Divine Roots of American Democracy

new york, statue of liberty, freedom

John Nepomucene Neumann

On January 5 we celebrated the anniversary of the birthday to Heaven of the first and great American Saint, Mgr John Nepomucene Neumann, Bishop of Philadelphia. Born in Bohemia, to a German-Czech family, missionary to the USA, bishop at the age of 41, John Neumann erected in his bishoprics a large number of new parishes and attracted to his diocese a number of orders of teaching brothers and nuns, so that in a short time the population of his schools increased twenty-fold. While doing errands on January 5, 1860, Neumann collapsed and died on a Philadelphia street. He was 48 years old.

For me — a Russian-born foreigner, Jewish by my parents, adopted by Catholic France — the story of Mgr. Neumann is also a religious hymn in the honor of American democracy: divinely free, beautiful, just, efficient, energetic, even if unavoidably humanly unaccomplished, fragmentary, brutal, and violent.

There is no doubt that some Protestant pastors or Jewish Rabbis were also magnanimous and efficient in helping their faithful, European migrants, — American democracy was and remains the best social, educational, political, and business environment for creation, development, and maintenance of migrant religious communities.

The Catholic Church

Still, the Catholic Church always was, and is today, particularly entrusted the unique, supra-national, universal vocation to be the home for the children of God.

This never was and did not become today, an easy vocation. Thus, for example, discouraged by constant conflict with religiously and racially prejudiced people, as well as the anti-Catholic riots and arson of religious buildings, Mgr John Nepomucene Neumann wrote to Rome asking to be replaced as bishop, but Pope Pius IX insisted that he continue. Neumann remained a hospitable pastor: as well as ministering to newcomers in his native German, Neumann also spoke American and Italian fluently. A growing congregation of Italian speakers received pastoral care in his private chapel, and Neumann eventually established in Philadelphia the first Italian national parishes in the country. Finally, in 1854, Neumann traveled to Rome and was present a St. Peter’s Basilica on December 8, along with 53 cardinals, 139 other bishops, and thousands of priests and laity, when Pius solemnly defined, ex-cathedra, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Jewish Tisha b’Av Tragic Memory Day

In 1942, many American Catholic priests and Christian ministers participated in the Jewish Tisha b’Av tragic memory day, fasting along with their Jewish-American friends. As the Time magazine was writing in 1942, when many important American Jews were still refusing to admit and assume the sufferings of their brethren in Europe: For the first time in history, Christian ministers participated last week in observing the solemn Jewish day of mourning, Tisha b’Av (Tisha b’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, July 23 in 1942, is the saddest day in the Jewish year). Their action was expressive of the growing understanding among religious groups throughout the civilized world. Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara of Kansas City urged “all who profess the Christian faith [to] understand the declaration of Pope Pius XI that ‘all Christians are spiritually Semites.’ ”

Reclaiming My Faith

Still, reading recently the article of the intelligent and eloquent former editor of Catholic Stand, Mrs. Diane McKelva (Reclaiming My Faith, May 4, 2016), based on her family’s deeply painful and private, and yet universal experience of the inimical indifference of the leading pastors of the Church to their “sheep’s” problems, one cannot anymore believe that we are living in a divinely prepared and responsibly assumed democracy.

We walked away from our experience with three difficult realities confirmed, — writes Mrs. McKelva — 1) Most schools are run as businesses, not ministries; 2) Not all shepherds wish to shepherd their sheep; 3) Our expectations of Church leaders are unrealistic.

Compare this with the perception and realization of his vocation by Bishop Newmann: his large diocese was not wealthy, and Neumann became known for his personal frugality. He kept and wore only one pair of boots throughout his residence in the United States. When given a new set of vestments as a gift, he would often use them to outfit the newest ordained priest in the diocese (Wikipedia). Why then, and how, did it happen — after the holy times of Bishop John Newmann and years before the family of Diane McKelva became a victim of the American Catholic violence, irreparable because of the irresponsibility of the Catholic leadership, in Catholic schools, parishes, dioceses, — how did it happen, first of all, that many American Catholic priests were involved in so open, brutal forms of sexual abuse? The abuse, too, perpetuated and made irreparable by the irresponsibility of some leading, sometimes famous Bishops and Cardinals:

We are, of course, not the first to raise such question. Many millions of dollars were already paid to the victims, many books were written to understand this auto-inflicted Catholic tragedy which forced many Catholics to leave the Church, with many others predicting her black future and even demise.

