As Germany Slides Toward Schism, Here’s a Saint Who Can Help
St. Peter Canisius spent his life working and praying on behalf of the Church in Germany as part of the Counter-Reformation; we can count on his prayers today, too.
The present-day state of the Catholic Church in Germany is often compared to the situation 500 years ago, when Martin Luther led a break from Rome over fundamental disputes over doctrine and dogma. Although the details differ — today’s would-be schismatics are calling not for “sola scriptura” and “consubstantiation,” but blessings for same-sex unions and women priests — the parallels are clear for many following the German “Synodal Way.”
The “New Beginning” initiative in Germany, which opposes the Synodal Way as a thinly-veiled attempt to use the sexual abuse crisis as a pretext for pushing forward heterodoxical changes, has said the Church risks making the same mistake Pope Leo X made when he dismissed Martin Luther’s theses as an irrelevant “monk’s bickering.”
“Exactly 500 years [after the Reformation], the Roman Catholic Church is once again about to play down a theological debate in a not-too-distant country, ignore it, and consider it a German problem,” said the initiative in a letter sent to the bishops in Germany and around the world earlier this year. “The next schism in Christendom is just around the corner. And it will come again from Germany.”
Pope Francis has also warned the Synodal Way is taking the Church in Germany in a dangerous direction, telling its proponents that their country already has “a very good Evangelical Church,” a reference to a federation of Protestant churches in Germany. “We don’t need two.”
Unfortunately, leadership of the Catholic Church in Germany doesn’t seem to be taking this message to heart. The German bishops rebuffed the Vatican’s recent attempt to put the brakes on the process, rejecting a proposed moratorium from Pope Francis’ curia and insisting that they will move forward with their effort to “be Catholic in a different way.”
If it’s true that German Catholics are headed in the same direction as so many of their countrymen did 500 years ago, we’d all do well to turn our attention and intercessory requests to today’s saint: The great hero of the Counter-Reformation, St. Peter Canisius.
St. Peter may have been born in what is today the Netherlands, but he has long been a patron of Germany, due to his devotion to promoting the Catholic faith among the Germanic peoples during the Counter-Reformation period.
In fact, the Jesuit priest became known as the “Second Apostle to Germany” for his dedication to the German-speaking peoples. Having attended several sessions of the Council of Trent, he wrote a German-language catechism that specifically responded to the Protestant heresies, and was immensely popular.
“He really was the Catechist of Germany for centuries,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said of the 16th-century saint, noting that St. Peter Canisius distinguished himself by “his ability to combine harmonious fidelity to dogmatic principles with the respect that is due to every person.”
Another pope, St. John Paul II, highlighted St. Peter’s approach to theology in a 1997 letter to the German Bishops.
“The work of St. Peter Canisius shows that scholarly theology becomes fruitful only if it serves revealed truth,” the Pope said. “This task can only be carried out by theologians who do not create a critical distance between themselves and the Church, but make their home in her as believing, hoping and loving members.”
Of his own pastoral and theological mission, St. Peter Canisius put it like this: “I want to reawaken in others and in myself a greater fervor, so that the Catholic deposit of faith, which the Apostle did not entrust to us without reason and which is preferable to all the riches of this world, is kept treasured, intact and authentic, because on it depend Christian wisdom, overall peace and human holiness.”
St. Peter was given his mission to Germany by St. Ignatius of Loyola, his spiritual director and superior in the Society of Jesus. After receiving the blessing of Pope Paul III in 1549, St. Peter Canisius prayed at the tomb of the Apostle Peter in Rome, and experienced an interior consolation from God. Writing about that moment, he said, “You know, O Lord, how intensely you entrusted Germany to me that day. Since then, Germany has always occupied my thoughts and I have ardently desired to offer my life and death for her eternal salvation.”
Now united to God in heaven, we trust that St. Peter Canisius’ thoughts are still occupied with the German people and their eternal salvation. So let’s ask his intercession to avoid another schism in Germany, so that the Catholics of that country may remain in union with Christ and his Church. And if, in his Divine Wisdom, God allows for such a tragic rupture to happen, let’s hope that he will raise up witnesses to truth and unity in Germany in the vein of St. Peter.