St. Peter Canisius, SJ (1521-1597), whose feast the universal Church celebrates today, is perhaps the most prosaic saint of the Catholic Church. He passed his adult life trudging from town to town, stoking the smoldering embers of the Catholic faith throughout Western Europe. Indeed, the continuing presence of the Catholic faith in both Austria and Bavaria owes much to his tireless labors: he founded 18 colleges, wrote 37 books, published a catechism that went through 200 printings, and threw himself into preaching and administration of the sacraments.
One aspect of St. Peter’s life that I continue to find comforting is the great spiritual harvest that God accomplished through his mediocre talent. Considering St. Peter’s status as a Doctor the Church, these summary remarks by James Brodrick, SJ, St. Peter’s greatest English-language biographer, are especially piquant:
First of all it is safe to say that Peter Canisius was not a natural genius as that word is commonly understood. He seems to have possessed only moderate powers as a thinker … It would probably be no exaggeration to say that St. Peter never wrote a truly memorable sentence in his life, that he was entirely incapable of those winged words which so often fell from Augustine’s magical pen … Even in the practical sphere where he certainly achieved marvels he was not an expert and owed his success to something other than a genius for negotiation. Yet, in spite of all these limitations, in spite of the fact that whatever cross-section of him we take we come upon nothing but what might be called a sublime mediocrity, he was unquestionably a very great man. It was the integrity of his character that made him such, marshalling his average powers and giving them a glow and forcefulness utterly beyond their inherent worth.
Disproportionate success often attended St. Peter’s efforts. And in this sense St. Peter’s life typifies a common and humbling experience of the early Jesuits: they were deeply convinced that the fruit of their labor exceeded their human resources and natural talent.
For Peter and others, the source of this supernatural energe seems to have been Christian hope. At every step along the way, the abler men, the stronger initiatives, the brighter enthusiasm seemed to come from the camp of the Reformers. St. Peter often had to make do with slender means and less significant supporters. He assessed the Catholic situation of his time succinctly: “Peter is asleep and Judas is awake!” Yet, despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, St. Peter plodded along undaunted. Indeed, over the course of his own apostolic travels, Peter logged something like three miles for every one mile of St. Paul’s. Another biographer comments, “It was here that Canisius’ greatness showed itself—remaining self-assured, going on working apparently without hope and in a vacuum, continuing the lifelong task so faithfully and tirelessly that life itself was consumed in it.”
Canisius, in other words, perfectly embodied St. Ignatius’ paradoxical dictum on human effort and Christian hope:
“Let this be the first rule of your undertakings: confide in God as if the success of those undertakings depended completely upon you and not at all upon God; nonetheless give your whole self to the undertakings as if you yourself would be doing nothing in them but God alone would be doing everything.”
Peter’s strength came not from “working as if everything depended on himself and praying as if everything depended on God” (an unhappy wedding of Pelagianism and Quietism, popularized in this pithy formulation by Benjamin Franklin). Rather, his rule of action was nearly the reverse. He both prayed to God and begged the prayers of others as if everything depended on himself (that is, ever mindful of his own natural mediocrity), and he worked as if everything depended on God (that is, assured of God’s power to grant success). St. Peter so believed in God’s will to make good on His promises that he looked neither to the right nor to the left, neither to himself nor to his merely human prospects, for assurance. He was able to work tireless precisely because he looked only to God.
In these days, then, when faith seems everywhere in retreat, when the Church seems ground between the gears of mightier powers, when the abler and more “beautiful” seem to array themselves against her, we might do well to remember the hope of this plodding saint.