John of Kanty’s Hidden Life

Tomb of Saint John Cantius, Saint Anne's church, Krakow, Poland

On this Christmas Eve’s Eve, we quietly celebrate John of Cantius (1390 – 1473), or ‘Kanty’ in the original Polish transliteration – was a scholar, a teacher, a gentleman, a priest and, most of all, a saint, who spent his whole life as a professor in at the Krakow Academy, which he later dubbed the Jagiellonian, which still maintains a high standard of scholarship to this day, and where a young Karol Wojtyla – the future Pope John Paul II – did his first undergraduate studies in philology and various languages (which stood him in quite good stead as a future polyglot, speaking any number of languages).

Father John, although sharing Polish heritage, did not have the well-traveled, public vocation of the future pontiff, but spent most of his life in one place, stationed at his university teaching philosophy to undergraduates, beloved by all his students. He did contribute to the advance of what we now call science, helping to formulate the theory of impetus, the basis of Newton’s first law, which undergirds all of modern physics.

Yet his guiding principle was humility, a life hidden from the wider world, following the maxim of the future Saint Philip Neri – whom he resembles in some ways – amare nesciri, ‘love to be unknown’. The holy priest took as his motto:

Conturbare cave: non est placare suave, Infamare cave; nam revocare grave.

(Beware disturbing: it’s not sweetly pleasing, Beware speaking ill: for taking back words is burdensome.)

Cantius lived this holy and rather quiet regime of prayer, teaching, study and charity until the ripe old age of 83.

We are again in a crisis of truth, and of ignorance thereof, for which many perish, as the prophet Hosea decried.  Those outside the Church know little of the faith (as any perusal of atheists such as Richard Dawkins will attest); but what is more sad, most Catholics also know little of what Christ has revealed; and what is saddest of all, many do not seem to care, something I find very puzzling and, I must admit, at times disheartening.

For only the truth can set us free, free our minds from the slavery of ignorance; to hold and ponder thoughts, dreams, hopes and memories beyond the superficial and transitory, to be a participant in all the best that has been written or thought.

We, as creatures made in God’s very image, by our reason truly transcend the prison of the present tense, to reflect upon the past, and ponder the future, to enter in some way into eternity by that scintilla, or spark, of the divine Mind itself that He has given us.

So in this season of light, on the very edge of Christmas and the birth of our Saviour, we should make a resolution to develop our mind, to fan into flame that spark, to follow in some small way the example of Saints Peter Canisius and John Cantius. Begin a reading program, however it might fit into your schedule. In these days of woeful ignorance, we have a duty, according to each of our vocations, to know the faith that we profess to hold, how it allies with all the truths of reason and history, and how to explain and defend what we know to be true to others (cf., 1 Peter 3:15).

And, in the midst of all that we now do, may these last days of Advent bring you many graces, as we prepare for the great joyful feast of Christmas.