Saint Peter Canisius

Characters like today’s (usus antiquior) saint, Peter Canisius, turn out to be quite relevant, forty-six years after the Vatican Vandals (™) stripped him from the liturgy, to make more space for kumbaya. A pioneering Jesuit, later recognized as a Doctor of the Church, he served through the reigns of four popes in the sixteenth century. His task was to save the Catholic Church from extinction in the German-speaking realms of Europe’s near north. How desperately we need another one like him today.

Saint Peter was all his life, from university days in Cologne, an itinerant preacher. He was an inhumanly tireless one. Wandering Germany at the height of the Protestant Reformation, as it was pushing all before it, he realized an important thing about preaching. It was little use to attack the Reformers, or to list heresies few would understand. That only meant a mud bath, and one for which his own side was badly outnumbered. The common people, and many of the better educated, too, were simple and often honest, he believed. They did not actually know what the Catholic faith was. No one had been teaching it for a while. They’d been taking on faith, instead, that the nasty caricature of Catholic doctrine the Reformers were imparting must be true, having heard nothing to contradict it.

This is what makes Saint Peter Canisius so modern. His situation is parallel to what we find today — in Germany, especially. A large part of the catastrophe of the Roman Church in our own time is likewise the direct consequence of failing to teach the faith — to children, to adults, even to seminarians. (In fact, teaching children is not really the Church’s job; it is the parents’ job.)

People can’t always be blamed for not knowing things of which they’ve never heard. On the eve of the Reformation, the Church had fallen into smugness and indifference of the kind we get from our bishops today, in too many places. It was time to find clergy who would teach the faith as if their lives depended on it. (Please take the hint.) This meant, creating them; for then as now there was what is called a “crisis in vocations.”

With his Jesuit colleagues — very few to start, but a remarkable lot — he got this show on the road, positively teaching, teaching, teaching. That is not to say Saint Peter Canisius avoided debate. He was on call to debate any Protestant theologian, in any venue — the more formidable, the better. He acquired a reputation for making fools of them — very public fools. He then leapt upon each opportunity to go after their patrons — the local rulers who had bowed to pressure, including mobs sometimes, to appoint such men to the leading pulpits. He became considerably resented for his success in bringing them around, from confusion, or to where they had left their cojones.

Yet he carefully avoided the ad hominem: refused to attack persons, including the persons of Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin. It was their teachings he wished to debate. Attacking the man cannot cure him, he reasoned; it will only make him incurable.

Penniless, for the most part, he contrived to found Jesuit colleges out of thin air. For the first time, the teaching was in German as well as Latin. He wrote catechisms, in German and Latin, suited to all sorts and conditions. He was a major figure behind the Catechism of the Council of Trent. Schools, everywhere — he launched schools to teach those at all ages, the Catholic religion and much besides. Rome occasionally wondered what he was up to; he seldom found time to reply. Offered bishoprics and other opportunities to become a Prince of the Church, he’d refuse, saying he didn’t have time. Sometimes he’d pause just long enough to clean up a mess the last bishop had left; but only until the new bishop arrived.

The Rhineland, Bavaria, Austria, beyond — all these heartlands of German-speaking Catholicism were, arguably, saved by the efforts of one man, who was recognized in the Mass as the second apostle of Germany, after Saint Boniface. We cannot afford to forget such men.


This Saint Peter was Pieter Kanis, in his native Dutch. He was raised in the Guelderland. I cannot resist a quick aside on his native place. It was one of several Dutch towns shown to me … many years ago.

Nijmegen, or Nimeguen as we used to say in English, was once a jewel on the River Waal in the beautiful Rhineland. Founded by the Romans, it had two millennia of artefacts to show, until the Second World War. An important entrepôt even in the first century, it remained so through Charlemagne and into the age of the Hanseatic League. It was a major art centre in the later Middle Ages (the Limbourg brothers came from there), an urban bouquet of Gothic craft and architecture. But moving right along. …

It was the first town to fall to the Nazis on the Western front, as the Blitz began. But that was not the worst of it. It is near Arnhem: not a good place to be at the end of that War, either.

Perhaps gentle reader has heard of Operation Market Garden. Stop me before I wander into a long disquisition on the Allied advance after the Normandy landings — which was heroic, on the part of so many of the individuals involved; but also, usually a farce, of the kind which reminds us that the army was the original bureaucracy. But that was not the worst of it, either.

Owing to navigation errors, American bombers mistook Nimeguen for another town — one actually in Germany — and pulverized it in the afternoon of 22 February 1944, killing quite a number of people, and giving Nazi propagandists a huge boost. The back-and-forth on the ground in the autumn helped smooth those ruins. Pockets of well-armed German resistance remained, even six months after that, with consequences gentle reader will imagine. Little was standing by VE Day.

But there were measured drawings and photographs, and much could have been patiently rebuilt. Saturation bombing is a setback, to be sure, but worse things can happen. And worse things did.

I refer to the city planners, who went into action after the War. And what they did to Nimeguen, … I don’t even want to talk about.