Saint Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church

April 27

Today is the feast day of Saint Peter Canisius.  Ora pro nobis.

by Fr. Joseph Deharbe S.J., 1881


Amongst the great saints of this period who exercised their ministry in the countries about Germany, combating heresy and vice, guiding the erring and sinners on the way of salvation, and showing themselves true shepherds and fathers of the faithful, Blessed Peter Canisius, who was raised up by God as the protector of the Church in our own unhappy land, well deserves mention. He was born at Nymwegen, in the same year (1521) as that in which St. Ignatius received the memorable wound in the battle of Pampeluna, which caused him to quit the warfare of this world and enroll himself as a soldier of Jesus Christ. And it was into the society of which St. Ignatius was the founder, that Blessed Peter Canisius was one day destined to enter; and under the leadership of its head, that he was to do battle for the Church in Germany, revive the Catholic faith, and save countless souls, nay whole provinces even, from apostasy.

When Canisius first entered on his work, the condition of religion in Germany was most deplorable. Heresy was at that time especially active in its endeavors to insinuate itself everywhere, and to seize for its representatives the pulpits in the cities, the chairs in the universities, and the influential places in the government. The clergy, who should have been its opponents, were discouraged. Great numbers of them were ignorant, and some were inclined towards the innovators. The parishes were often left without priests, or with such priests only as were no credit to their office. The authorities, for the most part, were zealous supporters of Protestantism, and hindered to the best of their power all measures taken by the Emperor in behalf of the Church. They even went so far as to demand from him fresh concessions, as the price of their aid against the common enemy, the Turks. Then if ever, Germany stood in need of help from on high, if the true faith were not entirely to perish out of her.

St. Ignatius, deeply troubled at the state of the country, had already on different occasions sent thither four of his first companions, namely Favre, Le Jay, Salmeron, and Bobadilla; but to neither of these was a long course of successful labour granted. Le Jay died young, the others were forced to employ their activity elsewhere, and Germany was still left waiting for an apostle, who, armed with divine power, should raise up the oppressed Church and cause her to triumph gloriously over her enemies. And such an apostle had been provided for her in the blessed Peter Canisius.

From his earliest youth, God had specially protected him, and had markedly endowed him with a tender fervency in prayer and a predilection for heavenly things. He also had the advantage during his years of study, of a most excellent director, who guided him onwards in the path of holiness, and to whom he on his part daily confided with a generous humility his actions, words, and even his most secret thoughts. Eventually it was God’s will that he should become acquainted at Mayence, with Father Peter Favre, and by his means led to join the Society of Jesus. He had already, as a young priest at Cologne, given proofs of extraordinary zeal, which had won public recognition. Herman von Wied, the misguided Archbishop of Cologne, had at that time invited some of the innovators into the city, thus bringing ravening wolves into Christ’s fold. The firmness with which Canisius opposed the heresies of the new teachers, and the high esteem in which he was already held, caused him to be sent by the clergy and people to the Emperor, to ask help against their false pastor; and he fulfilled his mission so well, that shortly afterwards the hireling, for he was no longer a shepherd, was deservedly deposed and excommunicated.

Canisius was sent at the age of twenty-six, as a distinguished theologian, to assist at the Council of Trent, and afterwards summoned to Rome by St. Ignatius. At the altar of the Apostles Peter and Paul, he was professed as a member of the Society of Jesus in the presence of its holy founder, and here he ardently besought of God the grace to live and die for the spiritual welfare of his native land. Thither he returned in the year 1550, and there for thirty years carried on a most efficacious ministry.

