St. Peter Canisius

(1521-1597)

Great credit is due to the Jesuits for stemming the Protestant Revolution in Germany; and their chief leader in Germany was St. Peter Canisius. He is called, in fact, the “Second Apostle of Germany.” (St. Boniface was the first “apostle” of the German people.)

The revolt of Martin Luther began in 1517. Peter Canisius (Kanis) was born at Nymwegen, Holland in 1521. His father, Jakob, the mayor of Nymwegen, sent him to the University of Cologne for liberal arts, and then, law, to the University of Louvain. But the brilliant young student began the law course only to please his father. Eventually he told Jakob of his intention to remain celibate; then he enrolled in the theological course at Cologne. This was in the early 1540s.

By this time the Protestant Reformation had swept thousands of Germans out of the Catholic Church and seemed destined to carry off all Germany. Fortunately, in 1540 the Spaniard, St. Ignatius Loyola, had placed his vibrant new religious order, the Society of Jesus, at the disposal of the popes. The Jesuits, well educated, strongly spiritual, and effectively organized, were to be a strong weapon in papal hands.

In 1543, St. Ignatius’s first disciple, Blessed Peter Faber, SJ, gave a retreat at Cologne. Attending these exercises, Canisius was moved to join the Jesuits himself. He was to become on of their ablest members, and the first superior of the German province. As a scholar, preacher, educator, and organizer, he came to be held in such high regard that popes and emperors sought his counsel and his service.

The earliest Jesuit to write extensive theological works, Canisius would be best remembered for his three catechisms. Many Catholics had fallen away from the faith out of ignorance. These popular works, which ran into many editions and were translated into many languages, were so esteemed as educational tools that until the 19th century the words “catechism” and “Canisius” were almost synonymous in Germany. Because of his theological expertise, Peter was also called on to play a prominent role in the great reforming ecumenical Council of Trent.

St. Peter realized that the best strategy to prevent the further spread of Protestantism was to educate in strong Catholicism the upcoming generation of German Catholic lay persons and priests. He therefore developed or established Catholic colleges at Ingolstdat, Vienna, Prague, Munich, Innsbruck, Dillingen, Tyrnau, Hall-in-Tyrol, and even at several places in northern Germany.

By nature St. Peter was a positive man, and his very enterprise often brought down upon him the rebukes and calumnies of his antagonists. In dealing with Protestants, however, he preferred gentleness rather than invective. As he pointed out, by that time many of the existing Protestants were such from the cradle, knowing no other belief. In religious controversy, therefore, he was mild, not harsh, foreshadowing what we call today the “ecumenical spirit.”

If we wish to understand a bit what painful division the Protestant Reformation caused in its day, we can reflect on the religious confusion that is happening in our own times. It was hard to know then, as it is now, what measures to take to restore a sense of balance and security among the Catholic people. St. Peter Canisius’ policy was to take any steps that seemed to offer some promise. Most importantly, he would never let himself or others become discouraged. Therefore, what he wrote in 1561 can encourage us even today: “The fear of many people is greater than necessary, because they look for human and not for divine help; they act in despair instead of praying with holy confidence for the oppressed Church.”

When Pope Pius XI canonized Peter Canisius in 1925, he also declared him a Doctor of the Church. By proclaiming the Gospel with new clarity, Germany’s “Second Apostle” had revived and strengthened the Faith of millions.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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