Reading about the life of St. Peter Canisius, whose feast it is today, you come to realize that this is not the first time the Church has found Herself in distress. And we learn from St. Peter that while certainly times are tough and we require zeal, the motivation for action is not the frenetic fear of drowning with the ship but rather the invigorating hope of pleasing Christ our love.
Having worked for the Church for several years now, you see, I’ve found a tendency in some, few but a significant few, who believe that the motivation for ministry and evangelization ought to be the utter despair over our current cultural situation. These good people believe that the attacks on the Church, and there are many, the malaise amongst Catholics, and there is a good deal, the lack of priestly and religious vocations, and there is such a lack, all of these things have in unprecedented fashion made for the Catholic Church a uniquely difficult situation. We are mandated, then, to act with the zeal of someone on a sinking ship. Unless you realize just how bad things are, these folks might argue, you can’t really do the work of the Church. Unless you talk about just how bad the world is and insist that others agree with you about how bad it is, well, you’re living in a land of fantasy.
These good people are sometimes difficult to be around for long periods of time as every conversation leads to the latest scandal or well-known accounts of the general apathy amongst self-professed Catholics. It’s not that they’re wrong about there being a problem. It’s just that it’s all they talk about, and it is so much a part of their lives because this fear about the future, and frankly their own confidence in being the bearer of truth, is what motivates them to be nominally Christian. It’s a dangerous attitude. One which I think St. Peter Canisius would warn us against.
Born in 1521 in Holland, St. Peter was a man thrown right into the middle of the Protestant Reformation. It was a time in the Church’s life full of persecutions, malaise, abandonment and general cultural antipathy. He had an attraction to theology very early on and pursued it with zeal. When he met Bl. Peter Favre (or Faber), the first disciple of St. Ignatius Loyola, he attended a retreat led by the holy man and was convinced to join this new order so dedicated to being companions for Jesus. Very early on, his skills were put to the test.
The faith of Europe was in shambles…yes even then. Germany, Austria, Bavaria were all overcome by Protestant heresies and Catholic Dukes and Lords eagerly desired some response from the Church. Duke William IV of Bavaria, for instance, asked St. Ignatius to send some of his already famed Jesuits to Ingolstadt to reform the Catholic schools there. St. Peter Canisius was sent and not only managed to counteract the heresies of the Protestants but managed to revive in the people of the town a true devotion to the faith. For St. Peter, this was not just a matter of getting the intellectual content of the faith right. His project was to bring the people back into discipleship with Christ, a task that required touching the heart.
With Ingolstadt stable, King Ferdinand asked the now well-reputed Peter to travel to Vienna and do the same thing. Vienna, that great city of the arts and music; Vienna so beautifully tucked away in the Austrian landscape; Vienna was a Catholic wasteland. We hear about terrible statistics all the time regarding the Catholic Church of today. Vienna was far worse.
The majority of the parishes in Vienna didn’t have a pastor. Not just one or two parishes, not just a handful, not even half but the majority of parishes had no priest. Why? There hadn’t been an ordination in the Archdiocese of Vienna in twenty years! Entire monasteries were left abandoned by priests who left the faith or who had died off with no one to succeed them. The few religious that did remain were yelled at in the streets, made fun of, humiliated. In response to all of this St. Peter preached, and he did so to practically empty Churches. Even those who still claimed to be Catholic no longer attended Mass.
One of the interesting tidbits from St. Peter’s story is that some of those who still claimed to be Catholic would refuse to attend St. Peter Canisius’ Mass because his Rhineland German accent annoyed them. I find this funny because I have discovered the exact same petty behavior amongst some Catholics today. A wife in a rural part of the country elsewhere reported that her husband would start going to the Lutheran Church in town if the new translation required that he sing at Mass. At a parish in another part of our country, a Polish-emigre priest found his congregation dwindling and attending the Lutheran Church down the road because, well, they didn’t like his accent either. There is truly nothing new under the sun, friends.
But in the face of this total apathy, St. Peter did not preach more, or berate them with this or that story of hell. What won the people of Vienna over to his side was not preaching, or at least not at first. A plague hit the town, you see, and the people were overcome by how this Dutch priest with the strange accent would sacrifice himself for the sake of the poor, the ill and the dying. From lecturing at the local college about the faith, to visiting the elderly, to the regular attention he paid to those imprisoned in the jails St. Peter Canisius worked his way into the hearts of the people of Vienna, and it was then and only then that they began to listen to him.
