Saint of the Day – 21 December – St Peter Canisius SJ (1521-1597 aged 76) – Priest, Religious and Doctor of the Church – Known as The Hammer of Protestantism and the Second Apostle of Germany – Patron of Catholic press, Germany
St. Peter Canisius, from modern-day Netherlands, was born in 1521. His father was the local mayor and his mother died shortly of his birth. Peter studied at the University of Cologne and earned a Master’s degree in 1540 at the age of 19. While there, he met Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits. Through him, Canisius became the first Dutchman to join the Society of Jesus in 1543. Through his preaching and writings, Peter Canisius became one of the most influential Catholics of his time. He supervised the founding and maintenance of the first German-speaking Jesuit colleges and was known as the Second Apostle of Germany.
If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all…. St Peter Canisius
For a half-century Jesuit Father Peter Canisius led the Catholic Reformation in Austria, Bavaria and Bohemia. For that reason he is reckoned an apostle to Germany, second only to St. Boniface. With stupendous energy he preached and taught in parishes, reformed and founded universities, wrote many books including popular catechisms, restored lapsed Catholics, converted Protestants, preached retreats, and found time to care for the sick. In his last 30 years traveling more than 20,000 miles on foot or horseback, St. Peter Canisius spearheaded the renewal of the Catholic faith in southern Germany.
Peter Canisius revitalised Catholic life and teaching at universities in Ingolstadt and Augsburg. He founded new ones at Prague and Fribourg. In all four cities his preaching and catechising won the hearts of Catholics and attracted nominal Protestants to the church. In Vienna his personal care for plague victims made him a most popular figure.Thus, when appointed diocesan administrator, he was in a position to revive the city’s long decadent Catholic community.
After 1555, Peter Canisius published his famous Summary of Christian Doctrine and two smaller catechisms. These books generated the Catholic Reformation as Luther’s catechism had spread Protestantism. Canisius’s catechisms also helped launch the Catholic press. During the saint’s lifetime they were translated into 15 languages and reprinted more than 200 times. His “German Catechism”, a book which defined the basic principles of Catholicism in the German language and made them more accessible to readers in German-speaking countries. He was offered the post of Bishop of Vienna in 1554, but declined in to continue his traveling and teachings.
In the late 16th century, when open hostility typified relations between Catholics and Protestants, Peter Canisius advised charity and moderation. He opposed theological debates with Protestant leaders and in general, discouraged discussion of Catholic distinctives such as indulgences, purgatory and monastic vows with Protestants. He believed such efforts only heightened division and embittered relations. He articulated his views in this letter to his Jesuit superior:
“It is plainly wrong to meet non-Catholics with bitterness or to treat them with discourtesy. For this is nothing else than the reverse of Christ’s example because it breaks the bruised reed and quenches the smoking flax. We ought to instruct with meekness those whom heresy has made bitter and suspicious and has estranged from orthodox Catholics, especially from our fellow Jesuits. Thus, by whole-hearted charity and good will we may win them over to us in the Lord.
Again, it is a mistaken policy to behave in a contentious fashion and to start disputes about matters of belief with argumentative people who are disposed by their very natures to wrangling. Indeed, the fact of their being so constituted is a reason the more why such people should be attracted and won to the simplicity of the faith as much by example as by argument.”
In 1591, Peter Canisius suffered a stroke that nearly killed him. But he recovered and devoted himself to writing for six more years until his death in 1597.