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a stained glass image of st peter canisius with a red halo and writing in a bookPhoto taken by author, at the Madonna Della Strada Chapel at Loyola University Chicago.

Iesus Christus, α et ω, principium et finis, filius Dei et hominis, Salvator mundi, Rex coeli et terrae, primogenitus omnis creaturae, Dominus dominantium…

So begins a long list of nearly one hundred titles and praises of Jesus Christ that St. Peter Canisius carefully pulled from the scriptures and copied down by hand. It was intended to serve as a prologue for one of his many volumes, in this case, a theological dictionary that he ultimately never finished. To take even the briefest glance at this remarkable page powerfully conveys a great deal about the personality of Peter Canisius—his intellect, his precision, his enormous theological capability, his zeal, his devotion, and perhaps most of all, his profound love for the person of Jesus.

Rarely do images of Peter Canisius himself, whose feast the Society of Jesus celebrates on this day, similarly succeed in capturing the breadth of his personality or the depth of his charism as a Jesuit. There’s a grand stained glass window that depicts him at Madonna Della Strada Chapel on the campus of Loyola University Chicago, where I’m currently missioned to study. In it he appears above all else stern and sober, the very image of Teutonic determination on his face as he holds a quill to his great Catechism. In the very same chapel’s vast altar mural depicting the Jesuit saints surrounding an enthroned Queen of Heaven, he somehow appears even more steely and rugged, if also much older, and forgivably strained by his vast apostolic labors.

Does that all-too-common hardened likeness of St. Peter Canisius genuinely capture the man who scribbled these words into his personal prayer journal, a journal he clasped while on his deathbed?

Rarely will one stumble upon a likeness of Peter Canisius that adequately conveys something of the fullness of the man he was. True, Peter Canisius was the author of the Catechism, a theological work whose influence on the subsequent course of the Counter-Reformation, and of catechetical history in the West generally, is difficult to overstate. Reprinted over 200 times during his lifetime alone, Canisius’s Catechism remained influential for centuries after his death in 1597. In the German-speaking world where he labored for most of his Jesuit life, the work was so influential that “der Kanisi,” from a variant spelling of his last name, actually entered the lexicon as a synonym for “catechism” and was commonly heard well into the 20th century. But while Canisius is indeed best known today for his Catechism, his life encompassed far more labors than its authorship, and he deserves remembrance as more than a mere embodiment of 16th-century Counter-Reformation thought.

Naturally, the almost unimaginably difficult and religiously complex circumstances of his lifetime probably did lead Canisius to assume a steely expression at times. However, does that all-too-common hardened likeness of him genuinely capture the man who scribbled these words into his personal prayer journal, a journal he clasped while on his deathbed?

“I praise, bless, glorify, and salute the most sweet and bountiful Heart of Jesus Christ, my ever faithful lover… O my Lover of Lovers, I offer to Thee my heart to be as it were a rose in bloom attracting Thy eyes all day with its beauty and delighting Thy Divine Heart with its fragrance. I offer it to Thee, too, as a chalice from which Thou mayest drink Thy own sweetness, with all that Thou wilt this day deign to operate in my soul.”

Often our portraits of saints are far too rosy, obscuring the fullness of these holy men and women’s lives and struggles. At other times, as is especially the case with St. Peter Canisius, we go to the opposite extreme.

Does the cold, steely portrait of Canisius capture the essence of a man who entered the Society of Jesus under the spiritual influence of the famously gentle St. Peter Faber?

Does it illustrate the devoted provincial who traveled literally thousands of miles on foot and horseback to visit his brothers Jesuits and console them in their own difficult labors?

Peter Canisius instructed Jesuits not to engage in argumentative polemics, observing that such combative methods achieved little, whereas showing “whole-hearted charity and good will” achieved far more.

Does it show the man who could ascend any of the great pulpits of central Europe and keep a crowd enraptured by his preaching for hours on end?

Does it convey the man who moved freely among some of the most powerful European princes of his time, all while maintaining an intensely strict life of poverty?

Does it accurately depict a priest whose devotion to the Mass was so great that he was known to take an unusually long time to offer it, owing to his careful pronunciation of each individual word?

Perhaps most important to ask, given his ubiquitous identification with the Counter-Reformation, is whether it truly discloses the character of a saint who counseled adopting a spirit of meekness when engaging with opponents of the Catholic Church. Despite the religious vitriol of his times, Peter Canisius instructed Jesuits not to engage in argumentative polemics over disputed dogmas with Protestants, observing that such combative methods achieved little, whereas showing “whole-hearted charity and good will” achieved far more. In the words of Pope Benedict XVI, Peter Canisius in his ministry elected to avoid the “rhetoric of hate” and instead combine “harmonious fidelity to dogmatic principles with the respect that is due to every person.” In today’s church, with all of its contentions and struggles, we could do well to better heed Canisius’s teaching. Some wisdom holds true in the 16th century as much as in the 21st.

St. Peter Canisius was a complex figure who lived in a profoundly challenging historical context. If at times he did in fact grow stern, it was only because of the deep love and pastoral concern he had for the People of God, and because of the great seriousness with which he took his mission to minister to them. At his core was always a warm, compassionate soul utterly in love with Jesus Christ, a truth testified to as much by the profound and gentle piety of his own inner spiritual life as by any of the countless apostolic fruits of his long, devoted ministry as a Father of the Society of Jesus.

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