To form an idea of his labours, we should have to accompany him on his journeys, and witness his fatigues and sufferings, as well as his battles and his victories. We first find him in Bavaria. He quickly won the admiration of all as professor of theology in Ingoldstadt, and was elected rector of the university. Through his means, an interest in theological science was revived among the students, and the sacred calling of the priesthood came to be held in high honour. His sermons terrified the most hardened sinners, awoke the slumbering faith of the people, and kindled in all hearts a zeal for religion. On account of the veneration he everywhere inspired, the Emperor Ferdinand, placing confidence in him in a case which seemed almost desperate, summoned him to Vienna. Here there was indeed enough to cause him sorrow in the many and deep wounds which the heretics had inflicted on religion. He found the people demoralized, the clergy degraded, God’s worship neglected, and most of the towns deprived of their pastors. The once flourishing university had not for twenty years produced a single priest, and there were three hundred parishes without pastors in the territory then belonging to Austria.

Canisius strove with his whole might, by word and example, to combat these evils. His first care was to reintroduce orthodox teaching into the higher schools, and to secure that their authorities should be men of approved faith. But neither did he forget the poor country people. When he learnt how that, far and wide in the country about Vienna, most of the villages were deprived of all spiritual aid, he set forth himself, and made toilsome journeys from place to place, preaching, instructing, and administering the sacraments. And the poor people thanked God with tears of joy, for His mercy in sending to them, as they said, this angel from heaven. From Vienna, Canisius was sent by the Emperor to Bohemia, where religion was attacked by foes still fiercer and more powerful. But nothing could shake the courage of God’s servant. The heretics raged against him, insulted him, and pelted him with stones; but in vain. The power of his preaching, his patience, gentleness, and charity, in the end disarmed their wrath, and led back a great part of the people into the bosom of the Church.

In Poland also a fierce battle awaited him with the enemies of the faith. Here too, his words restored the drooping courage of the weak, put the arrogance of the heretics to shame, wrought in King Sigismund a zealous determination to protect the rights of the Church, and thus prepared the way for her ultimate triumph. Much more might yet be said of his long years of labour in Bavaria, Austria, Franconia, Swabia, Alsace, and Breisgau; of the important and difficult missions entrusted to him by the popes, and of the share which, as a distinguished theologian, he was repeatedly called on to take in the deliberations of the Council of Trent; and much too, of the many colleges which he founded in Germany, whereby not only were the fruits of his own labour multiplied, but solid support was provided for religion, and blessings laid up for future centuries.

It is impossible to witness without astonishment the labours of this one man, whom we meet with, now at Diets as the councillor of Catholic princes,–now at religious conferences, confuting error with truth,–journeying to and fro to Rome, sent hither and thither in the service of the Church, ever devoting himself as teacher and confessor to the salvation of souls; and in spite of all, finding time to produce voluminous writings in defense of the faith. Amongst these, besides many larger works, may be mentioned his well-known catechism, or “Abstract of Christian Doctrine,” which has served in Germany ever since his time as a textbook for instruction in schools and churches. We cannot wonder at the veneration in which Canisius was held by all the greatest men of his time, and which caused him to be named “the pillar of the Northern Church” and the “Xavier of the West.” His enemies too, paid him tribute of the highest possible praise, saying, as Protestants bear witness, that had it not been for him, all the south of Germany would have ceased to be Catholic. The latter years of his life were spent by Canisius at Freiburg in Switzerland. Even to extreme old age he continued his apostolic labours, and at last, December 21, 1597, closed his active and holy life by an equally holy death. (4)

St. Peter Canisius

by Abbot Gueranger

St. Peter Canisius was born on May 8, 1521 at Nijmegan, now part of Holland. On this same day, Martin Luther was put under ban by the Edict of Worms, which marked the formal start of the Protestant revolution. St. Peter’s biographers point to the coincidence, for he was to become the leading figure in the Catholic Counter-Reformation in Germany and Switzerland.

In his humility he claimed to have been a very troublesome youth, but he did have an inclination to be occasionally deeply stirred spiritually and gave signs of his future vocation by “playing priest”—acting out the Mass, preaching, singing and praying, sometimes before a group of playmates. He also liked to serve Mass.

