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St. Peter Canisius on Christmas Joy

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

In the three hundred and fifty years since Peter Canisius died at Fribourg in Switzerland on December 21, 1597, his name has become synonymous with the Counter-Reformation of the Church in German-speaking Europe. He has been variously called the “hammer of heretics,” the “Second Apostle of Germany,” “Papstesel,” “swindling trickster,” “blasphemer of God”—all depending on whether the epithets originated with his friends or his enemies. As a contemporary of personalities like Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, Bucer and Queen Elizabeth, Canisius could hardly escape making a name for himself as long as he felt that “I can never satisfy my desire of struggling against the enemies of the Catholic Faith.” [1] His desires may never have been satisfied, but the achievements to which they gave birth have been the wonder of church historians ever since his day. Only a few years after his ordination to the priesthood, for example, he published the first copy of his Catechism, the famous “Summa of Christian Doctrine,” of which the Protestant historian, Drews, was forced to confess: “Hardly any other book in human has had such a huge circulation as this Catechism. One hundred and thirty years after the date of its first appearance it had gone into nearly four hundred editions. The whole plan and layout of it is skilful in the highest degree, and the execution a model of lucidity and exact statement, unequalled among Catholic books.” [2]

Canisius the Preacher

On the strength of his own testimony, however, Canisius was most at home in the pulpit, preaching and expounding—now in learned Latin, now in simple German—the mysteries of the Roman Catholic Faith. What he actually accomplished in the thousands of sermons which he preached, only the wisdom of God can tell. The fact is that, within a dozen years after he began his apostolate, the Pope himself took the trouble of complimenting Peter on the fine work he was doing as a preacher. In March, 1561, Pope Pius IV wrote to him: “We thank Almighty God who in His mercy has recalled so many heretics to the Catholic Church by means of your preaching.... If there is any favor you desire of Us which you think would help towards the salvation of souls, We shall gladly accede to your petition.” [3] Typical of the remarkable success which his sermons achieved is the story that his biographers tell of the conversion of the Countess of Ebberstein, wife of Mark Fugger, the Rockefeller of the sixteenth century who had merchant ships on every sea and business agents in every important city of Europe. Countess Sybil was an ardent Protestant, so ardent in fact that she turned down a. bribe of 80,000 gold florins promised by her father-in-law if she would become a Catholic. Sybil happened to be staying at Augsburg one winter while Canisius was preaching there. At first she resisted all attempts made to have her meet the man of God, and even forbade his name to be mentioned in her presence. Finally, her feminine curiosity got the better of her and she went to the cathedral “just to hear him once.” Before the day was over the Countess had capitulated, took instructions, and was soon reconciled to the Church. “Her conversion was the sensation of the day, so much so that Catholics felt it must have been miraculous.” [4]

Characteristics of His Sermons

On closer analysis, however, we should find that the secret of St. Peter’s success in the pulpit lay not so much in any reputed thaumaturgic power as in his personal sanctity, his burning zeal for souls, and an adaptation of words to audiences that had only one purpose in view—the sanctification of his hearers. “I have known him,” wrote one of his companions at Fribourg, “traverse the country places of this Republic in winter, when he was already broken with age. And he made his difficult journeys through the snow, not only without reluctance but gladly, in order to preach the Gospel and the truths of the Roman Faith. On being urged by his friends to spare himself these labors in his old age—he was past seventy at the time—he would answer that he was ready to spend his life’s blood in the work of reconciling the Protestants to the Catholic Faith. [5]

Judged by the results achieved and even without examining the style of his sermons, it is obvious they must have been practical, down-to-earth discourses calculated to move the hearts of his listeners rather than titillate their fancies. Within a year of his pulpit operations in Augsburg, for example, he had personally reconciled a thousand Reformers to the Catholic Church. “Not in living memory,” a chronicler narrates, “have so many people approached the Sacraments of Confession and Communion as this year. Some came who had never been to Confession before. Great numbers, have begun the practice of weekly Confession and Communion, with singular consolation and advantage to their souls. Meantime the Lutheran preachers are making an uproar, furious to see their prey snatched from their very jaws. It is said openly that, if Canisius remains much longer in Augsburg, the heretical preachers will expel him by violent means.” [6] When it is remembered that Augsburg was one of the first cities in Southern Germany to espouse Lutheranism, and that as late as 1540 the majority of its citizens were enthusiastic Protestants who defended their heresy even against the armies of the Emperor, we get some idea of what St. Peter’s conversions in that city really meant.

Canisius worked hard over his sermons. He always wrote them out in long hand, then carefully revised the first draft, and finally added marginal directions and catchwords to help the memory. Sometimes he would write two or three variations of a single sermon, or put down alternate openings and conclusions. There are still extant something like 12,000 pages of these pre-notes, all written in his own hand and pock-marked with corrections, underlinings and deletions.