If ever there were a lesson about the evangelical power of the social doctrine of the Church, St. Peter Canisius is it. Like the early Christians, it was not the neatly wrapped tales of the faith that brought so many droves of pagans into the Catholic fold. It was that they could say, “See how these Christians love one another.” For St. Peter Canisius, it was the good old practice of the corporal works of mercy that prepared his people for the Word. Apologetics is all well and good my friends, but unless we back that up with concrete service for the poor, what have we really?
With their hearts now opened, St. Peter wrote several catechisms each simpler than the former . These were snatched up by the people, for St. Peter knew that there was a great hunger in the souls of the Viennese to know the truth just as there is this hunger in all people. Many hundreds of printings were required, and in several languages as well even while he lived. This is in great part why he was named a Doctor of the Church.
The rest of St. Peter’s career was marked by doing similar work throughout the German-speaking lands, writing – reforming – revealing the Word to the nations. It was St. Peter who founded the College, now University, of Fribourg. He was the first provincial of the province of Prague which is where, some few years later, St. Edmund Campion would spend some time before his fateful journey back to England and martyrdom. But of all of these accomplishments, the constant vigor and zeal of this beautiful priest, the thing that strikes me most of all is the attitude with which he engaged in his work.
Explaining how it is he dealt with Protestants – that is the people and not the ideas – he said that it is a mistake
to bring up in conversation subjects to which the Protestants have an antipathy…such as confession, satisfaction, purgatory, indulgences, monastic vows and pilgrimages; the reason being that, like fever patients, they have infected palates and so are incapable of judging aright about such foods. Their need, as that of children, is for milk, and they should be led gently and gradually to those dogmas about which there is dispute.
How many of us tell ourselves that, well, we just have to the tell them the truth. It is our obligation to do so, even if it does make them uncomfortable and might burn bridges and hurt our relationships. It is the truth, and they must hear it. No no, says St. Peter. Feed them milk first. And judging from his life, part of that milk is the gospel as it is lived in the corporal works of mercy. Again, regarding those who were born into a Protestant background he wrote:
Certainly an infinite number of them adhere to the new sectaries and err in religious belief, but they do so in such a way as proves that their errors proceed from ignorance rather than malice. They err, I repeat, but without contention, without willfulness, without obstinacy.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters are not heretics. Aspects of their theologies are heretical, but they are not to be treated as heretics. But even when a Protestant was obstinate, St. Peter would say that we should not approach them
in a temper of asperity or…with discourtesy, for this is nothing else than the reverse of Christ’s example inasmuch as it is to break the bruised reed and quench the smoking flax.
In other words, St. Peter Canisius led his life by the dictum that we trace back to St. Augustine, “In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.” This charity is the fruit of hope in Christ. It is not the frenzy born of “getting it done before it’s too late.” It is the assuréd, peaceful confidence that the Master of history is in control and my vocations is to do what He wills as often as I can.
See the point is not that we get caught up in the heresies that abound, and they do. Though I realized I succumb to it at times myself, the motivation for evangelization ought not be rooted in the concern that if we don’t do something NOW we’ll lose Western civilization. We may, but that ought not be what drives us to preach the Gospel. What drives us ought to be the love of Christ, the unbridled, foolish, spontaneous, illogical, zealous love for the God who loved us first.
Caritas Christi urget nos. The love of Christ urges us on, not the fear of a cultural collapse of the West.
Yes, things are bad. And yes, we ought to be aware of them and talk about them. The Holy Father certainly does and is right to tell us so. But we ought to be careful that we are not allowing the fear of the future, the portents of a dismal horizon dictate to us what it is that we do. Rather, like St. Peter Canisius, who was met with an empty Church and empty Catholics, we ought to simply love our neighbor, visit the sick, meet with the imprisoned, serve the poor, give of our time and our treasure, take in the orphan, comfort the widow, hold fast to our vocation to serve. Do all of that, friends, and do it for Jesus. This is, I firmly believe, at the heart of the message of Pope Benedict’s message. The New Evangelization is rooted in the Social Doctrine my friends, in service, in Charity in Truth.
St. Peter Canisius pray for us, and long live Christ the King.