Saint Peter Canisius and Us
Those churchmen err who imagine that it is by brilliant preaching, rather than by holiness and all-embracing love, they fulfil their office.
Saint Peter Canisius
Each year during Lent, I attempt to do some special Lenten reading. This year I am reading a scholarly, lively and well written biography of Saint Peter Canisius, one of the first members of the Jesuit order and acclaimed as the Second Apostle of Germany, a tribute to his decades of hard labor in Germany and Austria in the Sixteenth Century, fighting an uphill battle to reverse the tide of the Reformation. The book was written by Father James Brodrick, SJ, and published in 1935. Father Brodrick lived from 1891-1973 and during his lifetime wrote numerous histories, most of them concerning the Jesuits. His works shine with wit, intelligence and a very deep faith.
Reading the life of Saint Peter Canisius, a few things have struck me.
First, the gentleness of the Saint. Although an uncompromising foe of the heresies of the Reformation, Saint Peter was charity personified in his personal dealings with those who had broken away from the Church. It was out of love for God, and love for those who had fallen away from the Faith, that he spent endless hours in preaching, teaching, writing, helping the poor and bringing the sacraments to Catholics who often went months without seeing a priest in those chaotic times.
Second, Saint Peter was the father of modern catechisms. His catechism for German children was the first giant step in reclaiming a generation of German Catholics after two generations of Germans being almost completely lost to the Church. Saint Peter realized that if sound doctrine was preached to German Catholics, the traditional power of the Faith in making converts would repair much of the damage caused by the Reformation.
Third, Saint Peter lived in a time much like our own, with a great crisis of Faith, scandal after scandal involving priests and nuns, a low moral tone for both clergy and laity, predictions of the death of the Catholic Church, Catholics who still adhered to the Faith often being coldly indifferent to it, their Faith being reduced to rote habit, rather than passionate love. In the teeth of this, Saint Peter Canisius and his colleagues wrought a spiritual revolution by being on fire themselves with love of Christ, and spreading this love by word and deed.
Fourth, the good humor of Saint Peter Canisius. He had a knack for making friends and his correspondence is suffused with a gentle humor that helped him be a persuasive messenger for the Faith. Too often in attempts to spread the Faith, anger and ill will take the place of joy and charity, and they are poor substitutes indeed.
On February 9, 2011, Pope Benedict spoke about Saint Peter Canisius:
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.
Go here to read the entire address by the Pope. Some sons and daughters of the Church are fortunate to live in times when the history of the Church is relatively placid. Others, including ourselves, live a time of storm and stress for the Faith. It is easy during these periods to be dismayed by the challenges confronting the Church. However, as the life of Saint Peter Canisius amply demonstrated, love of Christ, love of our neighbors and hard work, can, with the grace of God, allow each of us to write a glorious page of history for the Church, perhaps especially in times such as today.