When asked how they could possibly feed so many people, Jesus said to disciples “in reply, ‘Give them some food yourselves.’” I often think of this as the scriptural equivalent of “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at the time. How are we to minister to the overwhelming number of needs in our life and communities? One person at a time… always knowing the we do so we the grace of God, the love of Christ, and community of the Holy Spirit.
Today the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. John Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia and the first male US citizen canonized. Neumann began life in Bohemia. He was a good son and excellent student. He entered the seminary in 1831 for his local diocese. But in his second year he was enthralled with the call for priests to serve in the United States – especially among the German-speaking peoples.
Eventually, with twists and turns, his commitment to mission in the United States was fulfilled when he saw New York on the horizon at the end of May in 1836. He stepped ashore on the Feast of Corpus Christi with the clothes he was wearing and $1 in his pocket. He was ordained and celebrated his first Mass 22 days after coming to America. He served the German speaking people between Buffalo and Rochester. But in 1840 entered the Redemptorist Order, became the Provincial Superior of the Redemptorists, and was soon appointed Bishop of Philadelphia.
The city was swelling with German refugees fleeing continental wars, the Irish fleeing the Great Famine, as well as Italians and eastern European Catholics seeking escape from poverty and a better life. The city was teaming with Catholics in the midst of strong anti-Catholic riots from the local citizens.
I have no doubt that when overwhelmed with all this, Neumann heard Jesus’ reply to his disciples. How could he possibly take care of so diverse and numerous a people? “Give them some food yourselves.”
He built parishes “one bite at a time” and at the rate of one a month. He organized the first diocesan school system, 200 in total. He brought in the School Sisters of Notre Dame to staff the schools, build orphanages, and others to build hospitals. He invited other religious brothers and sisters. No doubt all hearing: “Give them some food yourselves’” as they faced the overwhelming need.
Beyond his organizational skills and abilities, Neumann was passionate to feed the people one person at a time. In order to hear their confessions, he learned all the people’s languages including Gaelic.
His care was all for the people and little for himself. He owned and wore the one same pair of shoes from 1836 until his death in 1860.
All for love of Christ.
“Beloved let us love one another because love is of God.” (1 John 4:7)
This week we have celebrated the feasts of two American saints – Mother Seton and John Neumann – each of whom were the light of love shining in the world.
May we follow their example.