Saint Peter Canisius (1521-1597) was a Dutch Jesuit back in the earliest days of the Order, one of the first to join Ignatius’ company, after meeting one of the founders, Peter Faber. His life spans the century of what history inaccurately calls the Protestant ‘reformation’, and our saint goes down in history as one of the foremost champions of what is unfortunately called the Catholic ‘counter-reformation’.
In reality, things were more complex, but, in broad strokes, 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, then, a Catholic reaction to that revolt. This Catholic ‘counter-reformation’ was in fact a true Catholic reformation, helping to rid the Church of corruption, excess and scandal, to purify and strengthen. As Saint Paul put it to the Corinthians, heresies there must be. (1 Cor 11:19)
The symbolic beginning was with the monk Martin Luther’s pinning of his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg in 1517, three years before our saint was born. This was the metaphorical powder keg, and from Germany, the errors spread across Europe, unraveling the very fabric and structure of Christendom.
Father Canisius was ordained in 1546, the same year that Luther died, putting his hand to the plow and not only not looking back, but seeming never to rest. He realized that the battle was about truth, and that the key was to present the teachings of the Faith clearly and precisely, but with great 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 catechisms, written in German, the language of the ‘folk’, including a major catechism which went through many editions. As the Catholic encyclopedia 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 religious orders can and did do remarkable, even seemingly impossible, things, committed as they are to celibacy, poverty, and obedience, such as the Jesuits in their early zeal, .
To top it off, Father Peter 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 various 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, the 21st, the winter solstice, in 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 37 doctors of the Church in the same ceremony, on May 21st, 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
In these latter days of Advent, we should invoke his intercession, that the truth be proclaimed boldly and without compromise. For only with the light of the Faith, will we ever see things in the world clearly.
Saint Peter Canisius, ora pro nobis!