Feast Day : December 21
Also known as: the Second Apostle of Germany
Peter Canisius was born on May 8, 1521, in Nimwegen, then under the jurisdiction of Germany and now belonging to the Netherlands. His father was a prominent man, elected nine times the burgomaster. Peter’s mother died shortly after he was born. At age 15 he was sent to the University of Cologne, and studied civil law, theology and the arts. He received a master of arts degree in 1540. At the university he became friends with Nicholas van Esche, who became his spiritual adviser. In the year of his graduation, he went against his father’s wishes to marry a wealthy woman and made a vow of celibacy. He met Peter Faber, one of the first companions of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and made the spiritual exercises under his direction. In 1546 Peter was admitted to the Society of Jesus in Mainz. He founded the first German house of the order in Cologne, and lectured and taught at the university. He was a brilliant preacher and inspired many. He became known for his editing of the works of SS. Cyril of Alexandria and Leo the Great. In 1547 Peter attended the Council of Trent as procurator for the bishop of Augsburg. He became deeply involved in the politics of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. After a brief stint in Messina teaching at a Jesuit college at the behest of St. Ignatius, he went to Rome in 1549 for his final profession. He was appointed a professor of theology at the University of Ingolstadt, and soon became rector. He then was sent to the University of Vienna to teach theology. Peter distinguished himself with his charitable work and his attention to abandoned parishes. People flocked to hear him speak. As part of the Counter-Reformation, Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I asked the University of Vienna in 1551 to compose a compendium of Christian doctrine. The job fell to Peter and a colleague, Father Lejay. Peter deferred to Lejay as the better writer of the two, but had to take over the entire project when Lejay died. The result was Peter’s greatest work, his Catechism, published in 1555. In his lifetime it was translated into 200 editions in 12 languages and was a huge success. Peter wrote two shorter versions for students. By the end of the 17th century, the Catechism was available in 15 languages and was published in more than 400 editions. Despite the Catechism, Peter was at one time accused—unsuccessfully—of being Protestant. In 1556 Peter was named provincial of southern Germany. In subsequent years, he established colleges for boys in six cities and dispatched trained priests throughout the region. He traveled and preached and responded to the needs of the papacy. For seven years he was the official pastor at Augsburg. Peter spent the last years of his life in Fribourg, Switzerland, where he founded a school in 1580, and in 1581 founded sodalities of the Blessed Virgin for citizens and for women and students. The citizens there would not let him leave. He died on December 21, 1597, and was buried before the high altar of the Church of St. Nicolaus. In 1625 his remains were translated to St. Michael, the church of the Jesuit college. Miracles were reported immediately after his death and his tomb was a site of pilgrimage. Peter’s Catechism became the foundation for all catechisms that followed. Other major works are The History of John the Baptist and The Incomparable Virgin Mary, which were written to refute the Protestant attack, and Centuries of Magdeburg. Also surviving are numerous treatises, letters and sermons on Catholic dogma and teachings.