St. Peter Canisius 1521-1597

In 13 History on 2016/07/22 at 12:00 AM
While many are familiar with the major personages of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation period, there is one of note that often escapes the eyes of the world.  At first the Council of Trent, which had tremendous effect on Bavaria, had little effect on the rest of the German states.  That is, until St. Peter Canisius dedicated his life to patient labor among the German people.

It was only his and his fellow Jesuits’ patience, in seeking out and leading individuals to convert from Lutheranism, that slowly but surely increased the ratio of Catholics to Protestants in Germany. Often called the Second Apostle of Germany, St. Peter Canisius is claimed as a son by both Germany and Holland.

His nine-times Burgomaster of Nijmegen Catholic father sent young Peter to the University of Cologne at the tender age of 15.  There, Canisius was a leading light in the loyal Catholic party formed in opposition to the Catholic archbishop who had secretly transferred his allegiance to the Lutheran camp.  It was Canisius who was chosen by this group to seek out the German Emperor, who, in turn, deposed the archbishop and averted a calamity in the Catholic Rhineland.

Canisius then met Father Faber, one of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s first companions, and under his guidance made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.  It was during this retreat time that he found the answer to his own question: How could he best serve God and his stricken German church?  He joined the Society of Jesus.

The scholarly Canisius became known for his editions of works of St. Cyril of Alexandria and of St. Leo the Great and in 1547 he attended the Council of Trent as an assistant to the Bishop of Augsburg.  At Trent he was motivated by the spirit of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

And it was he who was behind the important decree against absentee bishops who were now required to reside in their diocese.  He was also a major figure in the establishment of seminaries that purposed to provide correct preparation of men for the priesthood.

At age 28, Peter Canisius was sent on a mission to Germany; this would become his life’s work.  The Duke of Bavaria requested that Canisius and two other Jesuits become professors of theology at the Universities of Ingolstadt and later the University of Vienna.

By 1555 Peter Canisius issued his famous CATECHISM and through it he rendered a tremendous service to the Church.  His Catechism was a clear and simple exposition of Catholic doctrine geared to the needs of the day. It met the timely needs with great clarity and produced great success in its countering of the devastating effects of Luther’s Catechism.  More than four hundred editions were made of Canisius’ Catechism within the following one hundred years, and it was translated into 15 other languages.

Canisius also later then went to Bohemia where the situation of the Church was desperate.  Despite tremendous opposition, he established the University of Prague.

At age 35 he became Provincial of the Jesuits in Southern German and he established boys’ colleges in six different cities.  His main task was to provide Germany with well-trained priests.  From the seminaries he established, he regularly sent young men to study in Rome.

Canisius travelled constantly throughout the German states and always preached God’s word.  Although he at first encountered either hostility or apathy, his great learning and zeal soon turned that tide, bringing people from even far away to listen to him and packed churches.  Often, in his travels, he entered a town without a pastor and he immediately began to preach and administer the sacraments.

To those who said he was over-working himself, he simply replied: “ If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.”    He was inexhaustible.  He found time to write letters.  In fact, printed copies of his correspondence amount to more than eight thousand pages.

His letters comforted, rebuked and counseled persons of all social levels, very much in the manner of St. Bernard, who also feared no man, be he pope or emperor, bishop or prince, or the ordinary laity.

His great powers of influence were notable at the conference between Catholics and Protestants held at Worms in 1556.  It was his influence that enabled the Catholics to present a united front and resist Protestant invitations to compromise on points of principle.

Two years later, he checked an incipient threat to the traditional Faith in Poland.  He also healed a breach that year between the pope and the emperor.  During a break in the Council’s sessions, Canisius and three Jesuits crossed the Alps in winter to deal with the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand, who while a loyal Catholic had been critical of the pope.  The patient, but unyielding, Canisus carefully explained to the Emperor, who was not too intelligent, exactly what was being done and the Emperor ceased his pressing demands.

A history full of distortions had been written: The Centuries of Magdeburg.  Canisius was asked to counter this huge attack on the Catholic Church and did so with his two works: The History of John the Baptist and The Incomparable Virgin Mary.

Soon after his death in 1597, his tomb in Fribourg began to be venerated and numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession.


The Scandinavian countries had also turned to Lutheranism, and Catholics were persecuted.  However, the Jesuits serving secretly in Sweden decided in 1580 to reveal themselves as priests, though not as Jesuits.  Shortly, thereafter, in a dramatic sermon, the Swedish Lutheran Archbishop called his entire congregation to embrace the Catholic Faith and ordered Luther’s Catechism to be replaced in all schools by that of Canisius.

The people’s response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  People from the surrounding countryside also made profession of the faith they had held in silence.

One famous convert was Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689).  In her days the Jesuits prepared a special Swedish edition of Canisius’ Catechism.  Also, numerous young Swedes, Fins and Lapps were sent to German seminaries to prepare for the priesthood.


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