Tuesday, January 05, 2010

St. John Neumann Confronts the Protestants

Stained glass window of St. John Neumann in the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, WI, taken from Flickr

(The following is excerpted from "A Bishop, A Saint: The Life of Saint John Neumann," by Father James J. Galvin, C.SS.R, published by The Neumann Press. 5 January is the feast day of St. John Neumann.)

"[St. John] Neumann [then a priest in upstate New York] had actually gone to the [Protestant] meeting houses with Deacon John Reist....Once inside, the zealous Mennonite brethren had done their best to convince the 'little priest' of the folly of his Catholic way. He had politely listened. They quoted the Scriptures at some length; Neumann heard them out. Finally, Father Neumann began asking seemingly innocent questions, probing under the roots of their belief. Suddenly the whole meeting was in uproar. The 'little priest' was more canny than he seemed. How should they know that this Romish priest had the Bible so well, whole chapters of the book by heart?...Would the 'little priest' be willing, they wheedled, to meet some of their elders in public debate? Neumann had accepted...."

"News of the debate spread fast....More than the expected handful of Mennonites came...that Thursday afternoon. The back room hummed impatience, awaiting the arrival of the 'little priest' But at the moment, Father Neumann was a half hour away -- kneeling in Martin Demmer's farm kitchen with a group of neighbors, reciting the rosary for the usual intention: 'the preservation of the Faith in his parish.'"

"...All told, there were some forty people in the crowded room and as many more in the yard outside when Father Neumann, with an escort of four parishoners, ambled through the picket gate....The four might not have the book learning to argue the fine points of doctrine; but each of them could fell a tree and, if needs be, a man."

"...One of the Mennonite elders took the floor, launching into a sharp attack on the Romish Church: its superstitions, its idolatries, its despotic hold on free men in a free country. The crowd buzzed approval....Now the 'little priest' rose to his feet... [and] smiled at the gathering. Rapidly, he gave a brief account of his visit to the Mennonite meeting house."

"'Gentlemen, I said it last Sunday and I repeat it now. I am open to honest conviction. I will join your church -- if you can prove...here that your creed is worthy of belief.'"

"Phil Hoffmann's [one of the Catholic parishoners] eyes fairly popped from their sockets. But the priest knew what he was about. He had so set the stage that the burden of proof now rested squarely on the Mennonite divines. It would be up to them to adduce convincing evidence of what they believed and taught."

"When they had finished, Neumann stood up again and began to cross-examine. 'May I invite you to tell on what authority you believe what you hold to be true?'"

"'On the authority of the Word of God.' Mr. Enoch Long held up his dog-eared bible."

"'You believe, then that God is author of the Bible?'"

"'Yes: God the Holy Spirit.'"

"'Did God write the Bible in English as well as German?'"

"'Of course. He is its Author in every language and edition.'"

"'Very well.'" Neumann's voice rang clear and confident through the stuffy back room. 'Since the Bible has God, the Holy Spirit, for Author, what he says in your bible, he must likewise say in each and every bible in this room. God cannot contradict himself.'"

"Neumann invited the gathering to open their books to a certain chapter, a certain verse. He invited Mr. Enoch Long to read the passage aloud. He had the Baptist exhorter read the same verses from his own bible. Then, the circuit reader."

"Old Jonathan Eggert [a Protestant], cupping palm to ear, leaned forward. He put on his spectacles, asked for the three books. One by one, he read the chapter and verse; read them again. He shook his head. One version plainly contradicted the other."

"'If your neighbor's version does not agree with your own,' asked Father Neumann, 'how can you be so certain that God is the author? How can you know that your bible is right?' Quietly, the priest sat down."

"In the rear of the room, Mike Deasey [another Catholic parishoner] proudly folded two massive arms on his bottle-green shirt, grinning from ear to ear. But elder Enoch Long had an answer."

"'The mere printed word is not so important. What matters is that one have the Holy Spirit to guide his eye as he reads, to point out the true meaning of Scripture, and show what one must believe.'"

"Father Neumann again stood up. 'You are personally guided by the Holy Spirit?'"

"'His light and his truth are ever within us.'"

"...Is there some way you can prove that for me: that you have the Holy Spirit as your personal guide?' asked Neumann. 'After all, I am open to conviction; but you must furnish proof.'"

"'Why, sir, my whole life is proof!' The elder drew himself up tall, looked round the gathering for approval. 'There was a time, some fifteen years ago, when I was a sinner. I stole my neighbor's cattle....I cheated in many ways. But down at Bavaria, one summer's night, I attended a revival and was converted....I've been a changed man ever since.'"

"Mischief twinkled in Neumann's eye. 'You have just heard your elder admit to several transgressions. Openly he admits to cheating and theft. I wonder did he give back what he robbed, or its value, to the rightful owners.'"

"'No,' came a chorus of voices. 'He never did.'"

"'So you could hardly call his conversion genuine?'"

"'No,' roared a voice from the yard, a vaguely familiar voice. 'He's the same two-faced rogue he ever was.' Filling the open window, there stood Hans Fleischer, the cattle drover."

"Elder Long glared at the window. Mike Deasey slapped his neighbor's shoulder, rocking the room with an impolite guffaw. Abruptly, the debate was over. If the gathering had brought no wholesale conversions to the Catholic Church, it at least put a stop to Catholic leakage in Father Neumann's parish. Catholic farmers were no longer nagged by zealots peddling unwanted tracts and free bibles at the cabin doors."


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