A great factor in St. Peter’s vocation was the friendship of a holy young priest, Fr. Nicholas van Esche, who gave him spiritual direction when he went to Cologne to study. St. Peter was then in his fifteenth year. Not only did he confess to Fr. Nicholas, but he used to go to him often before retiring and tell him about all his falls, his foolish behavior and the things that might have stained his soul during that day. This openness and willingness to be directed would certainly lead him to great spiritual progress.

On his 22nd birthday, while making a retreat under Bl. Peter Faber, one of the nine original Jesuits, St. Peter Canisius made a vow to enter the newly founded Society of Jesus. He did so and began his novitiate soon after. On June 12, 1546, he was ordained a priest at Cologne. The next two years he taught at Messina.

In 1549 St. Peter began a 30-year period which was spent chiefly in Germany, where he accomplished the major work of his life. In his encyclical of August 1, 1897, Pope Leo XIII calls St. Peter Canisius “the second apostle of Germany after St. Boniface.” He says that he cannot describe, but only mention, “the details of this man of outstanding holiness; with what effort he labored to recall the Fatherland, torn by dispute and strife, to its ancient harmony and concord; with what zeal he entered the fray against the teachers of error; with what sermons he aroused souls; what troubles he endured, how many regions he traveled to, how grave were the positions of legate he took in the cause of the Faith” (Militantis Ecclesiae, 1897).

An important part of St. Peter Canisius’ career can be summed up under the heading of education. He founded or helped in founding Jesuit colleges at Cologne, Vienna, Prague, Ingolstadt, Strasburg, Freiburg, Zabern, Dillingen, Munich, Würzburg, Hall in Tyrol, Speyer, Innsbruck, Landshut, Landsberg and Molsheim in Alsace. He also had considerable influence in turning Pope Gregory XIII into “the Pope of the Seminaries.” Gregory had given his name to the famous Gregorian University in Rome and had pushed the seminary movement—the soul of the Counter-Reformation—throughout the Catholic world. St. Peter’s influence behind the scenes touches many other events of importance and can hardly be overestimated. At the later sessions of the Council of Trent, for instance, he kept the Emperor, Ferdinand, from pursuing a course that could have broken up that Council.

In 1580, at the age of 59 and considered an old man in those days, St. Peter Canisius went as a substitute to Fribourg, Switzerland to found another college. There he engineered the founding of the University, and it was there he spent the last 17 years of his life. His coming to Switzerland made a great difference to the faith of that country. “If the Swiss have kept the Catholic Faith,” said Pope Benedict XV in 1921, “after God, it must be attributed especially to the watchfulness and wisdom of this holy man.” Above his portrait in the Church of St. Nicholas of Fribourg are the words: Patriarch of Catholic Switzerland.

Thirty years before, St. Peter Canisius and two fellow Jesuits had come to Germany. When he left it in 1580, never to return, he left behind him more than 1,100 members of the Society of Jesus. St. Peter Canisius was interested in the term “Jesuit” and wrote to Ribadeneyra (who had earlier sent him his biography of St. Ignatius for criticism) asking for a statement that the Society members had never arrogated the title for themselves. The Jesuits were officially the Company of Jesus, and the origin of the name Jesuit is still shrouded in mystery; whether it was first used in contempt or in compliment has never been established. (In German, Jesuwider means something like “antichrist.”)

Throughout his career St. Peter Canisius displayed amazing industry and versatility. It is hard to classify him during his different assignments. He was one thing officially, and he was many others unofficially. Whether he was a teacher, a legate, or an administrator, he was still a confessor, a preacher, a visitor of the poor and the sick. And he was always a writer. Besides formal books, he engaged in a huge correspondence, and his letters were not little notes about private affairs. Fr. Otto Braunsberger SJ collected 2,420 of his letters, together with other material classified as “Acts,” and published them in an eight volume set of more than 7,500 pages. One of his biographers wrote, “Certainly no Saint in the calendar of the Catholic Church has had his correspondence edited with more devotion and scrupulous accuracy than Peter Canisius.”

