Canisius, Peter, St.
CANISIUS, PETER, ST.
Jesuit theologian, writer, apostle, and Doctor of the Church (in the vernacular more properly Kanijs, not de Hondt); b. Nijmegen, Netherlands, May 8, 1521; d. Fribourg, Switzerland, December 21, 1597.
Canisius was born of an aristocratic family of Nijmegen, which belonged to the duchy of Gelderland and was thus at the time still subject to the constitution of the German Empire. His father, a graduate of the University of Paris, became the instructor of the princes in the court of the Duke of Lorraine and was nine times appointed mayor of his native town. Against the will of his father, Canisius chose to take up the study of theology. In Cologne (1536–46, except for the years 1539–40, which he spent in Louvain) he became closely acquainted with a circle of learned and devout priests who labored to effect
a reform within the Church and who were influenced by the spirit of German mysticism and of the devotio mod erna, especially of Nikolaus van Esche, and Gerard Kalckbrenner and Johannes Justus lanspergius, prior and subprior respectively of the Carthusians of St. Barbara. Canisius' career as a writer, which won him the honor of being one of the creators of a Catholic press and the first of the literary Jesuits, began early. The Cologne 1543 edition of Tauler, edited by "Petrus Noviomagnus," was attributed to Canisius by Braunsberger and Tesser, but this is open to doubt (according to Streicher and Brodrick). However, Canisius is certainly the author of the two-volume edition of the "Fathers of the Church," (Cologne 1546), which contains texts from Cyril of Alexandria and Leo I. This first work of Canisius is at the same time the first book ever published by a Jesuit.
In the meantime, after attending a retreat that (Bl.) Peter faber, one of the first six companions of ignatius loyola, gave in Mainz in April and May 1543, Canisius joined the Society of Jesus, which had been confirmed by paul iii in 1540. While in Cologne Canisius became the center of the first Jesuit foundation on German soil. In their controversy with the elector and archbishop, Hermann von Wied, who was inclined to Protestantism, Canisius was chosen to be spokesman for the Catholic clergy and the citizens; and, in 1545, he was called upon three times to represent the rights of the city of Cologne before Emperor Charles V. On one of these occasions Canisius attracted the attention of Cardinal Otto Truchsess of Waldburg, Bishop of Augsburg, and was called by him to the Council of trent as his theological consultant. When the council moved to Bologna, Canisius went with it. In September 1547, Ignatius Loyola summoned him to Rome. Canisius was sent to Messina where he taught in the first Jesuit School from spring 1548 to July 1549. Recalled to Rome, he made his solemn profession on September 4, 1549, thus becoming the eighth Jesuit to be professed.
Canisius was called the "Second Apostle of Germany after Boniface" by Leo XIII. It was during the three decades following his return to Germany after his profession that he labored for the reestablishment of the Catholic Church in Germany, which had been greatly shaken by the Reformation. He sought to restore and renew the Catholic faith by teaching and preaching, especially in Ingolstadt, Vienna, Augsburg, Innsbruck, and Munich. He exercised great influence upon the whole ecclesiastical situation in Germany, which grew continuously more favorable owing to his activity.
In June 1556 Canisius was appointed by Ignatius Loyola to be the first superior of the German Province of the Society; in 1562, the Austrian section was separated to form the Austrian Province, but Canisius continued as provincial in South Germany (except for two short interruptions) until 1569. The development of the three already existing colleges of Ingolstadt, Vienna, and Prague was due largely to him, as was also the establishment of new ones in Munich, Innsbruck, Dillingen, Tyrnau, Hall (Tyrol). He also took a leading part in the founding of several Jesuit colleges in the North German Province.
In spite of difficulties and misunderstandings Canisius remained faithful to the society during his life. The contrary opinion of Protestant biographers lacks historical justification and is in contradiction to the evidence.
His personal reputation contributed much to attract new vocations from the native population to religious life in the society. By developing the organization of the Jesuits, Canisius created the necessary basis for a permanent and regular apostolate through which the Society of Jesus in Germany became an important and leading force in the Counter Reformation.
