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Saint Peter Canisius - Jesuit Saint

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

I thought for the feast of Our Lady's Assumption, we could speak about St. Peter Canisius. Among the Jesuit saints, it is Peter Canisius that brought me into the Society of Jesus. Our pastor in Cleveland, when I was in grammar school, would come in every week, instruct us about Peter Canisius, the second apostle of Germany and he was a Jesuit. I had never met a Jesuit before – several years before I did meet one, but I wanted to become like Peter Canisius and as we go on you will see what influence St. Peter has had on this sinner. He is a doctor of the Universal Church and surprising, he was not canonized until 1925, almost 400 years after his birth. He was born in 1521 at Memigan in Holland; died at Freidborg in Switzerland in 1597; his mother died when he was still a child; his father remarried and his stepmother turned out to be a very good Catholic and a loving foster mother. To please his father, he went to study law, though I should add, Canon Law at Luvaine, but he didn't like it. While at college he took a vow of celibacy. He left the study of law, went on to study theology, not necessarily to go on for the priesthood. Then he made a retreat under Peter Fabre, who has since been beautified, the first priest of the Society of Jesus, Peter Fabre and because Fabre was not yet canonized, he won't get a conference during this series, but I should say that Peter Fabre had a great devotion to his own guardian angel and to the guardian angels of every person that he met. He talked at every city as his guardian angel, every bit in his house as its guardian angel. He would say, 'this place has two.' In any case, during the second week of his retreat under Peter Fabre, he decided to become a Jesuit and to make sure he would become one, he took another vow; this time to become a member of the Society. He entered the order, was ordained priest and soon after was sent as delegate to the Council of Trent. He was brought to Rome by St. Ignatius and after five months in Rome to get his final and solemn profession, he was sent to Vienna in Austria. In the meantime he had gone Inglesttat to reform the university there which had gone Protestant. In Vienna, the Jesuits started a new college. The condition of the archdiocese of Vienna reminds us of what's going on now. I've got about ten things that was wrong with Vienna when he came there; many of the parishes without priests; the large archdiocese of Vienna had not had one ordination in twenty years; monasteries were abandoned; religious were jeered in the streets; ninety percent of the Catholics gave up their faith; ten percent of the Catholics did not practice their faith; more than once Peter Canisius preached to empty churches. He won the people over by his practice of charity, especially to the sick and the plague stricken. The then reigning Pontiff and the king wanted Peter to become bishop of Vienna, but as you know, the Jesuits are forbidden, by vow, to become bishops. We are to take another vow to use every possible means to avoid becoming a bishop so, though pope and king wanted Canisius to be made archbishop of Vienna, Ignatius reading into the Constitution said, 'sorry.' The most he would do would be allow Peter Canisius to be administrator of the diocese for one year and then the pope was to find someone else.

In 1555, Peter Canisius published his famous catechism. It was a large, in modern additions, two-volume catechism. It was the first real catechism by Catholics ever printed. The Protestants had had catechisms for over thirty years. Canisius then proceeded to write a shorter catechism and because some people needed something still more, he went on to publish a shorter catechism. Then he was made provincial of three countries, Austria, Bohemia, and South Germany who had headquarters in Prague. He traveled a great deal, on foot and horseback. The lowest figure we have is thirty thousand miles. He worked very hard. His brethren would complain to St. Ignatius, 'send letters to Peter to stop overworking.' One of his famous statements worth memorizing, quote Peter Canisius, 'if you have too much to do, with God's help, you will find time to do it all' unquote Peter Canisius.

He wrote many books, a manual for Catholics, a martyrology, a breviary. The last eight years, his hands were paralyzed, but not his mouth; for the last eight years he kept dictating until a few weeks before he died, he lost his voice. He stopped writing when he couldn't speak any more. So much for a thumbnail sketch of St. Peter Canisius. Something about his spirituality. I have twelve features of his spiritual life that we can learn from and imitate.

First of all, hard work. You might say, well, he was a Dutchman and the Dutch are notorious for hard work. Well, I know Dutchman, not all, some work hard and some don't. He recognized, with St. Ignatius, that the greatest heresy to enter the modern world which began with Martin Luther, was the denial of man's free will. It is all God's work. 'Somar fide' was the motto of Martin Luther, 'by faith alone' – all you've got to do is trust and God does it all. Peter Canisius said, 'that's a lie.' With Ignatius, Canisius taught, "we are to pray as though everything depended on God, but work as though everything depended on us, we do have a free will." And if there is one aspect of sanctity that Peter Canisius teaches us, it is in God's name, use your will power.

Second feature of Peter Canisius: In order to convert people and there were millions to convert in his day, to convert people from error to the truth, it is not enough to preach to them, you must first practice charity towards them. In other words, you will win over those who have been mislead by error only if you practice charity. Charity first and then, proclaim the truth.

