St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church

Reading about the life of St. Peter Canisius, whose feast it is today, you realize that this is not the first time the Church has found Herself in distress. We also learn that while certainly times can be tough for Catholics, our motivation should always be the invigorating hope of pleasing Christ our love.

I’ve worked for the Church for close to two decades now, and I’ve found a tendency in some fellow workers in the vineyard who minister or evangelize a tendency to do so out of their utter despair over our current ecclesial crisis. These good people believe that the priest scandals, the attacks on the Church, the malaise if not antipathy among Catholics for the spiritual life, the lack of priestly and religious vocations and, well, every other crisis have placed American Catholics in an unprecedented moment in history. We are mandated, so they argue, to act with the zeal of someone on a sinking ship. And very often they argue that their ministry, or their theological interest, or their work is what will “save” the Church.

Thus, unless you realize just how bad things are, you can’t really love the Church, love Christ, or much less do the work of the Church. Unless you’re aware of just how bad a state the Church is in you’re living in a land of fantasy and cannot effectively evangelize. Being around these good people can sometimes be difficult, as every conversation leads to the latest scandal and how much you should be outraged by it.

Let me be clear, it’s not that they’re completely wrong. The Church is in dire crisis in a whole host of regions and in multitudinous aspects. But there is a danger in founding ministerial action and evangelical zeal upon the crises instead of on the desire to know and love Jesus Christ, His Father and the Holy Spirit. There is a danger in imagining new techniques that will “save” the Church, when in truth it will be the same tried and true works of the apostles that will win souls. It is spiritual death to start to minister to others so that you can “win.” St. Peter Canisius’ life shows us this is true.

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 toward the Church. He had an attraction to theology very early on and pursued it with zeal. When he met St. Peter Favre (or Faber), the first disciple of St. Ignatius Loyola, he had been attending 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.

You see, the faith of Europe was in shambles…yes even then. Germany, Austria, Bavaria were all overcome by Protestant heresies, and the 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, and which required his constant efforts to “connect” with the people.

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, city of cathedrals, Vienna was a Catholic wasteland. We think things in the U.S. are bad. Vienna was far worse.

The majority of the parishes in Vienna didn’t have a pastor, by which I mean that 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. This was the Vienna in which St. Peter Canisius found himself.

In response, he preached to practically empty Churches, for even those who still claimed to be Catholic no longer attended Mass. Why? There were numerous reasons. No one wants to be associated with the “losing team” after all, right? But also some of those Catholics would refuse to attend St. Peter’s Mass because his Rhineland German accent annoyed them. I have discovered the exact same behavior among some Catholics today. I recall a woman in a rural part of the country who lamented the encouragement for chant in the new translation of the Missal. If the singing remained, she warned, her husband would start going to the Lutheran Church in town where there was less singing. I remember, too, a parish where 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.

But in the face of this total apathy, St. Peter did not preach more, or berate them with the fear of hell, or preach to counteract the latest Protestant error, nor work out some programatic scheme for winning back his co-religionists. No, he simply remained faithful to the Lord and responded to the circumstances around him with the love that drew him to the priestly life in the first place, namely to be a companion of Jesus.

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 with awe and respect by how this Dutch priest with the strange accent would sacrifice himself for the sake of the poor, the ill and the dying. After lecturing at the local college about the faith, he would visit the elderly, then paid regular attention to the imprisoned and then finally to plague victims. St. Peter Canisius worked his way into the hearts of the people of Vienna by answering the call of Christ in the suffering and the poor. 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 philosophical arguments 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 corporal works of mercy that prepared his people for the Word. Apologetics is all well and good, but unless we back that up with concrete service for the poor, what have we really?

With their hearts now opened, then 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. 

This is, by the way, why I continue to argue for the maintenance of catechetical programs and efforts. Today one often hears about the futility of catechizing if the hearers are unconverted. This ignores several realities, the chief among them being that truth, catechetical truth, can move hearts to be open to Christ. I have seen it happen. What’s more, an already converted heart can lay dormant for ages while it awaits someone who cares enough about the faith to preach it. We need to catechize.

Back to our story, 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. He founded what would later become the University of Innsbruck in Austria where Servant of God Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boystown and Omaha hero, would finally complete his seminary training and be ordained a priest.

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 hard truth and that will convince them that we are right. It is our obligation, even if it does make them uncomfortable and might burn bridges and hurt our relationships, to speak truth into lies. It is a common temptation. 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 diversity; 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. Saving the Church is not up to me. I need only respond to His promptings to love.


There are a great many scandals in the Church today, and they will get worse, I believe. The temptation may be to evangelize because if we don’t do something NOW we’ll lose Western civilization. Within that well-meaning motivation is the subtle lie that it is our work and our movement and our efforts that will save the Church, and if only those doltish bishops would see things my way all would be solved. Resist that temptation, friends. 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. 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 now. 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.