What Francis Xavier is to Asia, Peter Canisius is to Europe: a Jesuit apostle who almost singlehandedly stemmed the onslaught of the Protestant Reformation, and kept central Europe loyal to the Catholic faith. Not without reason is he called “the second apostle of Germany”.
He was born in 1521, a memorable year: that was the year Martin Luther split from Rome, and Ignatius Loyola experienced his conversion on the battlefield. Peter came from a prosperous merchant family in Nijmegen, Holland, and a close friendship with Peter Faber, one of Ignatius’s early companions, led him to join the Jesuits.
Already as a young priest of 25, he represented the Cardinal Prince of Augsburg at the Council of Trent. Where the Protestants were derisive and hostile, Peter charmed everyone by his courteous speech and his quiet erudition. Later, Ignatius Loyola sent him to Vienna where he taught in the university, preached in the cathedral and at the court of Emperor Ferdinand I.
The Church in central Europe was in a deplorable state. People were ignorant and superstitious. Most priests were illiterate and living in sin. The Protestants, by contrast, were well-versed in Scripture, and had great preaching skills. To bring about a change of affairs, Peter embarked on a four-fold strategy.
Firstly, he preached in cathedral and in small country church, always on the move. His sermons were linked to confessions, and to the giving of the Spiritual Exercises, a shorter form of the modern retreat. Those who heard him preach came to him for guidance. Secondly, he encouraged ‘sodalities’, groups of model young men who would live their faith. For these he set up ‘schools’ – classrooms, exercises and graded curricula, thereby establishing what later came to be a Jesuit hallmark. In his life Canisius founded some 30 schools and seminaries. But most of all, he used the new invention of the printing press to issue books, tracts and pamphlets. He is most remembered for his ‘catechism’, the first easy-to-read presentation of points of doctrine, meant for the average Catholic. In his lifetime, Canisius brought out 200 editions of his catechism in 12 languages.
Peter Canisius died at the age of 76 in Fribourg, Switzerland. In 1925, he was canonized and declared doctor of the Church, the first time such honours were bestowed simultan-eously. This unassuming and zealous Jesuit had in the course of fifty years changed the religious face of Europe.