You may know Saint John Neumann (whose statue is in the former confessional by the door to the sacristy), as a hometown saint, but were you aware that a member of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish had a direct role in his canonization?
The story began in 1962, when a five-year-old boy named Michael Flanigan reportedly “bumped his shin against the doorstep of his parents’ home in West Philadelphia.” The MBS 1976 Diamond Jubilee Book notes that the family were “members of Most Blessed Sacrament Parish who resided at 5612 Beaumont Avenue” and explained that when the boy’s injuries didn’t heal, and he was admitted to Misericordia Hospital, “Doctors discovered that the injury had resulted in a form of bone infection. The boy underwent two operations. During the second operation a cancerous growth was discovered in the injured leg and it eventually spread into the child’s both lungs and lower jawbone. The boy was treated with radiation and drug therapy but these proved too toxic and the treatments were discontinued, at which time his condition worsened.”
“The boy’s parents took their son to the Blessed John Neumann Shrine at Fifth Street and Girard Avenue in July, 1963, and relic of the saintly fourth Bishop of Philadelphia were applied to the afflicted parts of his body. The symptoms disappeared in December of that year. The family and close friends considered the cure miraculous. Twelve years later, in December, 1975, the medical board of the Sacred Congregation of the Saints in Rome ruled that the cure had no ‘natural medical or scientific’ explanation, and the validation of the cure was submitted along with a petition to the Congregation to consider the canonization of Blessed John Neumann. The family now resides at Villas, near Wildwood, N.J.”
A decade later, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that “When Pope Paul VI convened canonization ceremonies for St. John Neumann in 1977, Michael Flanigan was one of the first invited to make the trip to Rome. When the young man and the Pope met, the pontiff embraced him and asked, ‘Please pray for me.’”
Sadly, in October, 1986, Michael Flanigan – age 29 and married with two children – died suddenly one morning after complaining of sharp back pains. “Family members said he had been well and had had no medical problems since his bout with cancer” but his hour had come.
So who is the saint he helped to canonize?
St. John Neumann (confusingly, a different saint from British John Henry Newman with a w, after whom College Newman Centers are named) was an immigrant from Bohemia (Czech Republic), who became the fourth Bishop of Philadelphia in 1852, founded the first Catholic diocesan school system in the United States, and died in 1860.
Saint John Neumann’s road to sainthood was not straightforward: known as a “quiet, simple man who…devoted more time to tending the sick and teaching children than he did to diocesan affairs,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that his “91-year journey to sainthood was interrupted” in 1912, when it was decided that Bishop Neumann’s quiet steadfastness was not “heroic” enough to merit sainthood. Eventually, in 1921, Pope Benedict XV changed the definition of “heroism,” proclaiming that “Works, even the most simple, performed with constant perfection in the midst of inevitable difficulties, spell heroism in any servant of God,” and declared John Neumann “venerable.” He was beatified by Pope Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council on October 13, 1963, and canonized on June 19, 1977.
Today, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, with his remains visible below the altar stone, can be visited at 1019 North 5th Street. Invoked as the patron of sick children and immigrants, his feast day is January 5 (Curiously, our statue, which is typical, looks very different from his actual photos – take a look!).