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A look at St. Peter Canisius through the eyes of Pope Benedict XVI

To spread the Gospel, a believer needs a personal relationship with Jesus, an upright moral life, and a good prayer life, Pope Benedict XVI said during an address in 2011.

Speaking to some 5,000 people gathered in Paul VI Hall for his weekly general audience, the pope continued his series on the “doctors of the Church,” those saints whose teachings are held by the Church to be especially important for Catholics.

He spoke on 16th-century saint and doctor, St. Peter Canisius, whose feast day is Dec. 21. He was remembered in particular by the Pope Benedict for the task entrusted to him of “revitalizing” Germany after the Protestant Reformation.

Canisius was born in Nijmegen, Holland, in 1521 and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1546. He ministered and taught at civil and Church institutions in what is now Germany and Austria. He led the Jesuit presence throughout Germany and created a network of communities from which the counter-Reformation sprang.

The saint discussed religion with Protestants in Germany, worked as a Vatican diplomat to Poland and was in Italy to attend the closing session of the Council of Trent. His accomplishments included the editing of the complete works of Cyril of Alexandria and of St. Leo the Great, as well as the Letters of St. Jerome.

He died in 1597. In 1925, Pope Pius XI canonized him and proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church.

Pope Benedict remembered him during the general audience address for his ability to “harmonize fidelity to dogmatic principles with the respect due to each individual.”

He called it “extraordinary” that in the difficult period following the Reformation, the saint “avoided severity and the rhetoric of anger … and sought only to explain our spiritual roots and to revitalize faith in the Church.”

St. Peter Canisius emphasized the liturgy and the sacraments in his writings — namely the three part “Catecheses” series — which were directed to youth and the greater public to improve basic spiritual education.

“Catholic doctrine was displayed with questions and answers, briefly, in biblical terms, and with much clarity and without controversial side notes.”

Pope Benedict remembered that the effects of the saint’s catechetical teachings were so powerful for German Catholics that in Bavaria region in the early 1900s his own father still referred to the catechesis simply as the “Canisius.”

“His significant contribution to catechesis is second only to the example for us of his disciplined Christ-centered spirituality, finding in the liturgy, daily prayer and devotion to the heart of Jesus the strength and inspiration to carry out well his countless tasks,” said the pontiff.

The saints’ focus on the liturgy, combined with an emphasis on personal prayer are both important today, said the pope.

“In the midst of the thousand activities and the mutliple stimuli that surround us, it is necessary to find moments of meditation daily before the Lord to listen to him and speak with him,” he said.

At the same time, he concluded, this saint “clearly teaches that apostolic ministry is incisive and produces fruits of salvation in people’s hearts only if the preacher is a personal witness of Jesus and knows how to become his instrument, closely bound to him through faith in his Gospel and in his Church, through a morally coherent life and incessant prayer.”

Image: Pope Benedict XVI / St. Peter Canisius

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