St. John of Kanty (December 23)
St. John of Kanty (there are several alternate spellings, Cantius being
another common one) had a lot in common with St. Peter Canisius,
whom we just celebrated. Both were brilliant men, both were university
professors who believed in opposing error with gentleness, and both lived
to a ripe old age.
The story of John’s life, from 1390 to 1473, is set in the midst of the
Renaissance, the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern time.
It was a time of change, of new ideas, when careful discernment was needed
to distinguish what was good from what was merely new (sounds familiar!).
In addition, John was born and grew to adulthood during the Great Schism of
the West (1378-1417) when there were two, then three lines of rivals all
forcefully claiming to be the true pope. Urban VI excommunicated Clement
VII and all his followers, while Clement VII (not exactly living up to his
name–“Clement” means merciful!) retaliated by excommunicating all the
adherents of Urban VI. The attempt to start over by deposing the two rivals
and installing a new pope only resulted in yet a third line of rival popes!
This schism caused great confusion and division, as nobody knew which “pope”
to believe and follow, and none of them were very good role models to begin
with! It severely weakened the credibility and influence of the papacy and
of the Church as a whole. The temptation to simply dismiss the Church
and go your own way was strong.
In the midst of all this chaos, John was growing up in a small town
in southwestern Poland, near the site that would later become infamous as
Auschwitz (also near the birthplace of Pope St. John Paul II, who prayed at
St. John’s shrine during his 1997 visit to his homeland). He attended the
nearby University of Krakow, then capital of the Polish Kingdom, where he
“impressed his professors and colleagues with his pleasant and amiable
disposition; always happy, but serious, humble, and godly, he won the hearts
of all who came in contact with him.” (Catholic Encyclopedia,
newadvent.org). He earned his doctorate in philosophy
and was ordained to the priesthood a few years later.
John became professor of theology at the University of Krakow,
but jealous rivals there falsely accused him. At age 41,
he found himself demoted to a small parish in the countryside.
Terrified of his new responsibility, he took his job very seriously.
He gradually won over the hearts of his parishioners,
who followed him in tears when he was finally exonerated
and allowed to resume his teaching post at the university eight years later.
He spent the rest of his life teaching there, although he did make a
pilgrimage to the Holy Land (hoping to be martyred)
and four pilgrimages to Rome on foot.
As a professor, John was known not only for his intelligence, but also for
his love of truth, his staunch defense of the faith and his opposition to
heretics (remember, this was at a time when the Church’s credibility had
been seriously undermined). Yet at the same time he was known for his
graciousness. One of his favorite instructions to his students was:
“Fight all error, but do it with good humor, patience, kindness, and love.
Harshness will damage your own soul and spoil the best cause.”
(http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=69). And his motto,
which he had hanging on the wall of his living quarters was:
“Avoid slander because it is difficult to retract,
Avoid offending anyone for to ask forgiveness is not delightful.”
John was known throughout Krakow for his humble, simple life and for his
open-hearted generosity. He saw Christ in the poor. “Once, when a pauper
appeared while he was dining with friends, St. John Cantius exclaimed,
‘Christ has come’ and invited him to the table”
(http://www.canons-regular.org/go/patron/spirituality-of-st-john-cantius/). He gave his money and clothing
to the poor, keeping barely enough to live on. Poor students had a special
place in his heart, and he went out of his way to look after their physical,
spiritual and academic needs. He himself ate simply and sparsely.
He slept little, and when he did, it was on the floor.
He wore his clothing to tatters to make it last longer.
At the same time, he was well-loved,
and was often invited to the homes of nobles for meals.
Once, he was turned away at the door by a servant who thought John’s cassock
[a type of priests’ robe used for “street clothes”] was too frayed.
John didn’t argue but went home, changed into a new cassock, and returned.
During the meal, a servant spilled a dish on John’s new clothes.
“No matter,” he joked. “My clothes deserve some dinner, too.
If it hadn’t been for them I wouldn’t be here at all.”
When people warned John to take care of his health, he pointed out
that the desert Fathers had lived long lives without concerning themselves
with anything except God. He then proceeded to live to be 83!
At the time of his death, John was so well loved that his veneration began
immediately. For years his doctoral gown was worn by graduates
receiving advanced degrees at the University of Krakow.
St. John of Kanty, please pray for us,
that our love of Truth might make us more open-hearted as well.