Summary of St Peter Canisius, Priest, Doctor of the Church. Born at Nijmegen (Netherlands) in 1521; died in Fribourg (Switzerland) on this day in 1597. A Jesuit priest who spent his time writing and teaching in universities and colleges.
The Jesuit St Peter Canisius is probably best known for his Catechism written in 1555. But he was also a saint, who by the choices he made can be seen to have advanced in virtue and grace.
Patrick Duffy tells his story.
Peter was born in Nijmegen, Holland, where his father was burgomeister. At fifteen he went to university in Cologne, and at 19 received his master’s degree. Here Fr Nicolaus van Esch influenced him to join the loyal Catholics when the Catholic archbishop, Hermann von Wied, became a Lutheran.
Joins the Jesuits
At Cologne Peter made the Spiritual Exercises under Peter Faber, one of St Ignatius’s first companions, and joined the Jesuits. He did his novitiate and taught at Cologne, and even before his ordination, had edited the works of St Cyril of Alexandria and St Leo the Great. He also gained a reputation for looking after the sick. Ordained in 1546, he attended two sessions of the Council of Trent along with the bishop of Augsburg. After that he was sent to teach rhetoric in the first Jesuit school in Messina, Sicily.
Mission in Germany and Vienna
Recalled by St Ignatius to Rome in 1549, he made his final profession there and was sent on mission to Germany. At first, he taught theology in the University of Ingolstadt and soon became rector and vice-chancellor. He also gained a reputation as a preacher. Then sent to do similar work in Vienna, he contributed greatly to reforming the Church there. The Viennese people admired how he cared for the sick during the plague. The king wanted to appoint him archbishop and though Peter did agree to administer the diocese for a year, he declined the honour. It was while he was at Vienna that he wrote his famous Catechism (Summa Doctrinae Christianae), a clear exposition of Catholic doctrine rivalling Luther’s Large Catechism.
Provincial for Austria, Bavaria and Bohemia
Named as Provincial for Austria, Bavaria and Bohemia in 1556, Peter established Jesuit colleges for boys in six cities in the region, including Prague, and set about establishing seminaries to train good priests. During this time he strove as an accomplished diplomat and letter-writer to build up the Catholic Church. He also wrote works of theology and history and was an energetic preacher.
Together with his easily understood preaching and the writing of his famous catechisms, his academic life enabled him to restore and strengthen Catholic belief in response to the Reformation. Noted for his courtesy in debate and for his use of the press in promoting the Catholic revival after the Council of Trent.
His later years, death
In 1580 he was sent to Fribourg in Switzerland to set up a Catholic college there. This later grew into a large theological university.
In 1591 he suffered a stroke, but continued to write with the help of a secretary until quite near his death. He died surrounded by his community on 21 December 1597.
In his writings St Peter Canisius always stressed what Catholics and Lutherans held in common rather than what divided them. Along with others, like St Cyril of Jerusalem and St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, he is numbered among the patrons of catechetics and made a significant contribution to the tradition that resulted in the publication of The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992).