Among his correspondents were St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Borgia, St. Francis de Sales, St. Charles Borromeo, Bl. Peter Faber, three Popes, two Emperors, twelve Cardinals, and many Bishops and other prominent men. In the last ten years of his life, St. Peter wrote many lives of Saints, especially those honored among the Swiss. Included are St. Fridolin, St. Beatus, St. Meinrad, and St. Nicholas von Flue. He composed many devotional books, such as his Manual for Catholics. He did not in fact consider himself a theological writer, but rather he aimed at inspiring devotion. One of his greatest works is certainly his Opus Marianum, of which Pope Pius XI wrote: “For 800 pages, beside the exquisite learning, the tender piety by which Bl. Peter was enkindled towards ‘the incomparable Virgin Mary and most Holy Mother of God’ (to use his own words) is poured forth with disarming candor.” This Pope also mentions that St. Peter Canisius died, “as it is piously believed, [with] the Mother of the Lord Herself standing by.”

On the text of Genesis 3: 15, St. Peter wrote in his Opus Marianum:

To Christ alone has She (the Church) attributed the honor that He by a certain absolute and excellent power should tread the serpent underfoot and, at the same time, endow others, and above all His Mother Mary, with similar power. Nor do we thus make the Mother the equal of the Son, but rather proclaim His greater glory, in that not only personally, but through His Mother and many others, He acts against the old serpent so powerfully that they, though by nature weak, triumph over so great a foe and reduce all his strength and cunning to nothingness.

The Opus Marianum was originally one-third of a larger work, commissioned by Pope St. Pius V, as a rebuttal to the so-called Centuries of Magdeburg—a “history of Christianity” produced by Lutherans and filled with attacks on the Catholic Church and the Papacy. The first part of this rebuttal was focused on St. John the Baptist, and was published in 1571. The second part—the Opus Marianum—was published in 1577. The third part, which was to have focused on St. Peter, was never finished by St. Peter Canisius. His attention to detail and constant revisions were frustrating to his colleagues, assistants, and publishers. His work was also taxing his health; thus he was very glad to be mercifully relieved of this task.

St. Peter’s best known works are his Catechisms—the large for adults, the small for children, and an intermediate version for those in between. Even in modern times, in some parts of Germany, parents were asking their children: “Have you learned your Canisius?” The Saint’s name became synonymous with his Catholic Catechism, as noted by Pope Leo XIII:

And so it happened that for three hundred years Canisius has been held the common teacher of the Catholics of Germany, so that in popular speech these two have the same meaning, to know your Canisius and to remember your Christian doctrine (Militantis Ecclesiae, 1897).

It is interesting to note that St. Peter Canisius’ original large catechism, the Summa of Christian Doctrine, was a substitute for a larger work, a Summa Theologica, which he had worked on unsuccessfully and gladly relinquished. It was to have been a manual for students of theology. The Jesuits had been ordered by King Ferdinand to compose a theological compendium, and St. Peter’s unsuccessful effort was an answer to the King’s desire. But of this catechism, it has been said that no other summary of the Christian Doctrine has had such a successful history. This is due to his painstaking labor and its marvelous simplicity. More than 3,000 references to Scripture, the Fathers, Church Councils and other writers back up his text. His genius was to be simple in stating religious truths. He saw these truths in their most essential and simplest form. He was able to get to the heart of the matter and present it clearly. Of its success, suffice it to say that only 130 years after its first publication, it had gone into nearly 400 editions throughout the world.

