Saint of the Day – 21 December – St Peter Canisius S.J. (1521-1397) – Priest, Religious, Doctor of the Church, Reformer, Teacher, Confessor, Writer, Apostle of Charity – (Born as Pieter Kanis on 8 May 1521 at Niemguen, Netherlands – 21 December 1597 at Fribourg, Switzerland of natural causes). Patronages – Catholic Press, Germany, Catechists. Known as the Hammer of Protestantism and the Second Apostle of Germany. St Peter became known for his strong support for the Catholic faith during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia and Switzerland. The restoration of the Catholic Church in Germany after the Protestant Reformation is largely attributed to the work there of the Society of Jesus, which he led. “Peter Canisius was the first publisher, the first author, the first editor of the Society of Jesus. By now, Jesuits have followed in his footsteps to the tune of having published in 400 years, thousands of books. From the time of Canisius, and his name is first in the bibliography of Jesuit writers, from Peter Canisius to the end of the l9th century, that is to 1900, there are about twenty volumes of bibliography, each volume about two inches thick, stands about eighteen inches high, filled just with authors and titles, thousands and thousands and thousands, no other religious institute in the Church publishes as much as members of the Society. It was all started by Peter Canisius.” (Ven Servan of God Fr John A Hardon S.J.)
St Peter Canisius was born in 1521 in what is now the Netherlands. 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 St Peter Faber, one of the first Jesuits. Through him, Canisius became the first Dutchman to join the Society of Jesus in 1543. St Peter Canisius’ preaching and writings, led him to become 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 he 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 travelling 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. The Three Catechisms he compiled between 1555 and 1558. The first Catechism was addressed to students who could grasp the elementary notions of theology; the second, to young people of the populace for an initial religious instruction; the third, to youth with a scholastic formation of middle and high school levels. He explained Catholic doctrine with questions and answers, concisely, in biblical terms, with great clarity and with no polemical overtones. “There were at least 200 editions of this Catechism in his lifetime alone, translated into 15 languages! And hundreds of editions succeeded one another until the 20th century. So it was that still in my father’s generation people in Germany were calling the Catechism simply “the Canisius”. He really was the Catechist of Germany for centuries, he formed people’s faith for centuries.” (Pope Benedict XVI).
He was offered the post of Bishop of Vienna in 1554 but declined in to continue his travelling 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. His body was interred before the high altar of the Church of Saint Nicholas in Fribourg and his relics were translated to the Church of Saint Michael at the Jesuit College in Fribourg in 1625. He was Canonised 21 May 1925 by Pope Pius XI and was added to the now 36 Doctors of the Church, by Pope Pius XI in 1925.