Holiness of the Church in the 19th Century – John Nepomucene von Tschiderer

detail of a painting on Blessed Johann Nepomuk von Tschiderer, date unknown, artist unknownThe little Tyrolese city of Trent, renowned in the history of the Church, beheld upon its episcopal throne at the third centenary of the Council to which it gives its name, a man possessed of that full perfection which the same Council demands of a successor of the apostles – John Nepomucene von Tschiderer. The earlier years of this holy prince-bishop, who was born on 15 April 1777, of an ancient and noble family of Bozen, fell within the sad times of the so-called “Eclaircissement,” which misrepresented altogether the true character of the Church and despoiled so many young people of the jewels of innocence and faith. But the watchful solicitude of a pious mother and the wise guidance of an experienced confessor preserved both virtues with untarnished splendor to the young von Tschiderer. After completing the Latin classes conducted by the Franciscans in Bozen, the boy, who had not yet reached his sixteenth year, went, for his philosophy, to Innsbruck, where only “liberal” professors were then tolerated. But the zealous Minorite, Father Herculan Oberrauch, one of the foremost moral theologians of the day, understood in his masterly fashion how to attract the Innsbruck students to himself, to direct them in their many difficulties, and to guide them into the right pathway. His influence against the “liberals” was so great that the director of the General Seminary was not able to counteract it except by forbidding his students from having inter course with Father Oberrauch. The means which the latter regularly employed was nothing else than the frequent use of the sacraments. He wrote these impressive words: “Among the thousands of young men whom I directed I do not know of even one whom I saved uncorrupted unless he went to Holy Communion every two weeks; and the numerous others, whom I could not save, nearly all had to ascribe their fall to the neglect of the sacraments. I am quite sure of it.” Tschiderer entrusted himself to the direction of this experienced priest, to whom every week he manifested the state of his soul in the sacrament of Penance. With this good priest as his guide, the young man made the choice of his state of life and until the death of Father Oberrauch in 1808 there was between the two a most intimate correspondence. John von Tschiderer stood in the highest repute amongst his fellow-students for the angelic purity of his morals. Many of them used to call him “Saint Aloysius.” His engaging appearance and friendly nature attracted many to him; but he avoided most carefully every too intimate familiarity. Twice when temptation approached him he fled at once, following that admirable counsel of Saint Philip Neri: “In a combat of this sort it is the feet that gain the victory, and one is the better off the faster he runs away.” The liberal teachings of his professors and “the frivolous, malicious, and most worldly treatment of Church history,” as says his biographer, did not have any influence on his love and enthusiasm for the Church. On the contrary it was just this that aroused him to opposition and grace, that plainly worked in him, led him easily to recognize the perverseness of the whole tendency of the “Liberal Movement.”

On 27 July 1800, Tschiderer was raised to the priesthood. After devoting a short time to the care of souls, he spent a year and a half in Rome making further studies; after which he returned to the duties of assistant priest until, in 1807, he was called to the chair of moral theology in the Lyceum of Trent. In 1810 he was again engaged in the care of souls as parish priest of Sarntheim and in 1819 as parish priest of Meran. In 1826 he received a canonry in Trent; became auxiliary bishop of Vorarlberg, with his see at Feldkirch, in 1832; and was made prince-bishop of Trent in 1834. Two virtues were especially prominent in this servant of God; namely, generosity and humility. Whatever he possessed belonged to the poor. He could not see any misery without relieving it. He did not wait until his help was asked, but of his own accord whenever time permitted he searched for those who might be in distress. Many thought it the greatest miracle of his life that he had always something to give. His own manner of life was as simple as possible, so poor, in fact, that others remonstrated with him on the matter. Charitable persons knew how well he disposed of their gifts and therefore his fountain never ran dry. Even during his lifetime it was said playfully: “When he is canonized he will be called John the Almsgiver.” Some of his relatives, not at all pleased with such liberality, would have been glad to have had him placed under guardianship. A couple of works of art were all he left them at his death.

Humility made the holy bishop the servant of all. Considerations of self were foreign to him. Toward all, especially to the common people, he was condescension and friendliness itself. “The lowlier the person, the more friendly and familiar was the dean with him,” says a witness of his labors in Sarntheim. When bishop he treated the simplest priest with such politeness and veneration that some found it quite embarrassing. On one occasion, he said to two newly ordained priests: “Behold now you are invested with a great dignity, but do not seek to make it a steppingstone to offices and honors. For my own part if I were to be born into the world a hundred times, a hundred times I would become a priest; but I would prefer to serve a secluded mountain village and would not seek to be a bishop – indeed not.” All the distinctions conferred on him by Rome or by the imperial court he kept carefully secret. Even when the claims made upon him by others were ever so unfair, he invariably yielded to them. “What harm is it?” thought he. “Perhaps I shall gain a soul for God.”

Out of this humility arose a great meekness and gentleness in his dealings with others. He was ingenious in finding mild expressions for necessary admonitions and reprimands, fully understanding the saying of Saint Paul of the Cross that “admonitions given with mildness will heal the wound they cause, but if they are dealt out with bitterness, the one wound will become ten.” But it would be false to conclude from this that he was not unbending in what he had determined upon. When all kindness proved of no avail, he could strike like a thunderbolt. Mild in manner, firm in deed, was his maxim, and it was this that gained him his powerful influence over others. This power was particularly manifest in his administration of the sacrament of Penance. Men wondered wherein lay the mystery of the powerful attraction he exerted upon his people. From near and far all flocked to his confessional. His mild but heart-felt admonitions made so deep an impression that people who had made their confession to him in their youth, even only once, still remembered it in old age. He always sought to enliven the despondent spirit of a penitent with renewed confidence. As the pastor of his clergy he recommended them to imitate the Good Shepherd in their spirit and work as confessors.

He was most particularly solicitous for the well-being of the young. It is not possible to tell in a few words the pains he took to improve the schools. His heart always warmed toward youth. He knew that precisely this period of life, in spite of its apparent gaiety, suffers most from downheartedness and timidity and therefore greatly needs the encouraging words of the priest. Wherever he met the young it was his invariable custom to begin friendly conversations with them, to show interest in their affairs and by his charming manner was always able to bring in some apt religious advice.

For the rest, the exterior life of this servant of God offered little that was extraordinary. He was a man who did his duty in everything as conscientiously as possible. He carefully avoided whatever was extravagant, for, according to Saint Vincent de Paul, “every singularity is only a corner for vanity to hide in.” When in the society of others he always contributed much to the cheerfulness of the company. Yet every one who, like his parish children and the clergy of his diocese, came in close contact with him, said: “He is a saint.” When he died at the venerable age of eighty-three years, 3 December 1860, this had become the universal conviction, for even before his burial he had begun to work miracles. Little though he valued himself during his lifetime, God glorified him after his death. Only two of the many miraculous cures obtained through his intercession will be mentioned here. In 1867, a child, four and a half years old, so utterly blind that the most piercing light did not arouse any sensation, suddenly recovered its sight by means of a relic of Prince-Bishop Tschiderer. In 1871, a young priest, so far advanced in the last stages of consumption that the last sacraments had already been given to him, was likewise restored by a relic of the holy bishop and within three days was freed from all traces of his disease. The process of beatification, it is expected, will soon be brought to its conclusion.

Editor’s note – Bishop John was declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI in 1968, and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

– text from Holiness of the Church in the 19th Century by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ and Father Francis Breymann, SJ, 1916; it has the Imprimatur of Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York