Third feature: patience in dealing with those who are in error. Peter recognized, as few of us, contemporaries realize, what a terrible thing error was; denial of the Real Presence; denial of Mary's divine maternity; denial of the papal primacy; denial of the Sacrament of Confession. Just a personal input, if I ever wonder why 25 years ago one of my confessors and spiritual guides urged me to go to confession, if possible, every day. That's 25 years ago. I know why, I didn't know 25 years ago. Little did I dream that confession would fall into such wide spread disrepute. So patience in dealing with those in error.

Fourth feature. Peter Canisius was the first publisher, the first author, the first editor of the Society of Jesus. By now, Jesuits have followed in his footsteps to the tune of having published in 400 years, thousands of books. From the time of Canisius, and his name is first in the bibliography of Jesuit writers, from Peter Canisius to the end of the l9th century, that is to 1900, there are about twenty volumes of bibliography, each volume about two inches thick, stands about eighteen inches high, filled just with authors and titles, thousands and thousands and thousands, no other religious institute in the Church publishes as much as members of the Society. It was all started by Peter Canisius. He discovered, it was a little late, because 1555 is a few years removed of the discovery of printing, which is about 1470. Imagine! Waiting 85 years before the Catholics finally at long, dreary, sweaty last came out with a catechism. And the Protestants had catechisms all over Europe. Isn't that awful? Now because it's pertinent, let me note, we're going through another revolution like the one then. Then it was a print revolution, now it's the media revolution and we're years, years behind the times, as Catholics. That's the fourth feature and I've got twelve.

Fifth: Peter thought that people don't become heretics out of malice, they become heretics out of ignorance. What was true in the 16th century, is true today. The amount of error, in otherwise nominally Catholic circles today, is enough to make the angels and Peter Canisius weep. That's why how many mornings, one, two in the morning, I was draped, dead tired over the typewriter, typing to get some more truth, one more page, one more article, one more book into print. I cannot tell you the number of times I've invoked Peter Canisius to keep me going. You can see why I chose Peter Canisius for the feast of Our Lady's Assumption. In other words, in order to over-come evil which is always the fruit of error, you must keep proclaiming the truth, proclaim the truth, proclaim the truth by what you say, by what you write and by how you live. The nuns walking the streets without religious garb are not proclaiming the truth. Either they are no longer nuns and then they're proclaiming what they are or they are still nuns under vows and they're not telling the truth, am I clear? You proclaim what you are. That's Peter Canisius. Assume that most people are mislead because of ignorance – what was true then, is sadly true today. I was giving a Lenten lecture in the Newark, N.J. Cathedral a couple of Lents ago and after the Mass some six seminarians came to introduce themselves, they said, "Father, thanks for writing the Catholic Catechism. After our classes in the seminary we go to our rooms and read the Catholic Catechism to find out what the Church really teaches. But it's comforting to know that the Church survived and became stronger than ever in rising over the era of those days and we are confident will rise over the errors of these days." 'But, my friends there must be somebody who has the courage to keep, though it's a thin lasting voice, proclaiming the truth.'

Sixth feature: Surprisingly, mind you this is the middle of the sixteen century, he had a great devotion to the Sacred Heart. No doubt, at least historians believe, because of some of the mediator mystic women saints in Germany, who were some of the earliest devotees of devotion to the heart of Jesus – Hilda, Matilda, Gertrude and so on; at any rate, Peter Canisius, though he had a first class mind, realized that you approach the Son of God with your heart and giving Him even your mind.

Seventh feature: He had, you would expect, a great devotion to Our Lady or of his recitation of the Rosary – made sure that her feast days were solemnly observed. Some of his prayers to Our Lady have remained over the centuries. In other words, a devotee of Our Lady talks to her. You claim that somebody is your friend and you practically never talk to the person, the friendship is, needless to say, suspect. Peter talked with Mary.

Eighth feature: An extraordinary devotion to the Holy Eucharist is devotion to the Holy Sacrifice were such that people would come from great distances to watch him offer Mass, so devoutly did he celebrate. He was one of the people that urged frequent Communion at the Council of Trent and was one of those who got the Council of Trent to pass a little known decree, little known because it took almost three hundred years for that decree to really come to life. The Council of Trent, mind you, sixteenth century, encouraged daily Communion – you would never guess it, would you? Peter Canisius was one of those who, under instructions from Ignatius, made sure that the Council passed that decree and he spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament.

