St. Peter Canisius: Priest, Catechist, and Doctor of the Church

Saint Peter Canisius, a priest of the Society of Jesus during the 16th Century, was a great evangelist, educator, and writer. He helped lead many people to know and love Jesus, and to accept and understand the teachings of the Catholic Church. He founded Jesuit colleges in Ingolstadt, Prague, Munich, Dillingen, Innsbruck, and Fribourg, and taught students. He frequently travelled to meet with cardinals, bishops, and political leaders. He attended and spoke at three conferences held by Catholic and Protestant leaders: The Colloquy of Worms in 1557, and the Diets of Augsburg in 1559 and 1565. He participated in the Council of Trent in 1547 and when it resumed in 1562. He was sent on a secret mission by the Pope to deliver the decrees of the Council of Trent to the Bishops after the Council. All during his life, he assisted the poor, the sick, and prisoners. In all his years of work, Father Peter Canisius faced many challenges: lack of money, assistants who were not suited to their ministry or could not work because of poor health, opposition from Protestants, the hostility of some diocesan priests, assignments in several different cities, and such a great amount of work to do that he had little time to rest. In every difficulty, he relied on God. He once said, “If you have too much to do, with God’s help you will find time to do it all.”

Saint Peter Canisius was born on May 8, 1521 in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He studied at the University of Cologne in Germany and received a Master of Arts degree in May 1540. That same year, he made a vow of celibacy. In the spring of 1543, Saint Peter Faber, a Jesuit priest, directed him in the Spiritual Exercises, and on May 8, Peter Canisius entered the Society of Jesus. He then studied theology and helped form a community of novices in Cologne, where he taught at the University. He was ordained a priest on June 12, 1546. He was appointed as a theological consultant to Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg, the Bishop of Augsburg during the Council of Trent in 1547. After the Council, Father Peter did his tertianship (part of his spiritual formation as a Jesuit) with St. Ignatius of Loyola in Rome: a time of prayer, a retreat, helping with household tasks, and caring for the sick in a hospital. Father Peter was sent with nine other men of his order to Sicily in March 1548 to found a college. He returned to Rome in June 1549 to prepare for his next assignment: teaching in Ingolstadt, Germany. Father Peter took the examinations for his doctorate at the University of Bologna in October, obtained his degree, and arrived in Germany in November. This was the beginning of Father Peter’s many years of ministry in Germany; it is where he spent most of his life teaching, preaching, establishing colleges, and writing. Because of his love for the German people and all he did to help them, Pope Leo XIII called him the Second Apostle of Germany.

Father Peter was assigned to teach at a Jesuit college in Vienna, Austria in 1550. He soon took on additional responsibilities as he saw the needs of the people there. He began a prison ministry, visiting prisoners, bringing them food and clothing, and staying with them when they were executed. All during his priesthood, he ministered to prisoners. He also had a great love for the poor, and he and his Jesuit brothers helped provide for their needs. He assisted sick people during the plague in 1552 and visited the sick in hospitals. After the king requested that the Jesuits visit Catholics in the countryside of Austria, Father Peter traveled for miles in winter weather to visit the many parishes without priests. He preached sermons in the Cathedral and in the court, and for one year was the administrator of the Diocese.

St. Ignatius appointed Father Peter Canisius Provincial of Upper Germany (which included Hungary and Austria) in 1555, and he remained Provincial for fourteen years.

Father Peter Canisius lived during the Protestant Reformation, which was a terrible time for the Church in Germany. Many Catholics were ignorant of their faith, and easily influenced by Protestant preachers and books, causing some to leave the Church. Too many priests neglected their ministry and lived worldly lives. Some dioceses were without bishops or had bishops who did not address the problems in the Church. Father Peter thought that many people became Protestant out of ignorance and because of the influence of the culture, rather than because of hatred of the Catholic Church. He did not believe in arguing with non-Catholics and wanted Catholics to be charitable in interacting with them. In a letter to the Jesuits, he recommended that Protestants “ought always to be instructed in a spirit of meekness, to the end that by whole-hearted charity and good will we might win them over to us in Domino.”