Canisius' influence on the hierarchy and on the general situation of the Church became more and more important. He was in contact with almost all the Catholic leaders of his time and aided in the awakening of a new self-assurance among the German Catholics. Evidence of this is clear in the letters of the saint, of which about 1,400 are known, 1,310 of which have been published. Only a small number are private letters; most of them deal with reforms within the Church, with questions concerning Church government and religious life. He was the adviser of Emperor Ferdinand I (at whose personal wish Canisius was made administrator of the Diocese of Vienna, 1554–55), and of pius iv, pius v, and gregory xiii. He participated in the discussion between Catholic and Protestant divines at Worms (1557), aided in the solution of the crisis in the council (1562–63), and was consulted
in the Reichstag Sessions (1566, 1576). Moreover, Canisius was the adviser of the nunciatures and the papal legates assigned to Germany. Several times the popes conferred special missions upon him. He came forth with numerous admonitions concerning Church reforms and severely criticized the attitude of a large part of the clergy in Germany, including the bishops. For the clergy he demanded better selection and education, and he advocated closer ties between Rome and the Church in Germany. The importance of his recommendations appeared in decisions later taken in Rome under Gregory XIII. The number of nunciatures was increased, papal seminaries were founded in Germany, and the Collegium Germanicum in Rome was enlarged and consolidated. Canisius' suggestion for the abolition of the privileges of the aristocracy with regard to elections to canonries and episcopates failed, however, due to the circumstances of the time.
Writings. Canisius exerted his widest and most permanent influence through his writings. Of primary importance are his catechisms, which appeared in three different forms. The Summa Doctrinae Christianae, first published anonymously in Vienna in 1555, contained 213 questions and answers, a number that increased to 223 in the post-Tridentine edition of 1566. It was intended to be a compendium for universities and graduating classes of Jesuit schools. On the request of Canisius a collection of sources and texts to support the catechism was published in four volumes by Petrus busaeus (de Buys), SJ, Authoritatum sacrae Scripturae et Sanctorum Patrum, quae in Summa Doctrinae Christianae Doctoris Petri Canisii theologi S. I. citantur …, pars 1, etc. (Cologne 1569–70). In 1556 at Ingolstadt, Canisius' short catechism was printed as a supplement of a Latin grammar, with the title Summa doctrinae christianae per questiones tradita et ad captum rudiorum accomodata. It asks 59 questions and gives short answers, thus representing a short summary of the Catholic doctrine intended for the use of the first religious instruction to children. The third edition, with the title Catechismus Minor seu parvus Catechismus Catholicorum, first printed in Vienna in 1558 or 1559, appeared in later editions also under the title Catechismus Catholicus or Institutiones christianae pietatis. It contains, besides a detailed calendar with feasts and saints, 124 questions and short answers, and was introduced into secondary schools as a textbook for religious instruction. All these editions have a certain common format in that they contain concise questions and answers. This method was not invented by Canisius but it was one to which he adhered strictly. Very often illustrations were added to the editions of the catechisms. The "Illustrated Catechism" (published by Christoph Plantin, Antwerp 1589) deserves special attention because of its excellent format.
Though Canisius made no claim to the originality of his ideas and was without literary ambition, his catechisms are his most ingenious achievement. In use throughout Europe and in mission countries, they went through 200 editions even during his lifetime, and were translated into many languages. Hundreds of editions were published from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The fact that until the 19th century the name "Canisius" in German was synonymous with "catechism" is proof of the popularity and importance of his catechetical work.
Moreover, there were exegetical, apologetic, ascetical, and hagiographical works, in which Canisius, obviously not gifted in speculative thought, nevertheless showed learning in the field of Holy Scripture and the writings of the Fathers of the Church.
Last Years. Misunderstandings arose between him and his successor, Paul Hoffaeus. According to reports of Canisius' stepbrother Theodore and others, Canisius' insistence upon extreme accuracy, his tendency to perfectionism, and his careful attention to completeness of documentation seemed to Hoffaeus to lay too heavy a burden upon the province. Hoffaeus therefore reported the case to Rome, hoping to have Canisius relieved of the responsibility of continuing his writing against the centuria tors of magdeburg, with which he had been charged by Pius V. This was done in 1578. Further misunderstandings arose about lending money at interest, which was a very controversial issue at that time: Hoffaeus favored the licitness of taking interest under the so-called contractus germanicus. Canisius did not, and his opposition led to his transfer to Fribourg, Switzerland, where the task of the development of the newly erected college was assigned to him. He gathered the funds, selected the site, and superintended the erection of a college. His main work in Fribourg was preaching, though he continued writing until his death.
The "Spiritual Testament" written during the last years of his life at the end of his "Spiritual Diary," although surviving only in fragments, shows features characteristic of Canisius.
