When Peter Faber (or better, Favre) came to Paris in 1525 to study at the University, he was undecided what career to follow: Medicine? Law? Teaching? But this brilliant son of a Savoy farmer happened to get as a roommate a young scholar from Spain named Francis Xavier. Both he and Francis met another university student there, a limping Spanish soldier, Ignatius Loyola. Both Francis and Peter fell under the spell of Ignatius, and decided to cast their lot with him. Having been ordained priests, they became part of the little group that pioneered the Society of Jesus in August, 1534.
St. Ignatius at first thought of taking his little company to the Holy Land, but in 1537 they went to Rome and placed themselves at the disposal of the pope. For a while Peter taught scripture at the Roman University of the Sapienza.
Although he was a good scholar, Peter Faber’s forte was to be a mission preacher and giver of retreats.
He learned the need of these missions and retreats when the pope, Paul III, sent him to Germany in 1540. The pope had him attend the conferences that Catholic Emperor Charles V was conducting with Protestant leaders. The first conference or “Diet” was held at Worms. A second was held the following year at Regensburg. The Emperor had the idea that discussions would be sufficient to bring back the Protestants who were attracting more and more followers through erroneous preaching and political pressure.
Neither of these meetings accomplished anything. Father Peter saw the reason why. The Protestants could not be won back if the Catholics continued to give scandal by their unCatholic ways of life. Peter Favre immediately sought to stir up in those who remained Catholic a stronger sense of their Christian duties. Thanks to his efforts, Catholics in the Rhineland who might well have lapsed into Lutheranism (even the Archbishop of Cologne had done so), were reconfirmed in their Catholic conviction, and their territory remains chiefly Catholic to this day largely as a result of Blessed Peter’s talking turkey to them. From Germany he was reassigned to Spain and Portugal.
There he continued his retreats to clergy and laity with equal good effect. Along the line he had had a great influence on many individuals. While in Germany, for instance, he persuaded St. Peter Canisius to become a Jesuit; and in Spain he had a strong impact on the Duke of Gandia, who later became the Jesuit, St. Francis Borgia. Pope Paul III also valued Favre as a theologian. He summoned him to take part in the great reform Council of Trent, then just about to open. Unfortunately, Blessed Peter Faber, worn out by his labors, took ill and died in Rome before he could reach the site of the ecumenical council.
Even though he was an outstanding representative of the Catholic reformation, and as such a strong opponent of Protestantism, Peter’s gentle and winning spirit would not permit him to be harsh. As he said, “It is necessary that anyone who desires to be serviceable to heretics of the present age should hold them in great affection and love them very truly, putting out of his head all thoughts and feelings that tend to their discredit. The next thing he must do is win their goodwill and love by friendly dialogue and converse about matters on which there is no differing between us, taking care to avoid all controversial subjects that lend to bickering and mutual recrimination. The things that unite us ought to be the first ground of our approach, not the things that keep us apart.”
This is precisely the angle that Catholics are taking today in their ecumenical dialogue. If all Catholics had followed Blessed Peter Favre’s gentle approach in the 16th century and not encouraged polarization, who knows but what Protestantism today might have had a much smaller following?
–Father Robert F. McNamara
Update: Peter Faber was canonized by Pope Francis on December 17, 2013.