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St. Peter Canisius (December 21)

December 21, 2009

Today we honor St. Peter Canisius, called “The Second Apostle to Germany”
for his work in restoring the Catholic faith in that troubled country.
He is also a Doctor of the Church. This title is given to writers who were
famous for their learning and holiness, and means that their writings are
generally considered to be safe guides for religious instruction.

Peter, son of the mayor of Nijmegen (on the border of Holland and
Germany), was born in 1521, the year Luther was formally excommunicated
for his rebellion against the Catholic Church. As Peter was growing
up, religious life in Germany was falling apart. It had been in sad shape
before Luther’s time, but when Luther preached that our behavior has nothing
to do with our salvation, many concluded that morality was optional.
Churches, convents and monasteries were emptied and ransacked. Mass was
corrupted and/or outlawed in various regions. Oppressed peasants were first
encouraged in an uprising and then slaughtered by the thousands. And in the
midst of the conflicting religious teachers of the day, the common people
hardly knew who or what to believe.

Peter grew up in the midst of this chaos, and like many idealistic youth, he
wanted to do something about it. When he was 15, his father sent him to the
University of Cologne. A few years later, after having earned his Masters
degree at age 19, Peter made a retreat led by St. Peter Faber, who’d been
the first to join St. Ignatius of Loyola in the founding of the Jesuit
order. During this retreat, Peter, who had already pledged himself to
celibacy, discerned that his future lay with the Jesuits. He became the
eighth professed member of the new order, and the first from Germany.
He founded the first German house of Jesuits, taught and debated at the
university, preached in the city and surrounding area and studied for the
priesthood all at the same time. Once he had been ordained, he was selected
by the clergy and university to obtain help from the emperor and the pope’s
representative against the local archbishop, who had secretly converted to
Lutheranism and was trying to subvert the region. The archbishop was
subsequently removed.

Peter attended the Council of Trent (in which the Church clarified Her
teaching in response to Protestant misconceptions), first as an assistant to
his bishop and later as a theologian in his own right. He spent time in
Rome learning from St. Ignatius, founder of the order, and was then sent to
Sicily as a teacher for about a year before being sent back to Germany as
superior of the Jesuit order there. By this time, he had earned a doctorate
in theology.

When he was commissioned for this, his life’s work, he had a profound
religious experience (this was before devotion to the Sacred Heart
had become common):

“It was as if You opened to me the heart in Your most sacred Body. I seemed
to see it directly before my eyes. You told me to drink from this fountain,
inviting me, that is, to draw the waters of my salvation from Your
wellsprings, my Savior. I was most eager that streams of faith, hope, and
love should flow into me from that source. I was thirsting for poverty,
chastity, obedience. I asked to be made wholly clean by You, to be clothed
by You, to be made resplendent by You.

“So, after daring to approach Your most loving Heart, and to plunge
my thirst into it, I received a promise from You of a garment made of three
parts: these were to cover my soul in its nakedness, and to belong
especially to my religious profession. They were peace, love, and
perseverance. Protected by this garment of salvation, I was confident
that I would lack nothing but all would succeed and give You glory.”
(-St. Peter Canisius)

In Germany at that time, there was a critical need for accurate Catholic
teaching. Priests were often as ignorant of the truths of the Faith as
their people. Peter traveled extensively, restoring and founding colleges,
so that priests could receive the training they needed in order to draw
their people to God in truth. He wrote three Catechisms, clearly explaining
the Catholic faith for young children, middle-school children and older
students in language they could understand. These were so well-received
that “in popular speech ‘knowing Canisius’ was synonymous with ‘preserving
the Christian faith.'” (Pope Leo XIII, Militantis Ecclesiae), and subsequent
catechisms were modeled after his. He also wrote numerous other books,
pamphlets and letters to draw people closer to God. He urged the Church to
become involved in the newly-emerging printing business and encouraged and
helped other great Catholic writers to get their work published. He
preached tirelessly, actively promoting prayer and especially organizations
dedicated to the rosary. He attracted many young men to the Jesuit order,
served as confessor in hospitals and prisons, preached and administered the
Sacraments wherever he found a church without a priest, and ministered to
the sick and dying during a plague.

In the midst of all this, Peter “followed the Jesuit policy that harsh words
should not be used, that those listening would see an example of charity in
the way Catholics acted and preached”
(Terry Matz,
In a time when scoffing and ridicule were flying everywhere,
when religious differences often led to religious wars,
he remained gentle and firm in his presentation of the teachings of the Church.
When others were harsh toward him, he responded,
“the more our opponents calumniate [falsely accuse] us,
the more we must love them”. His method was effective.
Thousands returned to the Church, public religious processions were revived,
pilgrimages regained their popularity, monasteries were repopulated,
and frequent Communion became common again.
He was the single most influential man in reviving Catholicism in Germany.

St. Peter Canisius, please pray for us, that in our zeal for renewing the
Church in troubled times we may follow your example of graciousness
in our explanation of the Catholic faith.


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