Sometimes life as a Catholic Christian in the Protestant-dominated United States can be difficult due to prejudice against the Faith. Although we who live in the U.S. are happy that our Constitution enshrines that there shall be no law made that prohibits the free exercise of religion, unfortunately. mainly because of ignorance, many times Catholics have to fight the misconceptions of our separated brethren.
Many saints who either came to the U.S. or were born in the U.S. experienced that persecution. For example, after the recently widowed St. Elizabeth Ann Seton entered into the fullness of Faith by entering the Catholic Church, she was rejected by a number of her family and friends who were primarily Episcopalians. At at time when she most needed the help, she was shunned because of her faith. Ultimately, she left her home state of New York to move herself and her children to Maryland where she was able to make a fresh start.
Then, there is the case of St. John Neumann. He, too, faced anti-Catholicism in his ministry. Perhaps, you are familiar with him as the Bishop of Philadelphia and all of the great good he did for the people of what was at the time a vast diocese.
Before, he was Bishop of Philadelphia, Bishop John Neumann was a priest of the Diocese of New York. Here is how that came about and what he had to face as a priest in western New York.
A Calling to Leave Bohemia
Born in Bohemia in 1811, John had answered the call to become a priest. During his studies for the priesthood, he heard a casual remark from a professor that the U.S. offered the same missionary opportunities as St. Paul had seen during his day. The comment buried deep in his conscience and urged him to seek to serve as a priest in the U.S. rather than his home country.
The call of priests in the U.S. was strong, and John answered the call by Bishop Kendrick of Philadelphia because he desperately needed German speaking priests. John fit the bill as he spoke German and knew five other languages including French and some English. Two of his classmates also agreed to join him as missionaries in the New World.
Then before he could even leave Bohemia obstacles started arriving to block his way. First, his bishop decided that there were enough priests so he would not ordain John and his classmates. Then, the society which had agreed to pay his travel costs, changed its mind. Last of all, he had not heard from Bishop Kendrick to confirm his acceptance of his offer to serve as a priest in Philadelphia.
Discouraged and unsure, John took the matter to Our Lady. He decided to press ahead despite the setbacks. The key was the travel costs, and Our Lady found another way for him to receive the money. Thus, without having heard from the bishop, John an ordained deacon set off for the U.S. alone as his two companions had backed out at the last minute.
Trusting the Call and Arriving in America
It took him weeks to get there, and when he did he was almost out of money and without any concrete plans. He was very close to the proverbial immigrant who only arrived with the clothes on his back.
Because he had never heard from the Bishop of Philadelphia, John had written the Bishop of New York during his travels and had then waited in Paris for a reply which he never received. Nonetheless, soon after disembarking from his passage, he made his way to the residence of the Bishop of New York and introduced himself to Bishop Dubois. The bishop was thrilled to have him especially because of his command of languages. Within several weeks, John was ordained a priest, and the bishop sent him to an area near Niagra Falls where the German speaking Catholics desperately needed a permanent priest. (At that time, the diocese of New York covered the entire state of New York and part of New Jersey.)
It was only start of his adventures as a brand new priest in charge of the parish in Williamsville, New York.
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As a New Parish Priest and the Challenges of Anti-Catholicism
One of the challenges he faced was dealing with the prejudice against Catholics. Now that Fr. Neumann had arrived, the Catholics had a permanent priest and were much more established than before. This concerned the Protestants in the area and they ramped up their anti-Catholic propaganda. Anti-Catholic posters were put up around town. In addition, pamphlets were distributed and free Bibles given in order to lure Catholics away from their faith.
Many of the Protestants were galled at the fact that the church of St. Peter and St. Paul would be completed. And they had to see it all of the time because it was located on prime real estate on Main Street in the town. The irony of that was the land had been essentially given to the Catholics by a man name Oziel Smith who would profess to being somewhat of a Universalist. Smith had sold the land to the Catholics on the condition that the church be built of stone and be bigger than the Methodist church. Smith had his interesting reasons for wanting to best the Methodists, but it meant that Fr. Neumann had the only stone Catholic church between Rochester, New York and Cincinnati, Ohio.
However, the anti-Catholic efforts went beyond pamphlets distributed against the dangerous Catholics who were under the control of a foreign leader in the pope. At times, things became violent. Fr. Neumann was known for walking many of the places he had to visit in his rural parish. The fact of the matter is that he was a very poor horseman so even when he was offered a horse he chose to walk. Also, it was said that at only 5 feet 4 inches tall, he had difficulty putting his feet in the stirrups when he sat in the saddle.
