Feast Day: December 21
For a half-century Father Peter Canisius, the first Dutchman to become a Jesuit led the Catholic Reformation in Austria, Bavaria, and Bohemia. For that reason, he is reckoned an apostle to Germany, second only to St. Boniface. With stupendous energy, he preached and taught in parishes, reformed and founded universities, wrote many books including popular catechisms, restored lapsed Catholics, converted Protestants, preached retreats, and found time to care for the sick. Known as the ‘Hammer of Protestantism,’ Canisius was the most influential 16th century figure in the German Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation.
Canisius was educated at Cologne University and Louvain, where he studied canon law. He soon found that the legal career and marriage, which his father had intended for him, would not satisfy him, so he took a vow of celibacy. Ordained a priest in Rome in 1547, he then helped to establish Cologne’s first Jesuit outpost. By 1549, he was teaching theology at Ingolstadt in south Germany. In 1552, he was sent to Vienna, where again he taught theology. His impact was such that a year later he was asked to become the city’s bishop. He refused, continuing instead on a near endless series of journeys across central Europe, buttressing Catholic teaching and preaching, and founding four Jesuit colleges.
His first publications were editions of the works of Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great. In 1555, he published his famous Catechism (Summa Doctrinae Christianae), which was in some ways the Catholic equivalent of Luther’s famous work. It was translated into fifteen languages during Peter’s lifetime and became a model for other similar works. He attended two sessions of the Council of Trent, was sent to teach in the first Jesuit school at Messina, and was recalled to Rome to work beside Ignatius of Loyola.
In the late sixteenth century, when open hostility typified relations between Catholics and Protestants, Peter Canisius advised charity and moderation. He opposed theological debates with Protestant leaders and, in general, discouraged discussion of Catholic distinctives such as indulgences, purgatory, and monastic vows with Protestants. He believed such efforts only heightened division and embittered relations.
In 1591, Canisius suffered a stroke that nearly killed him. However, he recovered and devoted himself to writing for six more years until his death in 1597.
“If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.” — St. Peter Canisius, pray for us!
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By-Day Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.