01 May 2021
Post originally written in: Deutsch Information An automatic machine translation. Super fast and almost perfect.

500 years ago a man was born who shaped the history of the Counter-Reformation like no other. The Jesuit with the membership number 8 turned the Societas Jesu into a 'school order' whose 'colleges' have shaped generations of students. He is also the author of the all-time best-selling religious book called the Catechism. That he was an unreserved supporter of the witch trials did not stop Pope Pius XI from canonizing him in 1925. His name: Peter Canisius.

The word 'Canisianum' had a rather rounded, indeed an almost melodious sound to me during my Innsbruck student days. Although I did not know exactly what it really meant. For me it was first and foremost a highly exclusive bar, located in the Jesuit College. And that, in turn, was by invitation only. People liked to meet there for good conversations, sometimes even heated discussions. The student generation of '68 had complete air supremacy at the time. And you treated yourself to a 'Coreth' or two in the bar. One was an alcoholic mixed drink, composed by a famous Innsbruck Jesuit at the time. The other, that was the famous Catholic theologian Univ. Pof. Emerich Coreth himself, who, with a little luck, could also be found in the bar. What did the drinkable Coreth consist of? Well, it was a somewhat unusual mixture of gin, white martini and an olive. But highly interesting in the finish.


Alongside the renowned Jesuit and long-term Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the University of Innsbruck Emerich Coreth, the name Siegmund Kripp was on everyone's lips at the time. He had built up the legendary Kennedy Centre and formed a youth centre from it, which stood for urban youthfulness and modernity in Innsbruck in the late sixties and early seventies. It was the time after Vatican Council II, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, rock'n'roll, long hair, free love and, above all, smokable grass.

And, of course, there was my friend and roommate Norbert K. Pleifer, who often frequented Jesuit circles and sometimes took me along for the ride. How else would I have managed to penetrate these already somewhat illustrious halls? In 1976, as is well known, Norbert then began to implement his grandiose idea of a 'communication centre' in the form of the 'KOMM' under the Neue Mensa in Hirnstraße. An idea that has left a lasting mark on Innsbruck, actually Tyrol, to this day in the form of the ingenious ' 'Treibhaus'. Which - wonder of wonders - rises up as a tower just opposite the Jesuit College. Not least for this reason, I regarded the Innsbruck 'Canis' of that time as a haven of new ideas, a social engine room, as it were.


Why am I suddenly going Catholic now? Because I got hold of a book that was recently published by Tyrolia: 'Petrus Canisius. Wanderer between the worlds'. Normally I read the blurb of such religiously oriented books, look at the first book page to put it down in all probability. This book I read almost in one go.

The assistant at the 'Institute for Biblical Studies and Historical Theology' at the University of Innsbruck has written an easy, light, fluent and above all exciting biography of Peter Canisius, Univ.Ass. Mathias Moosbrugger presents. The external occasion is the birthday of this key Catholic figure of the 16th century, which this year is the 500th anniversary. My first 'aha experience' when opening the book: I finally knew what the name 'Canisianum' stood for. That was something, but by no means everything.

Many of us, like me, know precious little about the Jesuits, who simply put the two letters S.J. after their name. They are completely inconspicuous on the way. Wearing their hair almost openly, they have been a kind of spiritual 'intervention force' of the Pope from the very beginning. They were and are sometimes also called 'soldiers of Christ'. Today you still meet them in social hotspots, not a few Jesuits are very close to liberation theology. Most of the time one cannot immediately recognize that they are an exceptional kind of monks who are there in the midst of life. There are good reasons for that. And it is precisely those that go back to Peter Canisius.


The Order of the 'Society of Jesus' was founded shortly after the Reformation to make the Lutherans 'Catholic' again and usher in the Counter-Reformation. Bringing the stray Protestant flock back into the fold of the Church was not only the goal of Rome, but also that of emperors and kings. While some feared for power and glory, others were concerned about sinecures and the luxurious life of the clergy at the expense of the poor, intimidated and therefore devout population. The sermons always revolved around eternal damnation for those who did not believe in the Catholic sense

In order to bring about the Counter-Reformation, including the renewal of the Catholic Church, without causing a great stir, one did not want to repel the people who were inclined towards Luther by wearing any kind of cowl or hairstyle. After all, purple-bearers, prince-archbishops, priests and monks were incredibly corrupt, brutal and impudent, who also indulged in a luxury that is hardly imaginable today. That at that time not only the people but even nobles, princes and dukes were disgusted and flirted with the Reformation is hardly surprising.


Emperor and Church were united in starting a reclaiming action. The income of the church from the sale of indulgences and donations was threatening to break away and the benefices were drying up. Exactly in this retrieval action a native Dutchman named Peter Kanis played a decisive role in the German-speaking area at that time. He originally wanted to enter the hardest Catholic order, that of the Carthusians. But at the last moment he renounced it when he heard about the foundation of the Jesuit Order. To this order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola he joined it as the eighth member. And in the middle of the 16th century he was to become the most famous Jesuit of all time.

