Peter Canisius


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Jesuit priest, writer, and educator. Born at Nijmegen (Holland) (his father was tutor to the sons of the duke of Lorraine and became burgomaster of his native town), Peter was educated at Cologne University and at Louvain, where he studied canon law. He soon found that the legal career and marriage which his father had intended for him would not satisfy him, he took a vow of celibacy, returned to Cologne, attended a retreat at Mainz given by Peter Favre, one of the first companions of Ignatius of Loyola, and decided to join the Society of Jesus. His novitiate was spent at Cologne where he spent much time in prayer, study, teaching, and the care of the sick. His first publications were editions of the works of Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great. After his ordination he became a prominent preacher, attended two sessions of the Council of Trent, was sent to teach in the first Jesuit school at Messina, and was recalled to Rome to work beside Ignatius.

He was sent to Ingoldstadt, where he became in turn rector and vice-chancellor of the University, which he successfully reformed, making his mark as a preacher and catechizer at the same time. But in 1552 he was sent to undertake a more general task of reform in Vienna. Here there were many parishes without clergy, there had been no ordinations for twenty years, monasteries were deserted, and many people had abandoned religious practices. His energy was almost incredible and he won the esteem of the Viennese by looking after the sick during the plague. The king and the nuncio both wished him to become archbishop of Vienna; instead he consented to administer it for a year, but without becoming a bishop. In 1555 he published his famous Catechism (Summa Doctrinae Christianae), which was in some ways the Catholic equivalent of Luther's famous work. It was translated into fifteen languages during Peter's lifetime and became a model for other similar works. In 1556 he was appointed provincial of a new Jesuit province for Austria, Bavaria, and Bohemia. Resident in Prague, he established a college which became famous for its religious and academic standards. From 1559 to 1565 he lived at Augsburg, repeating his earlier achievements of reclaiming those lapsed from religion, converting Protestants, and encouraging the Catholics. Once again he insisted on the importance of schools and writing for publication by the now flourishing printing presses. Later at Dillingen he taught in schools and universities.

He then took a leading part in founding Fribourg university which has become one of the most important of its kind since. He suffered a paralytic seizure in 1591, but continued writing, with the help of a secretary, until his death six years later on 21 December. He is generally reckoned the principal theologian and writer of his generation in central Europe, to whose influence much of the success of the Counter-Reformation in that area is due. In dealing with Lutherans he always distinguished between those who had deliberately propagated heresy and those who had been brought up in, or had drifted into it, whose errors, as he thought, came from ignorance rather than malice. Always courteous in controversy, he nevertheless thought that discussions between Catholic and Protestant theologians on doctrine were often useless because they widened the gulf between them. He preferred to stress basic Christian doctrine rather than controversial matters like indulgences, purgatory, or pilgrimages. He was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1925. Feast: 21 December (formerly 27 April).


Subjects: Christianity — Early Modern History (1500 to 1700).

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