On St. Peter Canisius

«He Formed People’s Faith for Centuries»

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

VATICAN CITY, FEB. 9, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall. In his Italian-language address, the Pope centered his reflection on the figure of St. Peter Canisius, doctor of the Church (1521-1597).

* * *

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to speak to you about St. Peter Kanis, Canisius in the Latin form of his surname, a very important figure in the Catholic 1500s. He was born on May 8, 1521, in Nijmegen, Holland. His father was burgomaster of the city. While he was a student at the University of Cologne, he often visited the Carthusian monks of St. Barbara — a propelling center of Catholic life — and other pious men who cultivated the spirituality of the so-called modern devotion. He entered the Society of Jesus on May 8, 1543, in Mainz (Rhineland-Palatinate), after having followed a course of spiritual exercises under the guidance of Blessed Peter Faber, Petrus Faber, one of the first companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He was ordained a priest in June 1546 in Cologne and the very following year, he attended the Council of Trent as a theologian with the bishop of Augusta, Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg, where he collaborated with two confreres, Diego Laínez and Alfonso Salmerón.

In 1548, St. Ignatius sent him to complete his spiritual formation in Rome and then sent him to the College of Messina to exercise himself in humble domestic services. He obtained a doctorate in theology in Bologna, on Oct. 4 he was assigned by St. Ignatius to the apostolate in Germany. On Sept. 2 of that year, 1549, he visited Pope Paul III in Castel Gandolfo and then he went to St. Peter’s Basilica to pray. Here he implored the help of the great Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to give permanent efficacy to the Apostolic Blessing for his important destiny, his new mission. He wrote in his diary some words of this prayer. He said: «There I felt that a great consolation and the presence of grace were granted to me through these intercessors [Peter and Paul]. They confirmed my mission in Germany, and they seemed to transmit to me, as apostle of Germany, the support of their benevolence. You know, Lord, in how many ways and how many times on that same day you entrusted Germany to me, which I would later care for, and for which I desire to live and die.»

We must keep in mind that we find ourselves in the time of the Lutheran Reformation, at the moment in which the Catholic faith in German-speaking countries, in face of the fascination of the Reformation, seemed to be fading away. The task entrusted to Canisius was almost impossible, as he was charged with revitalizing, with renewing the Catholic faith in Germanic countries. It was possible only in the strength of prayer. It was possible only from the center, that is, from a profound personal friendship with Jesus Christ; friendship with Christ in his Body, the Church, which is nourished by the Eucharist, his real presence.

Following the mission received from Ignatius and from Pope Paul III, Canisius left for Germany and went first to the duchy of Bavaria, which for several years was the place of his ministry. As dean, rector and vice chancellor of the University of Ingolstadt, he looked after the academic life of the institute and the religious and moral reform of the people. In Vienna, where for a brief time he was administrator of the diocese, he carried out his pastoral ministry in hospitals and prisons, both in the city and the countryside, and he prepared the publication of his catechism. In 1556 he founded the College of Prague and, until 1569, was the first superior of the Jesuit province of Upper Germany.

In this office, he established in Germanic countries a solid network of communities of his order, especially of colleges, which were starting points for the Catholic Reformation, for the renewal of the Catholic faith. At that time he also took part in the colloquium of Worms with Protestant leaders, among whom was Philipp Melanchthon (1557); he participated in the two Augusta Diets (1559 and 1565); he accompanied Cardinal Stanislaw Hozjusz, legate of Pope Pius IV to Emperor Ferdinand (1560); he intervened in the final session of the Council of Trent where he spoke on the question of Communion under both species and on the Index of Prohibited Books (1562).

In 1580 he went to Fribourg in Switzerland, wholly dedicated to preaching and the composition of his writings. He died there on Dec. 21, 1597. Beatified by Blessed Pius IX in 1864, in 1897 he was proclaimed the second apostle of Germany by Pope Leo XIII, and canonized and proclaimed doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI in 1925.

St. Peter Canisius spent a good part of his life in contact with the socially most important persons of his time and exercised a special influence with his writings. He was editor of the complete works of Cyril of Alexandria and of St. Leo the Great, of the Letters of St. Jerome and of the Prayers of St. Nicholas of Flue. He published devotional books in several languages, the biographies of some Swiss saints and many homiletic texts. However, his most widespread writings were the three catechisms composed between 1555 and 1558. The first catechism was addressed to students able to understand elementary notions of theology; the second to boys and girls of the people for an initial religious instruction; the third to adolescents with a scholastic formation at the level of middle and high school. Catholic doctrine was explained with questions and answers, briefly, in biblical terms, with much clarity and free of criticisms. In his lifetime alone there were a good 200 editions of this catechism! And hundreds of editions succeeded one another until the 1900s. Thus in Germany, still in my father’s generation, people called the catechism simply the Canisius: He is really the catechist of the centuries; he formed people’s faith for centuries.