Canis, who later called himself Canisius, was already in his earliest youth a religious enthusiast. The son of the then mayor in the Dutch Nijmegen entered the 'Societas Jesu' on 8 May 1543 at the age of 22. Not least because the order did not set religious inwardness alone as its goal. The commitment to others was from the beginning incomparably more important for the 'Society of Jesus'. Exactly that was the life goal of Peter Canisius, which he institutionalized in the whole Order.


When he was commissioned to work as a teacher in the Sicilian city of Messina in 1548, he found his true calling. Throughout his life, Peter Canisius saw education as the noblest and most important task of the Church. The success of his work in Sicily - the students in the newly founded colleges did not have to pay school fees - spread like wildfire throughout Europe. From now on Jesuit colleges were founded all over Europe. The foundation of the Innsbruck College in 1562 even led to the founding of the University of Innsbruck.

One characteristic of the Jesuits, but especially of Peter Canisius, is representative of this order: unconditional obedience to the superior of the order and to the Pope. At the time, the practice of obedience was considered an ascetic exercise to mortify one's own weaknesses. This in turn, I believe, laid those roots that would cause death and destruction in the 20th century. Unconditional obedience, taught in Jesuit schools, had internalized generations of students and made them obedient executors of political and religious orders all the way up to the 20th century.

Canisius gained importance in church history as the author of a Catholic textbook. In order to counter the increasing popularity of the Reformation's proclamation of salvation with something concrete, Ferdinand I commissioned a grammar school textbook from Canisius in 1555. The Habsburg was so pleased with the result that he ordered that this catechism be "publicly recited in all Latin and German schools, and that no other catechism be taught, under the strictest penalty". As a result, the Catechism became the most successful religious book of all time. By the beginning of the 21st century, a staggering 1179 editions had been printed.


However, not everything that shines in the person of Peter Canisius is Catholic gold. The author Mathias Moosbrugger also goes into detail about Canisius' darker side, namely his verbal support of the witch burnings. In a letter to his religious general, he put it bluntly: "Incredible is the impiety, unchastity, cruelty, which the authorities dare to publish from their confessions in the prisons." Although many of his friars had grave doubts about the 'confessions' forced with the cruelest torture and the mass murders that followed, Canisius persisted. "The just God permits this because of the grave offences of the people, which no penance can atone for." Quasi: Man thinks, God directs.

Although actually 'only' a theorist of the witch burnings, his hate sermons and writings of the 1560s had a fatal effect. They are said to have been one of the causes of a renewed outbreak of the witch mania in Central Europe. The fact that Canisius was beatified in 1864 and canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1925 is therefore still met with head-shaking incomprehension by lay people and many Christian theologians.


However, he maintained his upright walk, his honesty and openness towards officials, emperors and kings even in his old age. His open criticism of the powerful of the day did not even stop at the Fuggers. In the discussion about whether Catholics were allowed to take interest, he took a clear stance against the banking family: he completely rejected interest. So it is not surprising that he had to spend his twilight years in Freiburg, Switzerland. Far away from the aristocratic prince-archbishops and the Fuggerians of southern Germany.


This work, published by Tyrolia, not only provides a deep insight into the era after the Reformation. The book also describes the spiritual constitution in the conflict between the Catholic Church and the movement of Martin Luther and other reformers. Highly interesting is the description of the inner state of the Catholic Church, which was torn between reformers and perseverers. Moosbrugger succeeds above all in maintaining the suspense and not digressing into details. Although he meticulously cites the sources of his research.

With a sure hand and simple, easy-to-understand language, he guides his readers through one of the decisive situations in European history after the Reformation. Shows the problems faced by the ecclesiastical innovator Petrus Canisius. How he was not afraid to contradict the Pope and the Emperor and to rail against prince-archbishops and the Fugger family. Which does not hide the fact that he made an unforgivable mistake in defending the witch trials, and in fuelling this most inhumane of medieval exterminations through his preaching.

I can recommend this biography to anyone interested in history, Catholic or not. The book is an attempt to highlight Petrus Canisius' upright stand against the powerful and his achievements in education. Without attempting to offset these undeniable achievements with his inconceivable failures during the darkest days of the witch burnings

Mathias Moosbrugger: Petrus Canisius. Wanderer between the worlds

288 pages, 2021 Tyrolia, 44 col. and 10 bw ill., 225 mm x 150 mm

ISBN 978-3-7022-3929-9

Ready for immediate dispatch or collection at Tyrolia Innsbruck, Maria-Theresien-Straße 15

27.95 EUR

Online order

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