and flourish in our country and throughout the world, and even to expand to perpetual adoration of Jesus in the most Blessed Sacrament.)
St. John was also most zealous in the promotion of Catholic education and worked diligently to establish parochial schools. Within a year of his becoming Bishop of Philadelphia, the student population in parochial schools increased from 500 to more than 5,000. After two years, it had reached more than 9,000.
St. John Neumann was the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, and held that position from 1852 to 1860. He was the first male canonized saint from the United States. St. John lived from 1811 to 1860. The St. John Neumann feast day is January fifth. Known for a lifetime of pastoral work, especially among poor German immigrants, Bishop John Neumann was the first American man to be named saint.
John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in Bohemia, the Czech portion of the present Czechoslovakia. He graduated from a nearby college in Bohemia and then applied to theseminary. John distinguished himself not only in his theological studies, but also in the natural sciences. Besides mastering Latin, Greek and Hebrew, he learned to speak fluently at least eight modern languages, including various Slavic dialects.
On the morning of February 8, 1836, he left his native home and made the trip across Europe on foot. Several months later, he set sail for New York aboard a 210-foot, three-masted ship loaded to capacity with emigrants. Six weeks later, the ship entered the harbor of New York. A few days after arriving in New York, John Neumann sought out and met the bishop, John Dubois. Bishop Dubois had only 36 priests to care for 200,000 Catholics living in all of New York State and half of lower New Jersey. In June of 1836, the bishop ordained John Neumann as a sub-deacon, a deacon, and as a priest, all within on week's time.
Father John Neumann devoted himself to the pastoral care of all the outlying places in the parish of Buffalo for four years. From his headquarters near Buffalo, he made frequent journeys on foot in all kinds of weather to points ten or twenty miles distant, visiting the settlers on their scattered farms.
Later St. John was attracted to the Redemptorist Order and so was the first novice of the Redemptorists in the United States and, in 1847, he became the head of the American Redemptorists. He also wrote several German Language Catechisms and a German Bible history.
In 1852, he was nominated for the position of Bishop of Philadelphia and he accepted the appointment only because Pope Pius IX commanded him to do so. The Diocese of Philadelphia was at this time the largest in the country, comprising eastern Pennsylvania, western New Jersey, and all of Delaware.
Bishop Neumann was the first in the United States to introduce the Forty Hours Devotion in his diocese. From the beginning, he promoted the establishment of parochial schools. There were only two such schools in 1852, but by 1860 they numbered nearly 100. Through his work with the schools, he helped the Notre Dame Sisters of Munich to become firmly established in the United States.
Though Bishop Neumann had suffered from frequent illnesses, his sudden death, at the age of 48, was wholly unexpected. On January 8, 1860, he went out in the afternoon to attend to some business matters and was walking back when he suffered an apoplectic stroke.
The cause of his beautification was begun in 1886. Ten years later, he received the title of "Venerable." In February, 1963, Pope John XXIII issued the procamation for his beautification, but the ceremony was delayed by the death of Pope John and Pope Paul VI beautified him on October 13th. His canonization followed in June of 1977.