This patron saint of Poland and Lithuania was born in the village of Kanti near Auschwitz (where the Nazis had their infamous prison camp in World War II). His parents, Stanislaus and Anne Wacenga, finding their son extremely bright, saw to it that he attended the University of Krakow. There he won many academic degrees, culminating in “Master of Theology”. Except for a brief period in which he served as parish priest in Olkusz, Father John spent the major portion of his long career as a professor in his alma mater.
John was a conscientious teacher, but he was more remembered for his holiness than for the originality of his scholarship. A man of sweet and winning disposition, he became noted for his acts of self-denial and his care for the needy. The two characteristics tied in with each other. What he denied himself, he gave to the poor. He slept on the floor, never ate meat, and when he made pilgrimages to Rome, he backpacked it all the way on foot.
During his 83 years, Professor Kanti became a living legend at the University. A story is told that once when he was dining in the university refectory, a hungry beggar passed by the door. John at once jumped up and took all of his own meal to the hungry man. When he returned to his seat, he found his own plate full again, miraculously. It is said that in commemoration of this event, the university set aside each day a meal for a poor man. When dinner was ready, the vice president would cry out in Latin: “A poor man is coming.” The president would respond, “Jesus Christ is coming,” and the hungry guest would then be served.
Because of his reputation as a teacher, after his death St. John’s doctoral gown was used to vest each candidate for the doctorate at later commencements.
Another story about his clothes refers to his cassocks. He was a welcome guest at the tables of the nobility, but once a nobleman’s servants refused to admit him because he was wearing his usual threadbare cassock. John simply went home, put on a new cassock that he had, and returned to the dinner. During the meal somebody spilled food on the new cassock. The even-tempered professor wittily replied, “No matter. My clothes deserve some dinner because to them I owe the pleasure of being here at all.”
University life is and must be a peaceful life, far removed from politics and warfare. But even an academic community can become a field for bitter intellectual battles. St. John Cantius showed himself an ideal Christian scholar when he warned his students, as he did constantly, of the need of charity even when one is fighting against erroneous ideas. “Fight all false opinions,” he would say, “but let your weapons be patience, sweetness and love. Roughness is bad for your own soul and spoils the best cause.”
Today we Catholics are engaged in battling many false ideas. Conflict often tempts one to do and say violent things, to offend against charity by showing disrespect for the human dignity of those who hold the false opinions. May we heed the advice of this Polish professor-saint, and defend the truth only by “patience, sweetness and love.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara