Above: the sacrileges of heretics in the Catholic cathedral of Antwerp, 1566.
The example that he has bequeathed to us, not only in his works but especially with his life, is ever timely and of lasting value. He teaches clearly that the apostolic ministry is effective and produces fruits of salvation in hearts only if the preacher is a personal witness of Jesus and an instrument at his disposal, bound to him closely by faith in his Gospel and in his Church, by a morally consistent life and by prayer as ceaseless as love
(General Audience, 02 Sept., 2011, Pope Benedict XVI).
St. Peter Canisius
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1925 by Pope Pius XI
Feast Day (pre-1962 calendar): April 27th
St. Peter was raised in a town called Nijmegen in Holland. It was a bustling town that sits right on the Waal river, so much of the activity had to do with the busy ports and shipping companies. Peter’s father, Jacob Kanis, was a leader in town akin to a mayor in modern terms and was considerably wealthy. By now, if you have followed OnePeterFive’s series on the Doctors of the Church, you no doubt have recognized a pattern wherein great saints are raised in excessive wealth and leave it all behind for the sake of Christ and His Church. You might then guess that Peter’s life would be no different.
Catholicism was flourishing in this Dutch region in the early part of the 16th century, and Peter was raised with an excellent Catholic education, truly living and breathing the Faith in his everyday life. However, the trouble that was started a few years earlier in Germany by Martin Luther would eventually make its way into the far reaches of Europe, Holland being no exception. Peter was born on May 8th, 1521, the very same day that the Edict of Worms was promulgated, which forbade the publication of Luther’s works. The Protestant Revolt would be the immovable backdrop to young Peter’s entire life, and it is through his work against the Protestant heretics that he obtained the glory of sainthood.
Peter went to Cologne to study at the university when he was just fifteen years old, and he quickly impressed many of the clerics there with his intellectual aptitude, discipline, and piety. While he was studying at the university in the 1530s, Protestantism was sweeping through Europe and – in some places – was doing so quite violently. It was in 1535 that Ss. John Fisher and Thomas More were put to death in England, for example. But God had a plan to raise an army to fight back against the heretics.
When Peter graduated in 1540 he rejected his father’s attempts to bring him back to Nijmegen, made a vow of celibacy, and began studying among the new militant order of priests and brothers: the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.
He was tutored by a Jesuit friend, Blessed Peter Faber. The Jesuits’ constitution had been approved this same year, so when Peter joined the order formally in 1543, he was one of the earliest members. Founded by St. Ignatius, a former soldier, the Jesuits took a militaristic approach to combating the Protestants with intensely disciplined prayer, formal education, apologetic works, and missionary efforts. Peter’s young mind fit right into these ranks and he was ordained to the priesthood in 1546.
It seems that if you look at the guest list for any important event around the Church in the middle of the 16th century, you will find Peter’s name. He also founded universities, published catechisms, spoke at important councils, and tirelessly preached the true Faith all across a European continent that was sorely in need of Peter’s precise theology to clear the muddied (and bloodied) water. Across the Catholic continent, heretics were rising up with weapons to kill and destroy, overturning governments, taking over cities, and destroying the monuments of our forefathers – even defiling the sacred images of Our Blessed Lady herself.
During St. Peter’s lifetime this was known especially by the Dutch term Beeldenstorm (“image storm”) in which the sacred images and statues which helped the piety of the faithful were smashed with hammers and other weapons by the heretics, destroying great beauty made for the glory of God. (This foreshadowed the awful iconoclasm that would invade our Catholic churches in the 1960s and 70s!)
Pope Benedict XVI recounts that in this time of chaos and error St. Peter’s name became synonymous with “catechism” throughout much of Europe and for many generations:
There were at least 200 editions of this Catechism in his lifetime alone! And hundreds of editions succeeded one another until the 20th century. So it was that still in my father’s generation people in Germany were calling the Catechism simply ‘the Canisius.’
