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Since 1732, the Redemptorists — a congregation of missionary priests and brothers — have followed in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the Word and serving the poor and most abandoned.
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Wednesday

Where Saints Walked: In the footsteps of St. John Neumann

Monday & Tuesday, May 16-17
Part I: Budweis, Czech Republic

In 1950, five years after the Soviets occupied Czechoslovakia, the 17th century Redemptorist cloister in C eské Budjovice (Budweis) closed. Priests and brothers were imprisoned or forced into secular labor. The Redemptorists returned in the 1990s and re-opened the Church of the Blessed Virgin’s Sacrifice. It’s adjacent to the school St. John Neumann attended as a boy, and he likely assisted at daily Mass, according to our Redemptorist guide.

However, the pews mostly are empty here and at other churches. Three generations of young Czechs (Bohemians and Moravians) have been raised outside of the Faith. Today, the Czech Republic has one of the highest populations of self-professed atheists — roughly 40 percent.
 
I find this such a tragedy — particularly because Bohemia was my father’s ancestral homeland. But on this pilgrimage, the irony is inescapable: Young John Nepomucene Neumann, named after a Bohemian martyr, could not be ordained at the nearby Cathedral of St. Nicholas because of a overabundance of priests. There were no church posts available.
 
He traveled to the United States to bring Christianity to the Indians and to the German and Irish immigrants who had been so long without the sacraments that they were in danger of losing their faith. Within four weeks of his 1836 arrival in New York, Neumann was ordained and given his first assignment.
 
Today, despite the shortage of priests in the States, the demand for missionary work is far greater in the land of Neumann’s birth.
 
This town is only 120 miles from Vienna. So much of the landscape looks familiar — with one significant difference: vast fields and few farmhouses in sight. Germany and Austria had clearly marked boundaries between separately cultivated plots of land. The vacant feel here is undoubtedly a holdover from the days of socialization when private property was nationalized and farmers became commune workers on what may previously have been their own property.
 
Blooming at this point is rapeseed, which is grown to produce diesel fuel. The effect, in some areas, is a bright-yellow ocean as far as the eye can see.
 
We noted two active nuclear power plants in the distance (Germany has shut its plants and turned to alternative energy sources). Southern Bohemia also boasts a number of solar-panel farms, one as large as a football field. But we have not yet spotted the mammoth wind turbines that rose above fields in Bavaria.
 
To our surprise, there are a number of roadside shrines, mostly at the crossroads of country lanes — crucifixes on pedestals or images of the Madonna and Child.
 
eské Budjovice boasts a handsome collection of Renaissance-era houses, thanks to rebuilding after a 1641 fire.
 
The site of Neumann’s early schooling now includes a bicentennial year display. Upon request, our Redemptorist guide also led us down several streets to the site of the Budweis diocesan seminary Neumann attended.
 
We celebrated Mass at the cathedral. "Each of us has a vocation," Monsignor Bastress reminded us. "We’re called to lead … our role is to pray, our role is to lead and to preach the word of the life."
 
Neumann understood this call to lead. He became the first professed Redemptorist in America and, five years later, the first superior of the North American Redemptorists. He mastered a total of nine languages (Bohemian, German, French, English, Spanish, Italian, enough Gaelic to hear confessions, and he could read Latin and Greek), in order to serve the melting pot of peoples in America. Named bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, he established 25 new parochial schools and 80 new churches in the eight years before his death.
 
Msgr. Bastress exacted a promise from us. When we return home, we’re not to just kiss our loved ones. "Bless them in the name of the Lord,” he said. “So they will know you’ve received a special grace."
 
Coming next: Our stop in Prachatice, Neumann’s birthplace.
 
Until later,
Martha
Martha Fitzgerald is from Shreveport, LA, and will be blogging her experiences during the pilgrimage.

 


Previous posts

We’re all pilgrims (May 12, 2011)
A hero’s homecoming (May 13, 2011)
Austrian charm (May 16, 2011)