Saint Peter Canisius was a monumental figure of the counter-reformation. That movement which grew out of the Council of Trent and produced so many great saints, leaves him in the shadow of such luminaries as Saint Philip Neri, Saint Ignatius Loyola, Saint Francis Xavier, Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross.
Yet our saint was a prolific writer and preacher who saved the faith in Germany from oblivion and whose influence extended across Europe, notably in Poland, Switzerland, and the Netherlands to mention only a few examples. For fifty years he effectively led the counter-reformation in central Europe.
Of all his works, probably the most influential was his set of catechisms. With pastoral genius, he produced versions for adults, teenagers, and children, teaching the faith straightforwardly and accessibly in answer to the subtle and manifold versions of errors against the faith that confused and troubled ordinary people.
Nevertheless, far from being a simple pedagogue, he made his mark in the study of the Fathers of the Church and in accurate accounts of the history of the Church. Today we might look on him as the ultimate fact-checker; in the face of distortions and conspiracy theories put about by heretics, he offered trustworthy information with competent scholarship. Aware of the power of the new technology of his day, the printing press, he used it intelligently to promote the truth of the Catholic faith.
Our Saint was introduced to the Jesuits by Saint Peter Faber, an associate of Saint Ignatius Loyola. It was from Faber that he learnt the lesson which served him so well in controversy, that of presenting the faith positively, rather than becoming mired in polemical disputes.
Hence, he said,
“It is plainly wrong to meet non-Catholics with bitterness or to treat them with discourtesy. For this is nothing else than the reverse of Christ’s example because it breaks the bruised reed and quenches the smoking flax. We ought to instruct with meekness those whom heresy has made bitter and suspicious, and has estranged from orthodox Catholics”
What a lesson he gives us for today, in the age of social media! He continues in the same vein,
“It is a mistaken policy to behave in a contentious fashion and to start disputes about matters of belief with argumentative people who are disposed by their very natures to wrangling. Indeed, the fact of their being so constituted is a reason the more why such people should be attracted and won to the simplicity of the faith as much by example as by argument.”
I expect that I am not the only one who finds his words a helpful examination of conscience.
It would be a mistake to think of St Peter Canisius only as an intellectual. Along with his fellow early Jesuits, he spent long hours nursing the sick and caring for the poor. He also understood the power of prayer and devotion in preserving the faith of those to whom he ministered. The reverent celebration of the Mass and the sacraments, the use of sacramentals and devotional practices, especially devotion to Our Lady, and encouragement to generous penance were all part of his successful work which is recalled beautifully in the Collect for his Mass in which we ask that,
“by his example and teachings, the erring may be brought back to salvation, and the faithful may persevere in the profession of the truth.”
The clause “may be brought back to salvation” translates “ ad salutem resipiscant” which is not easy to render in English. “Resipiscere” in Latin means “return to your senses” and this captures what we want to encourage a fellow Catholic to do, who has wandered from the faith and denied the divinity of Christ, or spoken in favour of abortion, questioned the real presence, denied the value of penance, supported gay marriage, or left communion with the Church out of frustration or impatience. By charity and good example, as well as by the careful and determined presentation of the truths of our faith, we want to help them come back to their senses and to salvation.
May the prayers of Saint Peter Canisius help us to bring others to love the faith of the Holy Catholic Church and to live it with generosity and courage. Especially we ask him to guide us in using the new media of our own day with generosity, discernment, and charity.
PICTURE CREDIT: Wikimedia. Petrus Canisius by « A.E. » on 1st February 1546. Public Domain.