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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Saint Peter Canisius, the Second Apostle of Germany

Saint Peter Canisius, the Second Apostle of Germany
December 21st, is the optional memorial of Saint Peter Canisius (1521-1597) the 16th century Dutch Jesuit priest and Doctor of the Church, who played a major role in the Council of Trent and the Counter Reformation. His extensive writing in theology and powerful preaching in defense of orthodoxy won him great renown, and the Church innumerable souls. He wrote three definitive Catechisms in the span of four years explicating the Faith. These were tremendously influential, especially to those in Austria, Bavaria, and Bohemia where Catholicism was most under siege. Although claimed by both the Dutch and German Churches, Canisius is designated the second Apostle of Germany (after Saint Boniface of Mainz).




He was born in Wijmegen, Holland, to Jacob Canisius and mother Egidia van Houweningen, who died soon after Peter's birth. His father was Burgomaster of the town. While a student at the University of Cologne studying the arts, civil law and theology, he regularly visited the Carthusian monks of Saint Barbara, who cultivated Canisius’ preternatural spiritual gifts. On May 8, 1543, he entered the Society of Jesus after taking a course of spiritual exercises under Blessed Peter Faber, one of Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s first companions. Canisius was the eighth professed member of the Society of Jesus. He immediately set to work advancing the beleaguered Catholic Church and the nascent Jesuit Order likewise dedicated.

In 1547, he attended the Council of Trent as procurator for the bishop of Augsburg, where he became further instilled with the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. Later that year, St. Ignatius called him to Rome. Canisius was then sent briefly to Sicily to teach rhetoric. After making his solemn profession, in 1549, he was sent back to Germany as the first superior of the German province of the Jesuits. There he lectured in theology at the University of Ingolstadt, and was appointed rector. As dean, rector and vice chancellor of the University, he oversaw the academic life of the Institute and the religious and moral reform of the priesthood and the laity, whom he extolled to greater devotion and fidelity.

At a time when relations between Catholics and Protestants were marked by acrimony, Canisius advocated cordialness and moderation. Pope Benedict XVI praised: "his ability to combine harmoniously fidelity to dogmatic principles with the respect that is due to every person. St Canisius distinguished between a conscious, blameworthy apostasy from faith and a blameless loss of faith through circumstances." Canisius explained his views in a letter to his Jesuit superior: "It is plainly wrong to meet non-Catholics with bitterness or to treat them with discourtesy. For this is nothing else than the reverse of Christ’s example because it breaks the bruised reed and quenches the smoking flax. We ought to instruct with meekness those whom heresy has made bitter and suspicious, and has estranged from orthodox Catholics, especially from our fellow Jesuits. Thus, by whole-hearted charity and good will we may win them over to us in the Lord."

Canisius spent much of his life corresponding with the most influential people of his day and exerted immense influence through his writings. He edited the complete works of Cyril of Alexandria, Saint Leo the Great, the Letters of Saint Jerome and the Orations of Saint Nicholas of Flüe. He published devotional books, biographies of several Swiss Saints and numerous homilies. His most widely read works were three Catechisms he wrote between 1555 and 1558. The first Catechism was addressed to students, the second, to young people for initial religious instruction and the third, to youth in middle and secondary school. His summation of Catholic doctrine was impressive for its clarity and completeness.

St. Peter Canisius died following a brief illness in Fribourg, Switzerland, where he had devoted himself to preaching and writing, on December 21, 1597. Blessed Pius IX beatified him in 1864, and in 1897, Pope Leo XIII proclaimed him the "Second Apostle of Germany". On May 21, 1925, Pope Pius XI canonized him and proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church. His remains rest in the church of the Jesuit College, in front of the main alter. O God, who for the defense of the Catholic faith made the Priest St. Peter Canisius strong in virtue and in learning, grant, through his intercession, that those who seek the truth may joyfully find you, their God, and that your faithful people may persevere in confessing you.