Father Peter realized there was a need for clear instruction in Catholic doctrine, and so he wrote a catechism, which was published in 1555. The Summary of Christian Doctrine, written in Latin was intended for high school and college students. It was later published in German and it was eventually published in 12 languages. It was so well-received that two hundred editions were published in the saint’s lifetime and it is still in print today. Father Peter wrote a Shorter Catechism for middle school students and a Smaller Catechism for elementary school students, which included prayers. Saint Aloysius Gonzaga read the Shorter Catechism as a boy, and later said that it helped lead him to his vocation with the Jesuits. Writing became an important part of Father Peter’s ministry as a priest. He wrote thirty-seven books including works of apologetics, commentary on the Gospels, and biographies of saints. He also edited the writings of some of the Fathers of the Church including St. Jerome and St. Cyril of Alexandria. He encouraged other Catholics to write and asked that the Pope provide funding for Catholic printers to print books of apologetics.

Another significant part of Father Peter Canisius’ ministry was preaching sermons—it was a way to evangelize and teach the truths of the Faith to people. He put much effort into preparing his sermons, writing and revising each one. He often preached about confession, Holy Communion, fasting, devotion to the Blessed Mother, and kindness to the poor. He began each sermon with this prayer: “The love of God the Father, the grace and mercy of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the indwelling and comfort of the Holy Ghost, be with us all now and forever.” He then asked the congregation to pray the Our Father and Hail Mary with him before he began preaching. He concluded his sermons by praying: “I commend your souls and bodies, honour and possessions to the protection of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.” Many people were moved and edified by his sermons, and some were led to conversion.

Father Peter had great love for Jesus and was very devoted to prayer. He began each day with a morning prayer to Jesus’ Sacred Heart and prayed throughout the day. He had great devotion to the Blessed Mother and prayed the Rosary many times a day. He also followed the Ignatian way of seeing God in all things. In a letter to Father Claude Aquaviva, the General of the Society of Jesus, he wrote:  It will greatly help us… if we try to see God present in all things and not only raise up our own minds to Him in prayer but refer everything and every deed we do to Him, feeling no less a spirit of devotion in our work than in meditation itself, as our Father Ignatius wonderfully did and taught us to do.”

Father Peter Canisius was sent to Fribourg, Switzerland in November 1580 to found a new Jesuit college. He remained there the rest of his life and spent most of his time preaching, instructing converts, and writing. He had a stroke in 1591, and afterward, could only walk with difficulty with the aid of a stick. However, his mind was still strong and he continued to write book as well as letters of encouragement to his Jesuit brothers. His health declined in the last nine months of his life; he was weak and often in great pain, but still very dedicated to prayer. He was cared for by a Jesuit brother who said that Father Peter was always patient despite his suffering. On the morning of December 21, 1597,  Father Peter Canisius received Holy Communion and spent time in prayer. At 3:00 that afternoon, he received Last Rites and died peacefully.

Father Peter Canisius was beatified on November 20, 1864 by Blessed Pope Pius IX, and was canonized a saint and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI on May 21, 1925.

Father Peter Canisius is an example for us today, as we too, live in a time when many Catholics, influenced by the culture, are leaving the Church. He was able to lead many people back to the Faith by his prayers, love, and kindness, as well as by helping them to learn the goodness of the teachings of the Church. We can ask him to intercede for us in our work of evangelization.

Image by Zvonimir Atletic on Shutterstock

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Louise Merrie is a freelance writer on Catholic subjects. Her articles have been published in Catholic Life, Novena Magazine, and the Saint Austin Review. She is the founder of the Community of Mary, Mother of Mercy, an organization in which senior priests and Catholic laity support each other through prayer and friendship in living as disciples of Jesus.

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