The life of the Jesuit Saint Peter Canisius’ (1521-1597) spans the century of what history inaccurately calls the Protestant ‘reformation’, while describing our saint as one of the foremost champions of what is unfortunately called the Catholic ‘counter-reformation’.
In reality, the truth was more complex, but, in broad strokes, and in the end, there was a revolt against the perennial and infallible truths revealed by Christ – not least, that final authority to decide truth rested in the Church – and a reaction to that revolution. The symbolic beginning was with the monk Martin Luther’s pinning of his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, three years before our saint was born. And Peter, along with innumerable others, spent his life in the cause of preserving and preaching the truth, as a Jesuit priest, joining the fledgling Order as a young man after meeting one of the founders, Peter Faber.
Father Canisius realized that it was best to present the truths of the Faith, clearly, precisely, but with charity, always with compassion for erring souls, most of whom strayed more from misunderstanding and ignorance than outright rebellion and malice. As he wrote, keeping mind that our saint was Dutch, speaking about the new German Protestants:
If you treat them right, the Germans will give you everything. Many err in matters of faith, but without arrogance. They err the German way, mostly honest, a bit simple-minded, but very open for everything Lutheran. An honest explanation of the faith would be much more effective than a polemical attack against reformers.
Indeed. Saint Peter offered all his considerable talents – he seems to be one of those given the ‘ten’, with which he made ten more – along with his nigh-unbelievable energy to offering such ‘honest explanations’, writing untold numbers of essays, sermons, articles (the titles alone of his works run in the bibliography of the Society of Jesus through 38 quarto pages!), along with three very popular German catechisms which went through many editions. As the Catholic encyclopaedia has it, the catechism of Canisius is remarkable for its ecclesiastically correct teachings, its clear, positive sentences, its mild and dignified form. It is today recognized as a masterpiece even by non-Catholics.
Father Canisius – he was offered a bishopric, but refused – was also an advisor, counsellor and confessor to emperors, queens and bishops. And, as well, he founded colleges (high schools) and universities – with little or no money, but disciplined religious orders such as the Jesuits can and did do remarkable things. To top it off, he was one of the foremost periti (theological experts) at the Council of Trent, helping to shore up the doctrine of the Faith in saecula saeculorum. He walked thousands of miles across Europe fulfilling these apostolates, and was known as one of the greatest preachers of his era: no Protestant could match him in controversy. Even after a stroke suffered at the age of seventy, he kept working, right up until he went to his eternal reward on this day of December, 1597. We will only know at the final judgement – if even then – how many souls were saved by the indefatigable labours of this holy priest, and what a life completely given over to God can do.
Well done, good and faithful servant.
Peter Canisius was canonized and declared one of the 36 doctors of the Church in the same ceremony, on May 21st, 1925 by Pope Pius XI.