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.
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