He was indefatigable, strong in faith and in his attitude toward the pope and the Church. Nevertheless he was fully aware of the shortcomings in the lives of ecclesiastics of his time, and he criticized them with a severity and a frankness nearly unprecedented. In his writings one finds such characteristic statements as "Peter sleeps, but Judas is awake." The worship of relics, the doctrine of indulgences, pilgrimages, and the cult of the saints were subject to distortion and abuse, and the awareness of this spurred Canisius continually to do what he could to correct it. Canisius never showed signs of despair or even of discouragement. On the contrary, he encouraged the timid. The secret of his confidence in God was his imperturbable faith of which the following passage of a letter (written in March or April 1561) may be quoted as an example: "The fear of many people is greater than necessary, because they look for human and not for divine help; they act in despair instead of praying with holy confidence for the oppressed Church." Judging from the fragments of his diary, he lived in constant union with God, and this influenced and connected his multiple activities. His religious life was according to the pattern of Christian humanism as this was practiced in his native country. The influence of the Devotio Moderna is discernible to him. His knowledge of Holy Scripture and of the Fathers of the Church was profound. He enjoyed certain privileges of a mystical kind. Although he was often maliciously defamed and vituperated by his adversaries, his language, severe though it appears to us, was remarkably mild when compared to the asperity common in controversy of his time, and he tried also to have his friends use moderation. He clarified the distinction between culpable apostasy and a mere matter-of-fact separation from the Church that did not, in his opinion, necessarily imply fault. When in Rome, Canisius emphasized his conviction that there was no question of formal apostasy in the case of many Protestants. He refused to accept the new scientific principles of humanism. As is apparent from his hagiographic and historical writings, he lacked the competence of a critical observer of history. This uncritical attitude, furthermore, is to be seen very often in his manner of dealing with cases of personal revelation, obsession, and sorcery. He was intransigent in his views regarding the lawfulness of taking interest for loans; he did not take the changing circumstances of the times sufficiently into account. Nevertheless, these shortcomings do not diminish the importance of his versatile genius for the Church in Germany. His historical greatness lies in the fact that he was entirely aware of the tasks of his time, and with indefatigable zeal he sought to cope with them, devoting his entire life to the work without thought of personal advantage or self-interest.
Soon after his death the veneration of the first German Jesuit began within the German Jesuit provinces, in Switzerland, in the Tyrol, and in South Germany, and it was principally through his catechisms that he remained in the memory of the people. In 1614 the first biography was published by Matthaeus Rader, followed in 1616 by F. Sacchini's, which was appreciated even by L. Ranke. The process of beatification started soon after the publication of these biographies but was interrupted by the suppression of the Jesuit Order. Canisius was beatified in 1864 and canonized by Pius XI in 1925, when he was also declared a Doctor of the Church, an honor that emphasized the importance of his catechisms. He is buried in St. Michael's Church in Fribourg.
Feast: April 27.
Bibliography: B. Petri Canisii epistulae et acta, ed. o. braunsberger, 8 v. (Freiburg 1896–1923); S. Petri Canisii catechismi latini et germanici, ed. f. streicher, 2 v. (Rome 1933–36). Petrus Canisius: Reformer der Kirche, ed. j. oswald and p. rummel (Augsburg 1996). Petrus Canisius, SJ: Humanist und Europäer, ed. r. berndt (Berlin 2000). c. sommervogel et al., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, 11 v. (Brussels–Paris 1890–1932; v. 12, suppl. 1960) 2:617–688; 8:1974–83; 12:988. j. brodrick, St. Peter Canisius: 1521–97 (Baltimore 1950; Chicago 1998). k. diez, Christus und seine Kirche (Paderborn 1987). j. h. m. tesser, Petrus Canisius als humanistisch geleerde (Amsterdam 1932). f. streicher, "De spirituali quodam libro diurno S. Petri Canisii," Archivum historicum Societatis Jesu 2 (1933) 56–63. b. schneider, "Petrus Canisius und Paulus Hoffaeus," Zeitschrift fü katholische Theologie 79 (1957) 304–330. a. de pelsemacher, "St. Pierre Canisius: La Spiritualité d'un apôtre," Revue d'ascétique et de mystique 35 (1959) 167–193. j. lecler, "Die Kirchenfrömmigkeit des hl. Petrus Canisius," Sentire Ecclesiam, ed. j. daniÉlou and h. vorgrimler (Freiburg 1961) 304–314.