St. John Cantius: The Professor Saint


To many these days, the saint and the professor may seem quite distinct, even opposed, figures. The professor pursues the affairs of the intellect, and is recognized—if sometimes grudgingly—by the world as a sophisticate and knower of its ways. The saint, on the other hand, pursues holiness even at the expense of basic worldly interests, and with a child-like faith that prefers the will of the Eternal Father to the demands of human knowledge, and is frequently rejected by the world, or at least little understood by it.

In the medieval West, where universities were at root Church institutions this perceived conflict might seem to have been inapplicable.  But even at the height of flourishing of the medieval universities, it was still there, if in attenuated form. A medieval cautionary tale tells of a brilliant young scholar at the University of Paris for whom a great future as an intellectual clergyman was widely predicted. Unfortunately, he suddenly caught a serious disease and died. His friends were very hopeful for his salvation since he wept tears in apparent repentance for his sins moments before his death. However, one of them then saw a vision in which he appeared in hell, and told his erstwhile companion that he was justly condemned, since his tears were merely tears of regret and chagrin at losing his opportunities in the world, rather than any real care for God or the matters of salvation!

To be sure, the medieval universities produced some quite well known saintly intellectuals of very high caliber, like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, and St. Bonaventure. Saint John Cantius (1390-1473) was, like them, a priest-professor, but his way to sanctity was rather different, and altogether more quiet. Unlike them, no firmly attributed works by him have been found, despite the survival of a large number of manuscripts written in his own hand. He must have written a major work for his Doctorate in Theology taken at the University of Cracow, where he remained for most his life (he received it around 1444 at about the then quite uncommonly old age of 55!). Perhaps works, or at least sermons by him survive in the many manuscripts he copied anonymously into his book collection, but if so, his self-effacing nature didn’t allow him to sign them. Indeed, he was quite a bibliophile, and generally preferred to keep himself busy copying works himself by hand, rather than hiring a scribe, even at a stage in his career when he could have afforded it.  It seems he would even save pages from miscopied works discarded by the busy stationers’ shops in Cracow, and bind them into his own manuscripts, rather than see wisdom go to waste! This mass of frequently anonymous material makes identifying any works of his the despair of scholars, although one analysis of a case of conscience is regarded as very probable, surviving in a copy done by someone else and attributed to the “good teacher,” a phrase that indicates the esteem his contemporaries held him in.

For his part, he diligently studied the works of his brilliant teacher, Benedykt Hesse, and other of his more academically famous colleagues. So far as we can tell from his book collection and marginal comments in it, his theological views evolved smoothly and without any obvious rupture along the path followed by most professors at the University of Cracow in his time, gradually moving away from an Augustinian-tinged nominalism committed to conciliarism, toward Thomism. Many of his colleagues also developed an interest in the natural philosophy of St. Albert the Great, the Angelic doctor’s teacher, but St. John’s interest in this seems to have been slight, to judge from the books he owned. It was theology and the affairs of God that was his love in thought, and in life alike.

St. John seems to have had a strong effect on his students and colleagues, and this may have been a result in part of his teaching and preaching, but to judge from the surviving accounts of those who knew him, it was his way of life that most impressed them. His conscientiousness about spiritual duties can be seen even early in his clerical career when he resigned several lucrative church positions (benefices) he had held simultaneously, just a few months after gaining them, on the unusual grounds that he was not capable of filling them all well. Most well-educated clerics of his day were happy to accumulate benefices, even those that canon law forbade to be held at once, since a culture of easy dispensation prevailed in the Church of the fifteenth century. Clerical ‘pluralists’ would typically hire less educated and socially less well-placed clergy to fulfill any pastoral duties at a low salary, and pocket the difference—often considerable—between it and the benefice’s revenue. This, obviously, St. John found unacceptable and contrary to his conscience, and he acted accordingly. Although he is reported to have hated contentions, disputes and lawsuits of all kinds, and greatly valued time alone for prayer, his administrative and leadership skills were highly thought of by his colleagues, who three times elected him for a term in a higher office of the university, on one occasion resolving a difficult and major lawsuit the academy faced. It was evidently his personal integrity and care at his job that won him professional respect.

It is a measure of the man that he known both for his truthfulness and his kindness. If, in speaking frankly, he felt he had offended another of his colleagues, he would seek them out and beg their forgiveness before going to say mass, which he, rather unusually for a priest of his era, offered daily. He endeavored vigorously to avoid destroying the reputation of others, and was upset when he was required to hear others do so. Academia’s collective self-governance could be contentious, then as now, and after one particularly unpleasant meeting, he came home and with charcoal wrote at the entrance of his townhouse the following simple quatrain in Latin:

Conturbare cave,
Non est placare suave
Infamare cave
Nam revocare grave

In English, roughly: “Beware of provocation/It is not sweetly pleasing/Beware of shaming others/For to take it back is hard.”

It was reportedly carefully preserved in memory of him for many years after his death. In our angry and argumentative age, given to sometimes fierce propaganda against the persons of others, perhaps we should all make a point to remember it.

The radical nature of St. John’s commitment to God is perhaps best seen in his extreme generosity with his own personal possessions. Early sources refer to the most remarkable instance. Once while travelling, apparently on one of his many pilgrimages near and far, he was accosted by bandits, something not very surprising since clergy, often well-to-do, and unarmed, made especially inviting targets. After the thieves had stripped him of all his travelling money and everything of value, they threatened him with bodily harm, and demanded to know if he had any other cash. He said no, and they went on their way. But, in fact, he had some extra coins sewed into his clothing, and feeling contrition at having lied, he ran after them shouting that yes, indeed he did have more, confessing his fault. Bemused by this behavior, the robbers gave him back all they had taken. He was also famed for his generosity to the poor in the ordinary occasions of life, giving away his excess money and even the clothing off his back and the shoes off his feet whenever he saw poorly clad paupers in cold weather. Besides his own once stated reason for copying his own manuscripts, that is, avoiding idleness, many scholars have thought he likely did so also in order to have more money to give away to the needy. As a more direct service to God yet, he was reputed to frequently stay up late into the night, praying prostrate or kneeling on earth, and to practice voluntary fasts, although, unfortunately, nothing much survives in the early sources about the details of his devotional practices.

Soon after his death on Christmas Eve of 1473, the people of Cracow started coming to his tomb to seek his intercession with God in their needs, and almost immediately a book to record miracles and spiritual favors gained through him was made, while soon pilgrims started to come from as far away as Germany. In the first four decades after his death, more than four score miracles were attributed to him. The written tradition set to paper within living memory mentions only one specific miracle attributed to him in life: the sudden snuffing out of a widespread and dangerous fire in the city by his prayer, and with the help of St. Stanislaus. It is likely, however, given the alacrity with which he was invoked by locals after his death, that he already had a reputation as a wonderworker among the people of Cracow during his life on earth. At any rate, it can be said that a rich and varied set of miracle traditions associated with him were recorded in later generations, showing the extent to which the Cracow town and university communities alike kept alive their opinion of his sanctity.

St. John Cantius proposes to us the role of a teacher of religion or moral truths “to teach with deeds what he said in words,” to use the words of his epitaph. But beyond that, he points out to us, I think, the way in which singleness of heart, the service of God, and the love of neighbor can and should be combined with intelligence and other talents—that they are not contradictory, rather that they are deeply congruent, and indeed grow toward unity in the best human beings.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Crisis Magazine.
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