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  • Writer's pictureOmar Gutierrez

A Light in the Darkness

Do you think things are bad today in the Church? Wait until you hear about the life of St. Peter Canisius.

Born in 1521 in Holland, Peter was attracted right away to the study of theology. The Protestant Reformation had already begun, and though drawn intellectually to the many theological debates of the time, Peter was a deeply spiritual man who, during a retreat with St. Peter Favre, the first disciple of St. Ignatius Loyola, heard the call of Jesus to follow him and join the Jesuits.


Now, with the Protestant Reformation spreading through Europe, Duke William IV of Bavaria asked St. Ignatius to send some of his already-famed Jesuits to Ingolstadt to reform the Catholic schools there. Canisius was sent and, with two brother Jesuits, not only managed to counteract the heresies of the region but to revive in the people of the town a true devotion to the Catholic faith.


With Ingolstadt stable, Peter was asked in 1552 by King Ferdinand to travel to the heart of the Austrian Empire, Vienna, which had become a Catholic wasteland. What do I mean by that? Consider these facts:


The majority of the parishes in the city had no priest. This was because there hadn’t been an ordination in the Archdiocese of Vienna in twenty years! But not only were they not ordaining new priests, they were losing them. Entire monasteries were left abandoned due to the lack of new priests to replace the ones who had died and the many more who simply left the priesthood.


And what about the faithful Catholics that remained? Well, the few Catholics who did attend Mass were not that much better. For instance, when Peter arrived and started to preach to mostly empty Churches, some just stopped going to Mass because his Dutch accent annoyed them. I wish I were making this up.


In response, St. Peter Canisius did not preach more, or berate them with the fear of hell. 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, the love of Christ Jesus.


So it was that when a plague descended on Vienna, the people were awed by how this priest with the annoying accent sacrificed himself. For instance, after lecturing on theology at the local college, Peter would then visit the elderly, then he would often visit the imprisoned, and then finally go see 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.


St. Peter Canisius also wrote several catechisms so that more people could better understand the faith. This is why he was named a Doctor of the Church in 1925. About defending the faith, St. Peter encourages us not to start with the most controversial topics but start with the little matters about which we agree in order to lead someone to the Church. He also founded the College, now University, of Fribourg and founded what would later become the University of Innsbruck where Servant of God Edward J. Flanagan, founder of Boys Town, would finally complete his seminary training and be ordained a priest.


St. Peter Canisius teaches us that, despite the many scandals and difficulties in the Church today, our One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church will always survive so long as we all strive to become saints who know the faith and live it in charity. Let us pray for more Catholics like St. Peter Canisius in our own times and let us start with ourselves.

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