Unfortunately not more than a dozen of the pulpit productions of this great Doctor of the Church have been published in English dress. The following Christmas sermon, originally preached in Latin, will give us a better idea of Canisius’ style of oratory: logical, Scriptural and, above all, personal.

Homily on the Words of the Angel to the Shepherds at Bethlehem:

“Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy.”
“The Protestants are not a little surprised and scandalized at the way we Catholics celebrate the Lord’s Nativity. Faithful to Christian tradition, we see nothing wrong with putting on as grand and joyous a display of our feelings as possible. And why not? Are we supposed to restrain our joy on the Birthday of Christ our Lord? This ‘scandalous merrymaking’ of ours is not only consistent with the tradition of the Church from earliest times; it is as spontaneous and perfectly natural as the affections of the heart of man himself. If we go back to the custom of the ancients, even the pagans, we find that they commemorated with the most elaborate festivities the birthdays of their princes and kings. We read in Genesis, for example, how the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered a prolonged holiday and gave a splendid banquet for his family and friends on the anniversary of the day of his birth. The Evangelist Mark also tells the story of Herod’s birthday party, to which he invited the local princelings and put on a grand show of fine foods, dancing and regalement.
“So much for the pagans. When Abraham’s wife, Sara, who was barren, bore him a son in his one-hundredth year, he celebrated the occasion with a big feast. When his son Samuel, was born to Elcana, his gratitude to God burst into song and he prayed: ‘My heart hath rejoiced in the Lord.’ In the New Law, when a son was to be born to the aged Zachary and Elizabeth, the Angel predicted to his father that ‘many will rejoice in his birth, and he shall be your joy and exultation.’ Later on, when John the Baptist was born, the neighbors and relatives came to congratulate the mother because the Lord had shown such mercy to her. It was during this same birthday celebration that Zachary was filled with the holy spirit of joy, his speech was restored and he prophesied the future glories of his gifted son.
“In the light of all this approval from Sacred Scripture, let me ask my listeners once more: ‘Has anybody the right to criticize us even if we seem to be beside ourselves with joy to-day over the birthday of our King?’ If the princes and rulers of this world are privileged to make merry over the sons of their flesh, what a mountain of reasons we have for exulting over the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour!

Uniqueness of This Child

  1. “No son ever born of any mother has had his birth so fully or so grandly foretold by his forefathers as this Child of Mary. Centuries before He saw the light of day, it was written of Him that He should be of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Juda, and the family of David; that He would be born of a Virgin Mother, in the city of Bethlehem, during an era of universal peace, after the sceptre had passed from the hands of Juda and the seventy weeks of years predicted by Daniel bad been fulfilled.

  2. “No child ever born into the world has come adorned with so many honorable titles. The Patriarch Jacob calls Him ‘the Expectation of nations,’ Moses calls Him ‘the Great Prophet,” David ‘the Anointed of the Lord.’ Isaias speaks of Him as ‘Emmanuel, the Counsellor, the Wonderful, God, Father of the world to come, the Prince of peace.’ Jeremias calls Him ‘the Just One, the Lord and Saviour,’ Daniel ‘the Saint of saints,’ Micheas ‘the Ruler of Israel,’ Joel the Teacher of justice.’ Malachy calls Him ‘the Sun of justice,’ and Aggeus ‘the Desired of the Gentiles.’

  3. “No one since the beginning of time has had his entrance into the world more keenly desired or anxiously waited for. Adam looked forward to His coming as the Seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head. Lamech awaited Him as the true Noe ‘who should comfort mankind in the works and labors of our hands on the earth which the Lord hath cursed.’ Abraham looked forward to His advent as One born of his seed, in whom all future generations will be blessed. David anticipated His birth as a Child born of the fruit of his loins, who would one day govern the world, ‘seated upon the throne of David His father.’ In a word, all the prophets, kings and just ones of Israel like Simeon and the shepherds were waiting to see Christ the Lord in whom all their prophetic hopes would be fulfilled.

  4. “No child has ever been born as the center and focus of so many miracles. Never did any father produce such a son and with him so enrich the family of his birth, as happened when Christ was born. Never was a mother more wonderfully gifted and blessed by God than the Mother of Jesus, who brought forth her Child without pain, without stain, and amid indescribable bliss of soul. Never was an infant born and an instant after his birth announced by so many messengers from heaven singing the songs of His praise. Never was a whimpering bit of humanity so powerful that, while lying on His bed of straw, He could command the very stars to direct whom He wished to visit Him. Never a child so wise or so rich as this little Infant who was full of grace and incarnate truth. Never anyone so marvellous as to be at once so small and so great, true God and true Man, the Uncreated Word and weak human flesh, mighty King and a lowly slave. Never had any child so emptied himself of all that he really was in order to become a tiny, speechless, naked, unknown babe.

