Peter Canisius, the remarkable Jesuit who almost single-handedly reevangelized Central Europe (hence his nom de guerre “the hammer of Protestantism”), founded dozens of colleges, contributed to the rebirth of Catholicism by his prodigious writings, and laid the groundwork for the Catholic Reformation north of the Alps. Born at Nijmegen, Holland in 1521 to Jacob Kanis and Ægidia van Houweningen (his mother died shortly after; his father was a burgomeister and instructor to princes in the court of the duke of Lorraine), St. Peter Canisius was part of a movement for religious reform as a very young man. He obtained his master’s degree in Cologne at the age of 19, and in 1543, after attending a retreat given by Blessed Peter Favre, joined the Jesuits as the eighth professed member of the Society of Jesus.
He worked first in the city of Cologne, becoming a spokesman for the Catholic party. He became a consultor to the cardinal of Augsburg at the Council of Trent and in 1547 was called by St. Ignatius, his spiritual director, to Rome. He was sent to Sicily to teach, and then, after his solemn profession in Rome, was sent back to Germany as the first superior of the German province of the Jesuits.
Peter next began to restore and found colleges, first in Vienna and Prague, and then in Munich, Innsbruck, and throughout northern Germany (he began teaching theology and preaching at Ingolstadt in 1549, and was Rector of the university in 1550). He attracted vocations to the Jesuits, and the society began to flourish in Central Europe. He organized the Jesuits into a compact unit and made the society a leading force in the Counter-Reformation. He was in contact with all the Catholic leaders in Germany, and wrote fourteen hundred letters giving support to those laboring for reform. He was the adviser of the emperor and the confidante of three popes. He was consulted by papal legates and nunciatures and was a severe critic of religious and clerical life in post-Reformation Germany.
He recommended far-reaching reforms and had a profound effect upon the education and spiritual life of the clergy. Through his efforts, seminaries were founded, and the popes sent him on important diplomatic missions. In the midst of his many labors, he edited and published editions of the Fathers of the Church, catechisms, spiritual manuals, and textbooks that went into countless editions even in his own lifetime.
His pastoral strategy, in dealing with the Protestant revolt in Germany, still applies today: “If you treat them right, the Germans will give you everything. Many err in matters of faith, but without arrogance. They err the German way, mostly honest, a bit simple-minded, but very open for everything Lutheran. An honest explanation of the faith would be much more effective than a polemical attack against reformers.” Of attacks against Calvin and Melanchthon, he said, “With words like these, we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.”
He was a brilliant apologist, having written three catechisms (A Summary of Christian Teachings, published in three volumes, here, here, and here; A Smaller Catechism; and A Little Catechism for Catholics) and contributed to the Catechism of the Council of Trent, which added his Rosary plea: “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners.”
He died on December 21, 1597, at Fribourg, Switzerland, and was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.