Pope Benedict goes on to enumerate St. Peter’s many wonderful and widely published writings:
He edited the complete works of Cyril of Alexandria and of St Leo the Great, the Letters of St Jerome and the Orations of St Nicholas of Flüe. He published devotional books in various languages, biographies of several Swiss Saints and numerous homiletic texts.
St. Peter’s writings and preaching gained him considerable influence over the machinations against the Church and the religious wars of the age, and even many Protestant contemporaries and scholars praised Peter for his kindness, charitable way of speaking, unwavering commitment to the truth, and his one-of-a-kind intellect. God truly chose the best soldier for this battle!
The reformation era saints are some of my absolute favorites: Charles Borromeo, Philip Neri, Francis de Sales, Jane de Chantal, Edmund Campion, Margaret Clitherow, John Fisher, Thomas More, Ignatius of Loyola, Pope St. Pius V, and many other intellectual and spiritual giants who were raised up to defend Christ’s Bride in Her time of greatest need – and defend her they did! One thing I have noticed about these saints is that no matter how disciplined they were with themselves or how combative they were of the pernicious heresies, most of them are remembered for their kindness and gentleness. Or in St. Francis de Sales’ case in particular, his sweetness.
Here I would like to implore my fellow Catholics, especially those on the traditional side of things: we must remember that unwavering commitment to the truth does not necessitate a combative, hateful, prideful, or uncharitable attitude. St. Peter Canisius worked tirelessly to mend a bond torn by violent, prideful, and – particularly in Luther’s case – foul-mouthed heretics. St. Peter and his contemporaries did not stoop to Luther’s level, they did not play his dirty games. Instead, they continued the Church’s pattern of setting the standard for intellectual integrity and crystal clear reasoning, with all of their efforts being tempered by heroic humility.
The Church is Christ’s bride and She calls for a certain amount of chivalry from her knights. You can imagine St. Joseph, under his title “Protector of Holy Mother Church,” smiling down on St. Peter Canisius as he worked tirelessly to defend the Bride of Christ, just as he would have worked tirelessly to defend Our Lady and the Infant King. I pray that through St. Peter’s intercession, we might realize that tone, demeanor, and our general attitude do have an effect on how our message is received. These things are not as important as the message itself, but knowing your audience and remaining steadfast in humility and charity are critical to softening the ground upon which we sow the seeds of the Good News.
But St. Peter’s life also serves as a rebuke to the effeminacy and false gospel of psychology which has twisted the importance of charity into a spirituality of “nice” which is nothing less than hatred for the truth. If Vatican II wants to emphasize the phrase “separated brethren” over the term “heretic” for the sake of charity, fine. But heretics like James Martin turn this into a hatred for the sinner, by obscuring in every way the truth that saves the sinner from eternal damnation. Instead of this false gospel, St. Peter shows us the perfect balance of truth and charity, for the love of souls and the greater glory of God.
The approach of St. Peter and his Counter Reformation contemporaries was to work tirelessly to educate people by preaching, writing, and founding schools; to be disciplined about holding to prayer and their religious vows; to lead by example in spiritual and corporal works of mercy; and to be faithful sons and daughters of the Church. May we use our ministries to promote and defend the Faith with all the zeal and charity of St. Peter Canisius!
I would like to leave you with a quote from this great Doctor of the Reformation, which is taken from a letter he wrote to his superior in the Society:
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, especially from our fellow Jesuits. Thus, by whole-hearted charity and good will we may win them over to us in the Lord.
Again, 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.
St. Peter Canisius, pray for us!
 Biographical notes taken from “Heroes & Heretics of the Reformation” by Phillip Campbell (TAN Books, 2017).
Jake is a Catholic convert and is passionate about spreading orthodox Catholicism and the traditional Latin Mass through writing and through his work on the Mass of the Ages documentary series. Additionally, he helps his wife, Emily, to run the Catholic All Year Market in partnership with Catholic author Kendra Tierney. He resides in Northern Virginia with Emily and his three children. He can be reached at [email protected] or through Mass of the Ages at [email protected].