Christmas Is Nothing If Not a Day for Universal Joy

“If Therefore there was ever a good reason to rejoice over the birth of any child, it must surely be to-day on the birthday of Jesus, the Son of Mary, who alone of all men is called and truly is ‘God with’ us’—of whom alone it can be said that ‘the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ Christmas Day is nothing if not a day of universal joy. Children should rejoice because on this day God Himself became as one of them; virgins, because a Virgin brought forth and remained unstained even after giving birth; wives, because one of their number became the Mother of God; sinners, because their Mediator and Saviour and Healer has come to redeem them; the just, because their Reward exceeding great has been born into the world. In fine, all faithful Christians should rejoice that their Creator and Lord has taken on human flesh and begun His reign over the hearts of men, not only as God, but also as the Son of Man among the children of men.
“Were we not to celebrate the Feast of Christmas as joyfully and as solemnly as we should, we would be worse than the stiff-necked Jews or unbelieving pagans, who for all their sins at least were not wanting in due respect for the birthdays of the great ones who lorded over them. Do I say worse than infidels and Jews? Worse than the beasts of the field who cannot show their appreciation of God’s becoming man because they do not know Him, but we know Him and know what His coming in our flesh has meant to us. If you do not believe me, believe the Catholic Church which for so many centuries has gone to the limit of propriety in exulting over the birth of her Redeemer. If you will not even believe the Church, at least listen to the Angel who was sent from heaven to announce the tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people, believers and pagans, Jews and Gentiles—to all without exception.” [7]

Contrast between Message of Canisius and Luther

To us in the twentieth century it looks pretty much like gilding lilies to be exhorting people to be sure to have a merry Christmas. We forget that Germany in the late fifteen hundred’s was passing through the worst crisis in its religious history, when Lutheran pessimism had infected a large part of what was once a joyously Catholic population. Whole provinces had gone over to Luther and become rabid exponents of his unnatural doctrine about man’s depravity. “Conceived in sorrow and corruption,” Luther told the people, “the child sins in his mother’s womb. As he grows older, the innate element of corruption develops. Man has said to sin: ‘Thou art my father’—and every act he performs is an offense against God; and to the worms: ‘You are my brothers’—and he crawl like them in mire and corruption. He is a bad tree and cannot produce good fruit; a dunghill, and can only exhale foul odors. He is so thoroughly corrupted that it is absolutely impossible for him to produce good actions. Sin is his nature; he cannot help committing it. Man may do his best to be good, still his every action is unavoidably bad; he commits a sin as often as he draws his breath.” [8]

Viewed against this background we can better appreciate the practical bent of St. Peter’s homiletics. His one ambition in the pulpit was to stir the hearts of his audience to embrace the salutary truths which he proposed to them. He used to begin every sermon with the words:

“The love of God the Father, the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, the indwelling and comfort of God the Holy Ghost be with us all now and forever.”

Then he asked all who desired such fulfillment to say with him a fervent “Amen,” and continued:

“We shall beg God’s blessing and say together an Our Father and Hail Mary that I may deal with the word of God rightly and that you may heat it fruitfully.”

At the end of the sermon he said:

“I commend your souls and bodies, honor and possessions to the protection of God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Amen.” [9]

Why Sermons of Canisius Were So Effective

One final comment on Canisius’ sermons touches on the core of the phenomenal success which he achieved through them. They were penetrated with a simple and unaffected piety. The truths of which he spoke, say his biographers, [10] were not mere cold abstractions, but burning, vital realities to him, and so there is an unction in his unadorned sentences worth many measures of more academic eloquence. Even in the sadly truncated pulpit notes that have come down to us, it is possible to discern a vestige of their ancient flame. The common people, with their very unromantic sins and sorrows,’ liked them exceedingly well, and paid them the high compliment of molding their lives by them; nor were the others, the people of taste and discrimination, less appreciative, to judge by the testimony of one of them who confessed that he “shed abundant tears” every time he heard Father Canisius preach.

[1] Braunsberger, “Epistulae,” Vol. III, p. 559.

[2] Drews, “Peter Canisius,” pp. 45-46.

[3] Braunsberger, op. cit., Vol. III, pp. 64-65.

[4] Brodrick, “St. Peter Canisius,” p. 436.

[5] Braunsburger, op. cit., Vol. VIII, p. 559.

[6] Braunsburger, op. cit., Vol. III, p. 591.

[7] Schlosser, “Beati P. Canisii Exhortationes Domesticae,” pp. 166-69.

[8] Luther, “Werke” (Wittenberg Edition), Vol. III, p. 518.

[9] Braunsberger, op. cit., Vol. VIII, p. 574.

[10] Brodrick, op. cit., p. 783

Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Vol. 48 - #3, December 1947, pp. 167-172

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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