Two-and-a-half years ago [in December or January 2014], I was prepared to walk away from the Catholic Church, along with my family, — writes Diane McKelva. — The reasons are personal, yet quite universal. Although our experience is deeply painful and private, and our recovery ongoing, sharing it now is quite cathartic, and will hopefully help others who feel disenfranchised.

The Future of the American Church

Ours is a different point of view, and this for some most important practical reasons. And before presenting our vision of the future of the American Church, we need to shortly explicate these reasons. First, as far as America is concerned, we are absolutely a foreign witnesses to the modern American life, with some recent and short, even if sensible, rich and impressive experiences of professional visits to New York, Philadelphia (of Saint John Newmann !), Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston.

Second, our personal Catholic status is absolutely uninvolved. This is, because, even in France we are still half-foreigners and even more so in the eyes of our brethren Catholics. We have friends and dear brothers — Priests, Monks, Sisters, but it is just personal, and nowhere are we formally involved. Third — now positively and most important — the Church is our happy homeland and our dear home. The home found in my case after 50 years of Communist manhunts, cultural and antisemitic persecutions, forced and free exoduses, travels from country to country, and religious sufferings. And speaking about our home, we mean here not only that in the French Catholic Church but also on some crucial personal providential occasions — in Austrian, Belgian, Italian, Spanish, Irish and United Kingdom’s, Mexican Churches. Today, it is the American Catholic Church, too.

There is no life for us outside this Church, other realities being just of an environmental character — the realities that should be known and practically carried about, helpful, useful or very dangerous. In other words, as adult persons and as a family with children, many children, we are alive only because, and only as a part, of the Church.

That is what the Church is for us. But what is the Church by itself, for itself, cannot be explained in such a human way: the Church is the Divine Mystery, manifestation of His Glorious capacity to share with our humanity His Eternal Life and Resurrection, His Trinitarian Love, His Divine Perfection, His Divine Virility and His Womanhood — Holy Mary, Mother of God !

Great Members of this Divine Church are national Churches, and they might be authentic and successful or fallacious and deprived, as telling as the Apocalypses, Revelation to John:

To the angel of the church in Ephesus [or in Smyrna, or in Pergamum, or in Thyatira, or in Sardis, or in Philadelphia, or in Laodicean] — write this … Whoever has ears ought to hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

What is today evident for such a foreigner as I am, the American Catholic Church fully shares the Divine Passion for Perfection, Expression, and Efficiency. Mgr John Nepomucene Neumann was such a perfectionist, the fast-moving — together with the Church he served — convincingly (German- and Italian-) speaking and (German-) writing foreigner in this country, the first “American” to be canonized.

So what is really amiss today in the American democracy for us, American and un-American Catholics, to successfully realize our rich and vital Catholic vocations, to raise our Church to her real status of saintly home?


Democracy is the guaranty of general public freedom. But the freedom for all — saints and sinners, sages and fools, generous and greedy, noble and sinister, and not just equal and good legal representation:

After the Boston Globe exposed sex abuse in the Catholic Church and the subsequent deceit and deception among the leadership of the Church, we thought the Church leaders learned their lesson never to repeat those mistakes. But what my family and I witnessed during our own ordeal is that the lessons learned are simply to have better legal representation, while continuing to perform in their own best interest. (Diane McKelva)

Through the Divinely open American door, enter our generous and capable brothers to whom we are obliged for your and our, still fragile, Russian freedom. But with time, this door can be closed by ugly, greedy, selfish, unintelligible people and their bands — even through American elections, local or presidential. The Church is our Heavenly Guard — be free to proclaim the Divine value of our freedom.

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