Saint Peter Canisius, Priest and Doctor

Peter Canisius was a Jesuit priest and an important figure in the Counter Reformation, which tried to stem the tide of Protestantism sweeping over Germany, Austria, Bohemia and Switzerland. The restoration of Catholicism in Germany after the Reformation is largely attributed to his work.

He was born Peter Kanis on 8 May, 1521, in the Duchy of Guelders (until 1549, part of the Holy Roman Empire and now in The Netherlands). While at the University of Cologne, he met Peter Faber, a companion of St Ignatius Loyola and with him one of the founders of the Society of Jesus.

In 1543, Canisius (the Latinised form of his name) became the first Dutchman to join the Jesuit order, just three years after the Society got papal approval. Through his missionary work, Peter became one of the most influential Catholics of his day. He supervised the founding and maintenance of the early German Jesuit colleges, often with the backing of meagre resources. Because of his frequent travels between the colleges, a tedious and dangerous undertaking at the time, he became known as the Second Apostle of Germany.

Canisius also exerted a strong influence on Emperor Ferdinand I. He constantly reminded the emperor of the great danger to his eternal salvation should he surrender more rights to Protestants in return for their military support. And when Canisius perceived a strong danger of Ferdinand’s son and heir, King Maximilian, openly declaring himself Protestant, he convinced Ferdinand to threaten disinheritance should Maximilian desert the Catholic faith.

Canisius was an influential teacher and preacher, especially through his famous Catechism, a book that defined the basic teachings of Catholicism in the German language, and was widely read in German-speaking countries. He was offered the post of bishop of Vienna, but declined in order to continue his travelling and teaching. However, he was administrator of the Diocese of Vienna from 1554 to 1555, and the principal preacher in Augsburg Cathedral from 1559 to 1568. His preaching was said to have been so convincing that it drew hundreds of Protestants back to the Catholic faith.

He was one of the main Catholic theologians at the Colloquy of Worms from 11 September to 8 October, 1557, the last such colloquy in the 16th century. At the Diet of Augsburg in 1555, it had been agreed that dialogue on controversial religious issues should be continued. Catholics Michael Helding, John Gropper, and Peter Canisius met with Protestants Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Brenz and Erhard Schnepf. The main issue was the relation between the Bible and tradition.

When Canisius alluded to differences among the Protestants themselves in their doctrine of original sin and justification by faith, which they could not resolve, the meeting broke up. By the time Canisius left Germany in 1590, the Jesuits in Germany had evolved from almost nothing into a powerful tool of the Counter Reformation.

Canisius spent the last 20 years of his life in Fribourg, Switzerland, where he founded the Jesuit College that became the core of today’s University of Fribourg. He died in Fribourg on 21 December, 1597. He was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.  

Peter is remembered for his courtesy in debate, his powerful preaching, and his use of the written word to promote the Catholic revival after the Council of Trent.

In recognition of his early work in the establishment of Jesuit education, there are many Jesuit colleges named after him. Among them is Canisius College, a Jesuit secondary school in his hometown of Nijmegen. Among others, there is a secondary and post-secondary complex of schools, (Canisius College) in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The Apologetische Vereniging St Petrus Canisius (St Peter Canisius Association for Apologetics) was founded in the Netherlands in 1904. The purpose of this association was the defence of the Roman Catholic Church against the values of socialism and liberalism, and the restoration of a more Catholic way of life into Dutch society.

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