St. Peter Canisius, Jesuit and Doctor of the Church

St. Peter Canisius St. Peter Canisius 

"See, Peter sleeps, Judas is awake".

Pope Benedict XVI quoted these words of St Peter Canisius at the beginning of Lent 2011. He called them "a cry of anguish in his historical moment", words that were destined to shake "the drowsiness of the good".

Peter Kanijs was born in 1521 in Nijmegen, a Dutch village that was then in the German duchy of Gelderland and, therefore, within the Holy Roman Empire.

"You know, Lord, in how many ways and how many times in the same day you entrusted me with Germany for which I would later continue to be solicitous, and for which I would have liked to live and die".

He entered the Society of Jesus in 1543, after doing the Spiritual Exercises under the direction of St Peter Favre. He participated in the Council of Trent in 1547 and in 1562, expressly called by the Bishop of Augsburg, Cardinal Otto Truchsess von Waldburg.

It was at this time that Peter Kanijs began to use the Latin form of his name, “Canisius”.

In the spirit of the Catholic Reform promoted by the Council of Trent, his main mission was to reawaken of the spiritual roots of the individual faithful and of the body of the Church as a whole.

Around Europe

After spending a brief time in Rome and Messina, he was sent to the Duchy of Bavaria, where he worked as dean, rector, and vice-chancellor of the University of Ingoldstadt. Then he went to Vienna, where he was administrator of the Diocese and a very popular preacher in the Cathedral of St Stephen. He was also active in pastoral ministry in hospitals and prisons. In 1556 he was appointed first Provincial Father of the Province of Upper Germany. There he created a network of Jesuit communities and colleges, always supporting the spirit of support of the Catholic reform. In this regard, he participated in important negotiations as an official representative of the Church.

This is what Pope St. John Paul II wrote about Peter Canisius in a letter to the German Bishops to mark the fourth centenary of his death: "In his loving providence, God made St. Peter Canisius His own ambassador at a time when the voice of the Catholic proclamation of faith in German-speaking countries risked falling silent."

Ambassador of the Catholic message

St. Peter Canisius spent much of his life in contact with some of the most socially important people of his time. He also exercised a special influence on them with his writings. He edited the complete works of Saints Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great, the Letters of Saint Jerome, and the Prayers of Saint Nicholas of Fluë. He published devotional books in various languages, the biographies of several Swiss saints, and many homilies. His most widespread writings, though, were the three Catechisms he composed between 1555 and 1558. The first Catechism was meant for students to help them understand basic notions of theology; the second for the children of working class people to provide them with a primary religious education; the third for young people with a middle and high school education. He presented Catholic doctrine using a question and answer method, clearly, succinctly, and in a biblical fashion. Two hundred editions of this Catechism were published in his lifetime alone.

His work to promote the Catholic Reform was supported by both Emperor Ferdinand I and Pope Gregory XIII. Rather than pointing out heresies or doctrinal errors, he preferred highlighting the perennial novelty of Catholic doctrine. In his declining years he founded the Sankt Michael College in Fribourg, Switzerland, in 1580. The College was later transferred to Feldkirch and finally to St. Blasien in the Black Forest. When he died, on December 21st, 1597, St Peter Canisius was buried in the university church of Sankt Michael Fribourg.


Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience of February 9, 2011

Pope John Paul II, letter to the German Bishops on the occasion of the fourth centenary of the death of Peter Canisius