Saints of the Day – Peter Canisius (Kanis), Priest, Doctor

detail of a painting of Saint Peter Cansius, date and artist unknown; Saint Peter Canisius side altar of the Jesuit church in Innsbruck, Austria; photographed on 8 June 2019 by Burkhard Mücke; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Born in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, in May 8, 1521; died in Fribourg, Switzerland, December 21, 1597; canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1925; feast day formerly April 27. From the disorders of the 16th century Catholic Church, which helped to create the Protestant Reformation, sprung Peter Canisius. He stood out as the leader of the Counter-Reformation in German lands because his scholarship and theological insight, his courtesy and learning commanded the respect even of his opponents.

Peter was the eldest son of Jacob Kanis, who was elected burgomaster of Nijmegan nine times and was made a nobleman after tutoring the sons of the duke of Lorraine – a staunch holdout for Catholics. When Peter’s mother died, his father remarried, and his stepmother raised his religiously. Although he went to the University of Cologne and then to Louvain with the intention of becoming a canon lawyer, he grew more and more entranced by the study of theology. He realized that a legal career and marriage would not satisfy him, so he took a vow of celibacy, and returned to Cologne to continue his theological studies.

Under the inspiration of a Jesuit named Peter Fabre during a retreat in Mainz, Canisius joined the Society of Jesus in 1543. Canisius gave his inheritance to the poor, became a novice, and lived a community life in Cologne, where he engaged in visiting the sick and giving religious instruction. He also found time to write editions on the works of Saint Cyril of Alexandria and Saint Leo the Great.

After his ordination in 1546, Canisius earned a reputation as a preacher. He attended two sessions of the Council of Trent as a delegate. Saint Ignatius Loyola summoned him to Rome to assist him for five months. He then went to Messina to teach in the first Jesuit school, but returned shortly to Rome. At the request of Duke William IV of Bavaria, Canisius went to Bavaria as a professor to counteract heresy in the schools. Peter reformed the university at Ingolstadt and was named rector and then vice chancellor.

In 1552, he was called to Vienna by King Ferdinand to fulfill a similar function. The churches were poorly attended when he arrived, but he earned the trust and following of the people by his efforts to relieve the sick and dying during an outbreak of the plague. The king and the papal nuncio wanted him to become archbishop of Vienna. Instead he consented to administer the see for only one year, without episcopal orders, title, or benefits.

The parishes were virtually without clergy, the monasteries deserted, and there had been no ordinations for 20 years (and we think we have a vocational crisis!). During this period he began work on his finest work, Summary of Christian Doctrine (Summa Doctrinae Christianae), a catechism of 211 questions and answers written in Latin and German. Published in 1555, it went through 200 editions before his death and was translated into 15 European languages.

Canisius next went to Prague (in 1556) to found a college and was made provincial, against his will, of a new province that encompassed southern Germany, Austria, and Bohemia. The college gained such a reputation that Protestants sent their children to it, and in two years, Peter brought most of the city back to the faith.

He moved to Augsburg, Germany, in 1559, at the request of King Ferdinand, and induced there a similar revival of the faith. He also influenced the Reichstag to restore public schools. Throughout his life he insisted upon the importance of schools and writing for publication. In fact, he is one of the founders of the Catholic press.

At the end of his term as provincial, he moved to Dillingen, Bavaria, where he directed the university. He taught, acted as a confessor, and composed a stream of works in defense of the Catholic faith.

Whereas many felt that the Protestant Reformers were by far the most learned and intelligent of the controversialists, in Peter Canisius they met their equal. He used some of their weapons. The Bible, he believed, could be used in support of the ancient faith as well as enlisted on the side of Protestantism. Where Canisius thought he opponents were right, he courteously said so. But he believed that his own statement of the Catholic faith could hold its own in any Christian debate, and preferred to concentrate on basic Christian doctrines rather than controversial matters, such as indulgences and purgatory. In dealing with Lutherans, he always distinguished between those who had deliberately propagated heresy and those who had been brought up in it, or had drifted into it, whose errors, as he thought, came from ignorance rather than malice.

In addition to apologetics, his written work includes theological, ascetical, and historical treatises. Among his compositions are A Manual for Catholics, a martyrology, a revision of the Augsburg Breviary, and the General Prayer, which is still recited in Germany.

Canisius acted as a court chaplain for several years at Innsbruck, Austria, and helped to resolve a rift between the emperor and Pope Pius IV. In 1577, he was relieved of the task of finishing a series of books because of his ill health. Nevertheless, he continued to preach, make visitations as vice provincial, and give missions. In 1580, he went to Fribourg, Switzerland, to build a college, which became the University of Fribourg. His regular preaching for more than eight years is credited with holding Fribourg to the faith during an uneasy time in history.

His health deteriorated further. In 1591, he suffered a stroke. He recovered enough to write, with the help of a secretary, and died six years later.

As you can see, Canisius was constantly engaged in teaching, preaching, instructing, advising, and arbitrating in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Bohemia, and Poland. It is estimated that he travelled 20,000 miles on foot and horseback in 30 years. For this work, he is rightly called the Second Apostle of Germany (Attwater, Benedictines, Bentley, Brodrick, Delaney, Farmer, White).

In art Saint Peter can be identified as an elderly (sometimes bearded) Jesuit with “charitas” and IHS in glory above his head as he kneels before the Blessed Virgin with a book near him (Roeder).

MLA Citation

  • Katherine I Rabenstein. Saints of the Day, 1998. CatholicSaints.Info. 21 August 2020. Web. 27 November 2020. <>