Life and Soul

Saint of the week: St Peter Canisius (December 21)

A painting of St Peter Canisius

A Dutch Jesuit, Canisius was known for the restoration of the Catholic Church in much of Germany after the Reformation.

He was born in 1521 in Nijmegen, the son a wealthy local magistrate.

At 19, he earned a Master’s from the University of Cologne. There he met Peter Faber, one of the founders of the new Society of Jesus. Through Faber Canisius would become the first Dutchman to join the order in 1543.

Establishing the first German-speaking Jesuit college, Canisius became known as the Second Apostle of Germany (the first being Boniface) because of his frequent travels from Catholic college to college. This was a dangerous job when religious passions were at their height.

A skilled teacher and preacher, he produced a “German catechism” which had a huge influence on the German-speaking public.

Turning down the Bishopric of Vienna in order to continue travelling, he attended the Colloquy of Worms in 1557. He then served as the preacher at Augsburg cathedral, managing to reconvert hundreds of Catholics who had recently gone over to Protestantism. By this time the Jesuits had been transformed from a small group of highly educated priests into the most powerful movement in Catholicism, taking the spiritual battle to Protestantism with great gusto.

Canisius eventually moved to Switzerland, where he spent 20 years training future Jesuits. At 70, he suffered a stroke and died six years later, in 1597, having never recovered.

He was buried locally in Fribourg; his remains were later transferred to the Jesuit college.

Why was Canisius such an effective counter to Protestantism? Perhaps because he avoided personal attacks against reformers. “With words like these,” he once said, “we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.”