Canisius, Peter

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CANISIUS, PETER (15211597), doctor of the church, Jesuit priest, educator, theologian, and saint. Born at Nijmegen, Peter Canisius was educated at the University of Cologne. Sent by his father, Jakob Kanijs, to study law at Louvain in 1539, Peter, determined to be a priest, returned to Cologne and in 1541 became the first German Jesuit. He helped to found the first German Jesuit house at Cologne and in 1546 was ordained a priest. In 1547, Cardinal Truchsess of Augsburg appointed Canisius as his theologian at the Council of Trent. Between the first and second sessions of the council, Canisius went to Rome for further spiritual training with Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. From 1548 to 1580 Canisius worked out of Germany, traveling to Austria and Poland as Jesuit provincial, counselor to princes, and founder of Jesuit schools. Three times Emperor Ferdinand I (15561564) asked Canisius to become bishop of Vienna, but each time he refused. From 1556 to 1569 Canisius served as the first Jesuit provincial of upper Germany. In 1580 he was sent to Fribourg in Switzerland to help found a Jesuit college; it was his last assignment.

Canisius's primary work was reestablishing Roman Catholicism or strengthening it where it was threatened by Protestantism, especially in Germany, Austria, and Poland. His means were manifold, but chief among them was education through the establishment of twenty Jesuit colleges between 1549 and 1580. From these colleges came staunchly Roman Catholic political and spiritual leaders.

Frequently, Canisius had to deal directly with Protestants, as at Worms in 1557 and at Augsburg in 1566, or indirectly through his advice to Catholic princes to whom he was appointed secret nuncio by the pope. While he dealt severely with heretical books and what he deemed overly lenient policies on the part of princes, he distinguished between obdurate heresy and that of people who had been led astray. These latter should not be coerced, he argued, but persuaded. To prepare Catholics to meet Protestant arguments, Canisius drew up catechisms that, while not attacking Protestants frontally, gave Catholics a thorough grounding in the Catholic side of controversial issues such as justification and the Lord's Supper. Canisius also answered Protestant controversialists, especially the Centuriators, Flacius Illyricus and Johann Wigand, who had prepared the Magdeburg Centuries, a century-by-century history interpreted from a Lutheran perspective.

Toward his flock, Canisius was a kindly and practical superior and pastor. He served as cathedral preacher at Augsburg, Innsbruck, and Fribourg, and through his direct and pious sermons won back thousands to the Roman Catholic sacraments. Pope Leo XIII (18981903) dubbed Canisius "the second apostle of Germany after Boniface." He was canonized on May 21, 1925 and declared a doctor of the Catholic church by Pope Pius XI.


The best source for Canisius's life is a multivolume edition edited by Otto Braunsberger, Beati Petri Canisii Societatas Iesu epistulae et acta, 8 vols. (Freiburg, 18961923). Friedrich Streicher has edited a critical edition of Canisius's catechisms: S. Petri Canisii doctoris ecclesiae catechismi Latini et Germanici, 2 vols. (Munich, 19331936). The Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, compiled by Carlos Sommervogel (1891; reprint, Paris, 1960), contains a bibliography of Canisius's publications in volume 2, pages 617688. The standard life of Canisius is by James Brodrick, St. Peter Canisius, S.J., 15211597 (1935; reprint, Baltimore, 1950).

Jill Raitt (1987)

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