Ninth feature – a very comforting feature: By all standards, St. Peter Canisius was not what we would call a mystic. The ecstasies and raptures that we associate, with say, even the young Stanislaus, not Peter Canisius, it seems that his sanctity, like everything else in his life, he had to work hard to acquire. I admired him from my earliest Jesuit days for his methodical, plotting, if you wish, struggle after sanctity that when the American provincials asked me to compose a prayer book for the Jesuits in the United States and of course, part of our rule is to make a twice daily examination of conscience. I went to my friend, Peter Canisius and shamelessly borrowed from him, though I did give him credit for the long, several pages of quotation on how you examine your conscience – typical Dutchman, five points, one, two three, four, five and the rule said you spend fifteen minutes, twice a day. Peter would spend fifteen minutes, twice a day, plodding through those five points. In other words, Peter Canisius tells us that there are some people whose life God enters with floods, if you can pluralize flood, floods of grace. Other people, it seems, only with trickles. Those who get only trickles, well, they just have to roll up their sleeves and if the work is harder, roll up their sleeves still higher and plod along – good to hear, isn't it? And unlike again, Stanislaus' stole Heaven at the age of eighteen, Canisius, born it 1521, died in 97, that means what? Seventy-six, isn't it? He's the longest live Jesuit ever who became a saint. He kind of spoiled the record. All the others are much younger and some much, much younger. There is such a thing as being methodical in the spiritual life; there is such a thing as working hard in the spiritual life; there is such a thing as not looking for consolation in the spiritual life; there is such a thing as doing one's duty – I like the mispronunciation, it sounds better – doing one's duty. I like that. It sounds harder—doing one's duty in the spiritual life. Get up a certain time; there is a certain amount of work during the day; going to bed and getting up; doing your work, going to bed; getting up year after year. And no complaints, Lord, just a wee little rapture, nothing big, just a little ecstasy. Think of Peter Canisius and no doubt, to emphasize the fact, the Lord kept him on earth for such a relatively, in those days, long time.

Tenth feature, obedience: You would expect a man of his caliber to be remarkably obedient. Ignatius, of course, was his superior general. He, himself for years, Peter Canisius, was provincial. When the fathers complained in the college where Peter Canisius was a rector, they complained that Canisius was too demanding and insisting that the students attending the Jesuit college, attend Mass every day, before classes – shades of the future, not a good figure of speech, but you know what I mean. The fathers complained to Ignatius, 'he's interfering with the students liberty.' Canisius wrote to Ignatius, "I don't think I'm interfering with these students liberties. They are free to either come here or not come here. That's their first freedom. Once they decide to come here, they don't complain because we teach them Latin or Greek or history or whatever – they expect it. Part of our training in a Germany where so many priests were not even offering Mass and where most of the Catholics were not going to Mass", this is Canisius writing to Ignatius, "it seems to me that in our school we ought to get into the habit of going to Mass, if they don't like, very simple, they don't have to come here." Ignatius wrote to Canisius and told him to read the letter to the community. 'Your rector is right, let there be no more complaints about daily Mass.' As far as I know, there were no more complaints. In other words, he was obedient, he wanted others to be obedient and that went right down to the youngest student in the schools under his care. One problem that I think we're meeting in the Church today, is that so few of the young people are trained in obedience from childhood on – no wonder, no wonder, they become so rebellious as they grow up.

Eleventh feature: Canisius was a model of prudence. No one more than Peter Canisius detested heresy and hated the untruth, but, he realized and he taught others to realize the truth. If you want to win friends and influence people, you don't start by telling them what's wrong with them. Find out what's good about them; find out what you can praise in them and it may be after several hours of careful scrutiny, you might find only one little virtue that you might be able to praise. Well, start somewhere, win their good will. Now this is an understanding of prudence that, I think bears emphasis. All I know, that the Lord could cut me off tonight, but in the years that I've been able to do what ever I've been able to do for the Lord, seeing, witnessing, often living with, the most brazen disregard of the Churches' teaching and legislation, but if I am to win people over, I must be kind, understanding and that begins with my mind. I try to find what's good in them that in my own mind I can pray and then maybe, just maybe, with the help of God's grace, we might win over those who are even estranged from God. Prudence, Peter Canisius would define, is the practice of charity in winning souls from sin back to God. It's the kind of prudence we don't hear much about these days. It can be a much-criticized prudence by others whose orthodoxy is of the militant type to go around slashing in all directions. Well, I tell myself, they have their grace and I hope I have mine and my model is Peter Canisius.

Finally, firmness: Firmness is a virtue – in fact, it's a cluster of virtues. It is, first of all, the foundation of certitude in faith and Peter Canisius was absolutely certain, never a shadow of doubt, that's firmness of mind. Firmness is constancy of the will and that is firmness which we call courage so that if you read and reread and by the way, the best biography of St. Peter Canisius was written by Father James Broderick. Do you, by any chance, have it? You don't? Get it. Read it, it's great – reads like music, fascinating, interesting and brings out the character of one of the Church's great saints, whose firmness was shown in his unwavering faith and in his fearless courage. St. Peter Canisius, pray for us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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