The Letter That Did Not Burn
John Nepomucene Neumann was born on March 28, 1811 in the small mountain village of Prachatitz, in Bohemia, part of the Austrian Empire at the time, and now part of the Czech Republic. In 1836, he travelled to the United States in the hopes of being ordained, because there were too many priests in his native land and they were not accepting any more. After ordination in New York City, his talents and devotion to the priesthood quickly earned him notice, and in 1852 he was consecrated as Bishop of Philadelphia, head of a large diocese that encompassed two-thirds of Pennsylvania, the western part of New Jersey and all of Delaware.
Immersed in the pressing needs to build more churches and schools, John deeply felt the need to attend to the spiritual needs of his people as well. He wished to institute the Forty Hours Devotion here in the United States, an exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for forty hours of continual adoration. At the time, there was a militant anti-Catholic group called the “Know-Nothing Party.” Other bishops tried to discourage Bishop Neumann from his desire. They feared that churches would be burned, as they had in other places where the Holy Eucharist had been exposed for public worship. The young bishop could reach no decision on the matter.
One night, however, something occurred that would change his mind. He had been working very late at his desk, writing letters, and fell asleep in his chair. When he awoke later, the papers on his desk were a mass of charred remains. One letter remained intact, except for the burn marks around its edges. It was a letter concerning the Forty Hours Devotion. Then, it seemed to him that a voice was 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.”
That same night, he wrote letter after letter to institute the 40 Hours Devotion in every parish throughout his diocese. He knew of the immense gift that is bestowed on us by His Presence in the Holy Eucharist and wanted so much to help his people grow in love for it.
Bishop Neumann was declared venerable by Pope Benedict XV in 1921 and was canonized a saint by Pope Paul VI on June 19, 1977.