Let us now read the Lessons from the Divine Office, which give a short account of his life:

St. Peter Canisius was born at Nijmegen in the Netherlands, in the very year in which Luther openly rebelled against the Church in Germany, and in which St. Ignatius Loyola in Spain gave up earthly warfare to fight the battles of the Lord; God thus showed what adversaries he was to encounter, and under whose leadership he was to fight.  He made his studies at Cologne, where he took a vow to God of perpetual chastity, and shortly afterwards entered the Society of Jesus.  After his ordination as priest, he began at once to defend the Catholic Faith against the wiles of the innovators by missions, sermons, and writing books.  His eminent wisdom and experience caused the Cardinal of Augsburg and the Papal Legates to invite him to the Council of Trent, and he was present at its sessions more than once.  Moreover, by the authority of the Supreme Pontiff, Pius IV, he was entrusted with the charge of making its decrees known in Germany and carrying them into effect.  Pope Paul IV sent him to the Diet of Petrikau, and Gregory XIII entrusted him with the carrying out of other missions, all of which he undertook with an eager spirit, never conquered by any difficulties, and carried the most important affairs of religion through all the crises of this present life to a successful end.

Inflamed with the heavenly fire of charity, which he had once received in the Vatican basilica from the sanctuary of the Heart of Jesus, and intent only on increasing the glory of God, it is almost impossible to describe how, for more than forty years, he took upon himself laborious tasks, and endured hardship, that he might defend innumerable cities and provinces of Germany from the contagion of heresy, or restore to the Catholic Faith those that were infected with heresy.  At the Diets of Ratisbon and Augsburg, he exhorted the princes of the Empire to defend the rights of the Church and reform the lives of their subjects.  At Worms he reduced the insolent teachers of impiety to silence.  St. Ignatius made him prefect of the province of Upper Germany, where he founded houses and colleges in many places.  He used every effort to advance and enlarge the German College founded at Rome; he restored the study of sacred and profane learning in academies, which had fallen into a wretched condition.  He wrote two excellent volumes against the Centuriators of Magdeburg; and he edited a summary of Christian doctrine, which has been thoroughly approved by the judgment of theologians and by common use everywhere for three centuries, as well as very many other works useful for public instruction in the vernacular.  For all these reasons he was called the Hammer of the Heretics, and the Second Apostle of Germany, and is rightly thought to have been worthy of having been chosen by God to protect religion in Germany.

In these activities he was accustomed to unite himself to God by frequent prayer and assiduous meditation on heavenly things, often bathed in tears and sometimes with his soul rapt in ecstasy.  He was held in great honor by men of rank, or of most distinguished holiness, and by four of the Supreme Pontiffs, but he thought so humbly of himself, that he spoke of and held himself as the least of all.  He refused the bishopric of Vienna no less than three times.  He was most obedient to his superiors, and ready at their mere nod to stop or to undertake all labors, even at the risk of his health and life.  He guarded his chastity with perpetual voluntary self-mortification.  At length, at Fribourg in Switzerland, where during the last years of his life he had labored much for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, he passed to God on the 21st day of December, 1597, in the seventy-seventh year of his age.  This zealous champion of Catholic truth was adorned with the heavenly honors of the blessed by Pope Pius IX; and, as fresh miracles added to his renown, the Supreme Pontiff Pius XI, in the year of the Jubilee (1925), included him among the Saints, and at the same time declared him a Doctor of the Universal Church.

St. Peter Canisius could not have been so successful in his struggle against heresy without his fervent and confident devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. He established many Sodalities in Her honor, including the one in Ingolstadt which started the devotion to the Thrice-Admirable Mother (see the article in Salve Maria Regina No. 140). The last Sodality which he founded, that of Fribourg, continued to exist even into the 20th century. Near Fribourg, where he ended his life, the aged Saint used frequently to climb the 2,000-foot eminence to the Shrine of Our Lady at Bourguillon (see the image at left). At the end of his Opus Marianum, he wrote expressing the love that kept him to this laborious task:

Most August Queen, and most true and faithful Mother Mary, whom none implores in vain, I beg of Thee reverently from my heart that Thou, to whom all mankind are bound in ever-lasting gratitude, wouldst deign to accept and approve this poor testimony of my love of Thee, graciously measuring its littleness by the good will that went into its making… with St. Ephraim I dare to say: Grant that I may praise Thee, Sacred Virgin. (5)

Image: Petrus Canisius, artist: Dominicus Custos, circa: 1600 (6)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff



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