Who was Peter Canisius?
Peter Canisius (1521 – 1597) was an important Jesuit Catholic priest who helped people understand the Catholic faith during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, Austria, Bohemia, Moravia, and Switzerland. The restoration of the Catholic Church in Germany after the Protestant Reformation is largely attributed to the work there of the Society of Jesus, which he led. He is venerated in the Catholic Church as a saint and as a Doctor of the Church.
He was born in 1521 in Nijmegen in the Duchy of Guelders, which, until 1549, was part of the Habsburg Netherlands within the Holy Roman Empire and is now the Netherlands. His father was the wealthy burgermeister, Jacob Kanis; his mother, Ægidia van Houweningen, who died shortly after Peter's birth. He was sent to study at the University of Cologne, he earned a Master's degree in 1540, at the age of 19. While there, he met Peter Faber, one of the founders of the Society of Jesus. Through him, Canisius became the first Dutchman to join the newly-founded Society of Jesus in 1543.
Through his preaching and writings, Peter Canisius became one of the most influential Catholics of his time. He supervised the founding and maintenance of the first German-speaking Jesuit colleges, often with little resources at hand. Because of his frequent travels between the colleges, a tedious and dangerous occupation at the time, he became known as the Second Apostle of Germany.
Canisius also exerted a strong influence on the Emperor Ferdinand I; he ceaselessly reminded Ferdinand of the imminent danger to his soul should he concede more rights to Protestants in return for their military support. When Canisius perceived a very real danger of Ferdinand's son and heir, Maximilian, openly declaring himself a Protestant, Canisius threatened Maximilian with disinheritance should he desert the Catholic Faith.
Canisius was an influential teacher and preacher, especially through his "German Catechism", a book which defined the basic principles of Catholicism in the German language and made them more accessible to readers in German-speaking countries. He was offered the post of Bishop of Vienna in 1554, but declined in order to continue his traveling and teachings. He did, however, serve as administrator of the Diocese of Vienna for one year, until a new bishop was appointed for it.
He moved to Germany, where he was one of the main Catholic theologians at the Colloquy of Worms in 1557, and later served as the main preacher in the cathedral of Augsburg from 1559 to 1568, where he strongly witnessed to his faith on three or four occasions each week. His preaching was said to have been so convincing that it attracted hundreds of Protestants back to the old faith.
By the time he left Germany, the Society of Jesus in Germany had evolved from a small band of priests 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 preparatory school, the College of Saint Michael, which trained generations of young men for careers and future university studies.
In 1591, at the age of 70, Canisius suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed, but he continued to preach and write with the aid of a secretary until his death in Fribourg. He was initially buried at the Church of St. Nicholas. His remains were later transferred to the church of the Jesuit College, which he had founded and where he spent the last year of his life They were interred in front of the main altar of the church, and the room he occupied during those last months is now a chapel which is open to the veneration of the faithful.
Canisius lived during the height of the Protestant Reformation and dedicated much of his work to the clarification of the Catholic faith in light of the emergence of the new Protestant doctrines. His lasting contribution is his three catechisms, which he published in Latin and German, which became widespread and popular in Catholic regions. In his fight with German Protestantism, he requested much more flexibility from Rome, arguing:
If you treat them right, the Germans will give you everything. Many err in matters of faith, but without arrogance. They err the German way, mostly honest, a bit simple-minded, but very open for everything Lutheran. An honest explanation of the faith would be much more effective than a polemical attack against reformers.
He rejected attacks against John Calvin and Melanchton: With words like these, we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.
Mariology of Canisius
Canisius taught that, while there are many roads leading to Jesus Christ, for him the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary is the best. His sermons and letters document a clear preoccupation with Marian veneration. Under the heading "prayer" he explains the Ave Maria (Hail Mary), as the basis for Catholic Marian piety. Less known are his Marian books, in which he published prayers and contemplative texts. He is credited with adding to the Hail Mary the sentence "Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners."
Eleven years later it was included in the Catechism of the Council of Trent of 1566. Theologically, Canisius defended Roman Catholic Mariology in his 1577 book, De Maria Virgine Incomparabili et Dei Genitrice Sacrosancta Libri Quinque. From today's perspective, Canisius clearly erred in some of his sources, but, because of his factual analysis of original sources, it is considered as representing one of the best theological achievements in the 16th century.
Veneration Canisius was beatified by Pope Pius IX in the year 1864, and later canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church on 21 May 1925 by Pope Pius XI. His feast day was included in the General Roman Calendar in 1926, for celebration on 27 April. In the liturgical reform of 1969, it was moved to 21 December, the anniversary of his death, the normal day for celebrating a saint's entry into heaven (although it is still kept by the Society of Jesus on Apr. 27).
Legacy In recognition of Canisius' early work in the establishment of Jesuit education, there are multiple educational institutions named for him. Among them is the Canisius College for seminarians in Vienna, Austria, the first institution named for him, as well as Canisius College, a Jesuit secondary school in his hometown of Nijmegen and the alma mater of Peter Hans Kolvenbach, a recent Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Another Canisius College, a university, and Canisius High School, a secondary school, are located in Buffalo, New York. Furthermore, a Jesuit-run Canisius Kolleg can be found in Berlin, Germany. There is also a secondary school named after Canisius, Kolese Kanisius (Collegium Canisianum or Canisius College), in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In addition, there is a primary school: Basisschool Petrus Canisius in Puth in Limburg, Netherlands. In 1850 the Canisius Hospital was established on the corner of the Houtmarkt and the Pauwelstraat in Nijmegen. In 1974 it merged with Wilhelmina Hospital located at the Weg door Jonkerbos in Nijmegen, to become "Canisius-Wilhemina Hospital. 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 defense of the Roman Catholic Church against new values of socialism and liberalism and the restoration of the society with a more Catholic way of life.
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