This is a characteristic of St. Peter Canisius: to be able to harmoniously combine fidelity to dogmatic principles with respect due to every person. St. Canisius differentiated a knowing, culpable apostasy from a non-culpable loss of faith, in the circumstances. And he declared, before Rome, that the greater part of Germans who went over to Protestantism were without fault. At a historical moment of strong confessional oppositions, he avoided — this is something extraordinary — the harshness and rhetoric of anger of the time in discussions among Christians, something rare as I said — and he looked only to the presentation of the spiritual roots and to the revitalization of the faith in the Church. His vast and penetrating knowledge of sacred Scripture and of the fathers of the Church served this cause: the same knowledge that supported his personal relationship with God and the austere spirituality that he derived from modern devotion and Rhenish mysticism.

Characteristic of St. Canisius’ spirituality was a profound personal friendship with Jesus. For example, on Sept. 4, 1549, he wrote in his diary, speaking with the Lord: «In the end, as if you opened to me the heart of the Most Sacred Body, which it seemed to me I saw before me, you commanded me to drink from that source, inviting me, so to speak, to attain the waters of my salvation from your founts, O my Savior.» And then he saw that the Savior gave him a garment with three parts that were called peace, love and perseverance. And with this garment made up of peace, love and perseverance, Canisius carried out his work of renewal of Catholicism. His friendship with Jesus — which is the center of his personality — nourished by love of the Bible, by love of the Sacrament, by love of the Fathers, this friendship was clearly united to the awareness of being a continuer of the mission of the Apostles in the Church. And this reminds us that every genuine evangelizer is always a united instrument with Jesus and the Church and, because of this, fruitful.

St. Peter Canisius was formed in his friends
hip with Jesus in the spiritual environment of the Carthusian monastery of Cologne, in which he was in close contact with two Carthusian mystics: Johann Lansperger, Latinized into Lanspergius, and Nicholas van Hesche, Latinized into Eschius. Subsequently he deepened the experience of that friendship, familiaritas stupenda nimis, with the contemplation of the mysteries of Jesus’ life, which form a large part of St. Ignatius’ spiritual exercises. His intense devotion to the Lord’s Heart, which culminated in consecration to the apostolic ministry in the Vatican Basilica, has its foundation here.

Rooted in the Christocentric spirituality of St. Peter Canisius is a profound conviction: There is no soul solicitous of its own perfection that does not practice mental prayer every day, an ordinary means that permits the disciple of Jesus to live in intimacy with the divine Master. Because of this, in the writings destined to the spiritual education of the people, our saint insists on the importance of the liturgy with his comments on the Gospels, on feasts, on the rite of the holy Mass and on the sacraments but, at the same time, he is careful to show to the faithful the need and the beauty of personal daily prayer, which should support and permeate participation in the public worship of the Church.

This is an exhortation and a method which preserves their value intact, especially after they were proposed again authoritatively by the Second Vatican Council in the Constitution «Sacrosanctum Concilium»: Christian life does not grow if it is not nourished by participation in the liturgy, particularly in Sunday’s holy Mass, and by personal daily prayer, by personal contact with God. Amid the thousands of activities and the many distractions that surround us, it is necessary to find moments of recollection before the Lord every day to listen to him and to speak with him.

At the same time, the example that St. Peter Canisius has left us, not only in his works, but above all with his life is always timely and of permanent value. He teaches clearly that the apostolic ministry is effective and produces fruits of salvation in hearts only if the preacher is a personal witness of Jesus and is able to be an instrument at his disposal, united closely to him by faith in his Gospel and in his Church, by a morally coherent life and incessant prayer as love. And this is true for every Christian who wishes to live his adherence to Christ with commitment and fidelity. Thank you.

[Translation by ZENIT] [The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today’s catechesis is on the life of Saint Peter Canisius. He was born in the Low Countries, and as a young man became one of the early followers of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Three years after his priestly ordination in Cologne, he laboured intensively for the religious and moral reform of the people as well as for the improvement of academic life in the University of Ingolstadt. He founded the College of Prague, and was named the first Superior of the Jesuit province in Southern Germany. From there he oversaw the Society’s communities and colleges which quickly became major centres of Catholic reform. During this period, in the tumult of the Reformation, he took part in many civic and theological disputes. He published devotional literature as well as catechisms popular for their Biblically-inspired responses. Even in his later years in Fribourg, Switzerland, he remained extremely active, dedicating himself to writing and preaching. Pope Leo XIII proclaimed Peter Canisius the ‘Second Apostle of Germany’, and he was canonized and named Doctor of the church by Pope Pius XI. His significant contribution to catechesis is second only to the example for us of his disciplined Christ-centred spirituality, finding in the liturgy, daily prayer and devotion to the heart of Jesus the strength and inspiration to carry out well his innumerable tasks.

I extend a warm welcome to all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from Japan and Malaysia, students from Loyola University and the University of Saint Thomas, as well as students from the Highlands Institute and the Irish Institute in Rome. Upon all of you, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

© Copyright 2011 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana

[He concluded in Italian:]

My thoughts turn finally to young people, the sick and newlyweds. Yesterday we celebrated the liturgical memorial of St. Jerome Emiliani, founder of the Somaschi, and of St. Josephine Bakhita, a daughter of Africa who became a daughter of the Church. May the courage of these faithful witnesses of Christ help you, dear young people, to open your heart to the heroism of holiness in every day existence. May it sustain you, dear sick, in persevering patiently to offer your prayer and your suffering for the whole Church. And may it give you, dear newlyweds, the courage to make your families communities of love, marked by Christian values.

[Translation by ZENIT] 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation