St. Peter Canisius

The Dutch Jesuit St. Peter Canisius (1521-1597) was a leading figure of the Counter Reformation. A deeply prayerful man and indefatigable worker, he reanimated the Catholic Church in central Europe by preaching, writing, and founding Jesuit colleges.

Peter Canisius or Peter kanis, was born in the Dutch town of Nijmegen on May 8, 1521. He studied at the Latin school of St. Stephen there, and at 15 years of age he entered the University of Cologne. At the Carthusian monastery in Cologne he was influenced by the simple and ardent piety of the Devotio Moderna. In 1540 he became a master of arts and undertook the study of theology. In 1543 he heard about Pierre Favre, one of the first Jesuits, who was then at Mainz. He made the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola under Favre's direction and decided to become a Jesuit. He was ordained a priest in 1546.

Peter started a long career of apostolic labor in many countries of Europe. In 1546-1547 Peter participated in the Council of Trent; in 1548 he joined nine other Jesuits in opening a school at Messina; in 1549, with two other Jesuits, he joined the faculty of the University of Ingolstadt; and in 1552 he went to Vienna to assist the new Jesuit community there. To meet the challenge of Luther's popular catechism, Peter published his Summary of Christian Doctrine in 1555. Designed for boys in the upper classes and lucidly written in easy Latin, it rapidly ran into hundreds of editions. A German edition came out in 1556. The same year Peter published his Tiny Catechism for children, and 2 years later, his most popular work, An Abridged Catechism, planned for students in the middle grades. This he embellished through the years with engravings, verses, and prayers. In 1556 he became superior of the Upper German Province.

For the next 41 years, Peter's days were filled with the most diverse activity. He shared in the establishment of 18 Jesuit colleges, and in the Augsburg Cathedral alone he preached 225 long sermons in 18 months. He began the Catholic response to The Centuries of Magdeburg with two folio volumes of patristic learning, the forerunners of Baronius's Annales ecclesiastici. In 1557 he traveled about 2,000 miles through Italy, Austria, Bavaria, and the Rhineland. Prelates constantly sought his counsel.

Peter's correspondence, which fills eight large volumes, reveals a person of gentle patience, understanding, and ardent Zeal for the Catholic Church. He regarded heresy as "a plague more deadly than other plagues," but he insisted on a spirit of charity in meeting non-Catholics. At the age of 76 he died at Fribourg, Switzerland, on Dec. 21, 1597. Pope pius XI canonized him and declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1925.

Further Reading on St. Peter Canisius

A scholarly, sensitive, and delightfully written biography is James Brodrick, Saint Peter Canisius (1935). See also Edward McNall Burns, The Counter Reformation (1964), which has a brief biography of Canisius; and Martin P. Harney, The Jesuits in History: The Society of Jesus through Four Centuries (1941).