As the families of his parish were from many parts of the area, he was kept busy walking to visit his parishioners for sick calls or to give them the Eucharist. Often he would end up walking back in the dark to return late from his travels. On at least two of these occasions, he was attacked and either attempted to be lynched or actually lynched. The first time, on the way back from visiting an ill wife and mother, Fr. Neumann had been ambushed. Fortunately, the man whose wife Fr. Neumann had gone to give the Sacrament of Anointing to found him. He was laying on the ground with his hands and feet bound and a noose around his neck. The second time, Fr. Neumann had again been caught unaware while traveling back home after a home visit. This time before his captors could finish him, a group of Tonawanda Native Americans rescued him and helped him safely get home.
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Meeting the Mennonites
However, Fr. Neumann was not one to shy away from civilized dialogue about the Catholic Faith. Thus, at his instigation he met with the Mennonites in their meeting house. They tried to show him the error of his ways, but they did not realize whom they faced. Fr. Neumann was the superior Bible scholar among the group, and he even had whole books of the Bible memorized. Thus, when he began to question them in their beliefs, they began to squirm and then they suggested that a public debate be held in which they would put up a well-known elder against Fr. Neumann. He accepted their offer provided that an impartial judge would preside.
The atmosphere in the town was so charged between Catholics and non-Catholics that even this effort by Fr. Neumann caused trouble. One of the Catholics in town, a cattle driver by trade, whom had not darkened the door of the church in years heard the rumor that Fr. Neumann was seen with the Mennonites. The man fueled by too much drink declared Fr. Neumann a turncoat and immediately found the priest who was on his way to visit as sick parishioner. The drunk man cracked his bull whip and threatened the priest that he would kill him. Fr. Neumann did not turn around but proceeded to his visit. Brandishing his pistol, the man followed Fr. Neumann until he tripped, fell on his face, and fell asleep without having fired the gun.
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The Great Debate
The day of the debate arrived, and, as you can imagine, there was high interest in the event. Jonathan Eggert, a retired lawyer in town, served as the host and judge of the debate. He was chosen because he was not known for being of one opinion or the other about religion. The Catholics were nervous because they were not sure if their young priest could face the seasoned elder Mennonites named Enoch Long. The room and the yard of the home were filled with Catholics and Protestants from all different denominations.
The debate began with Fr. Neumann recounting his visit to the Mennonite meeting hall and proclaiming that he would be willingly to join the Mennonites if they could prove to Eggert that what they believed was a worthwhile creed to hold. The jaws of the Catholics in attendance dropped to the floor as they asked themselves if Fr. Neumann had really said that. However, he made this move to put the burden of proof on the Mennonites.
Then Fr. Neumann turned to Enoch Long and asked him by what authority he believed in what he believed.
Long replied, "By the Word of God."
Then Fr. Neumann asked him if Long believed that God was the author of the Bible.
Long said, "Yes, God the Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible."
Fr. Neumann proceeded to posit the argument that if God is the author of the Bible than every Bible must say the same thing as another Bible because God cannot contradict himself.
Then several different Bibles were produced, and Long was asked to read the same passage in the different versions.
It became clear that there were contradictions. The Catholics saw that their priest was quite the debater.
However, Long suggested that the actual printed words were not as important as being guided by the Holy Spirit to understand the importance and meaning of Scripture.
Not skipping a beat, Fr. Neumann queried Long if he was personally guided by the Holy Spirit.
As expected, Long confirmed that he was.
Pursuing this theme, Fr. Neumann asked if there was a way for Long to prove that he was guided by the Holy Spirit.
Standing up proudly, Long belted out that his whole life was proof of that.
He then continued to tell of his conversion. "Years ago, I was a cheater and a thief. I used to steal cattle from my neighbors, and I would cheat the scales at the mill. However, one night many summers ago, I went to a tent revival and was converted. I was so affected by that happened that I did not move for hours because of the power of the Holy Spirit. Since that time, I have been a different man."
The room grew silent while Fr. Neumann paused. Then he said, "We have all heard the testimony of Mr. Long. He has admitted to sins of cheating and stealing. I would like to know if he gave back what he stole or its value to those from whom he had robbed."
Immediately, some in the audience yelled out, "No. He did not."
"Well then can we call such a conversion a real conversion?", asked Fr. Neumann.
A number of voices in the crowed called out "No!" and "He is still a cheat and a thief!"
The room became a mass of chaos as people grew angry with Long, and just like that, the debate was over with a clear winner.
Fr. Neumann might not have earned any converts that night, but for the time, he put a stop to the harassment of Catholics by the Protestants who ceased trying to lure the Catholics away from the "menace" of Catholicism. And, a certain cattle driver, who had witnessed the debate decided to go to Mass the next Sunday for the first time in years.
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Feast Day (Memorial): January 4th