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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Peter Canisius

December 10, 2013 saints No Comments


When the Pope recognized the challenges of the Church, he called a council. After the council, the Pope called a Jesuit to write a catechism to clearly state the teachings of the Church. Such was the case for Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, in the last half of the 20th century when Pope Paul VI called for a definitive catechism. His book, The Catholic Catechism, has sold well over a million copies. Similarly, King Ferdinand of Austria ordered St. Peter Canisius to write a catechism after the Council of Trent, in the 16th century.
St. Peter Canisius, the second apostle to Germany — St. Boniface being the first — was born in 1521. From birth he resided in Nijmegen, which was part of the Archdiocese of Cologne. Peter was the eldest son of Jacob Kanis, who was tutor to the Duke of Lorraine’s family. Although Peter lost his mother at a young age, his father remarried to a good woman who saw to his education and formation. At an early age, Peter entered the University of Cologne and received his master’s in arts when only 19 years of age. He then went to Louvain to study canon law.
He realized, however, that this was not the path for him. His father had arranged a marriage for him, but he refused, having taken a vow of celibacy. He returned to Cologne to study theology and met Fr. Peter Faber, the first Jesuit disciple of St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Peter made a 30-day retreat with Fr. Faber during which he elected to join the Jesuit order. He lived in the community as a novice in Cologne. He kept busy mainly with prayer, study, ministering to the poor, and writing. His first publication came when he released the complete works of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Leo the Great.
He also taught at the university in Cologne, debated, and preached. In 1546 he entered the priesthood. His reputation for wisdom and knowledge of the faith spread far and wide. St. Ignatius then called him to Rome where Peter closely assisted him for five months. On September 7, 1549, he took his solemn vows as a Jesuit, promising St. Ignatius that he would go anywhere and do anything he was told.
Peter was thus sent to Ingolstadt. His more important mission was to disseminate the decrees of the Council of Trent throughout Germany, which was no easy task, the previous messenger having been killed by the Protestants. On his way to Bavaria, he received a doctorate of theology in Bologna. In 1550 he was elected rector of the college in Ingolstadt, and then vice chancellor. While there, he converted many by catechizing and helping the poor. He enkindled the fire of faith in tepid Catholics and also brought many Protestants into the Church.
By 1552, Ignatius transferred Peter to Vienna at the request of King Ferdinand. Again he met with great success in establishing a college even though there were few Catholics left. Despite his harsh German accent, his eloquent words and attention to the marginalized won more hearts for Christ. He refilled the churches furthering the Catholic Reformation.
St. Peter was so popular that many called for him to become bishop of Vienna, which he adamantly refused. Not the people, not the king, not even the Pope could persuade him to accept the post — though he finally agreed to act as administrator of the diocese for one year.
Peter had other work upon which he was focusing — the work for which he would eventually be declared a doctor of the Church. Following the Council of Trent, a compendium of Catholic teaching was desperately needed. Peter Canisius, now known more for his series of catechisms than for any other work, began to produce them. The chaos following the council demanded them. So did many other people.
King Ferdinand asked him to begin work on a catechism that would be based on the findings of the Council of Trent. St. Peter also wrote a Summary of Christian Doctrine, which became immensely popular, as well as catechisms for both the youth and adults.
These catechisms were also part of the main foundation upon which the Catholic Reformation was built. They were so popular that they were translated into 15 languages in his time, including Japanese and Hindustani — no doubt as a result of the efforts of his fellow Jesuit, St. Francis Xavier.
St. Ignatius, fully aware of the gift of St. Peter Canisius, called him to Prague. Peter thought he was being called to found another college but Ignatius had other ideas. Much to the dismay of St. Peter, St. Ignatius appointed him to be the provincial of the Jesuit province covering Austria, south Germany, and Bohemia.
All of St. Peter’s self-deprecating reasons for refusing the assignment fell on deaf ears. St. Ignatius held firm to his decision, which proved effective by the results. In two years, St. Peter’s endeavors of winning converts and of establishing the college were so successful that even the Protestants jockeyed to have their sons win places in it.
Canisius was also a brilliant apologist and evangelist. He participated in the debate at Worms in 1557, decimating the arguments of the Protestants, but with great gentleness and charity. He traveled nearly 20,000 miles in his 30 years of giving missions and retreats. Most of these were covered by foot or horseback.
From 1559-1565 he resided in Augsburg at the request of King Ferdinand. Once again he founded a college and reignited the hearts of the people. He even had the schools that were destroyed by the Protestants restored to the Church.
St. Peter continued to work on printing books, foreseeing the impact of the printing press. His book General Prayer was used in Germany for centuries. When he retired as provincial, he settled in Dillingen in Bavaria, where he taught, heard Confessions, and continued to prepare books for publication in obedience to his Jesuit superiors.
Even when serving at court in Innsbruck until 1577, he continued this work. Although his health was beginning to fail, he went to Fribourg, Switzerland, where, against incredible odds, he founded yet another Catholic college, which still exists. Again he converted and inspired many despite the attacks of the Protestants.
In 1591, he recovered briefly from a paralyzing stroke. With the aid of a secretary, he continued to write. He finally succumbed to his illness on December 21, 1591.
Dear St. Peter, you loved your enemies. You approached the Protestants of your day with charity and acceptance and thus converted many of them at a most difficult time in the history of our Church. Help us to develop these same qualities as we face the enemies of the Church today and thereby win more souls for the Kingdom of God. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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