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1565, the Vatican was looking for a secret agent. It was shortly after the Council of Trent and the pope wanted to get the decrees of the Council to all the European bishops. What would be a simple errand in our day, was a dangerous assignment in the sixteenth century. The first envoy who tried to carry the decrees through territory of hostile Protestants and vicious thieves was robbed of the precious documents. Rome needed someone courageous but also someone above suspicion. They chose Peter Canisius. At 43 he was a well-known Jesuit who had founded colleges that even Protestants respected. They gave him a cover as official “visitor” of Jesuit foundations. But Peter couldn’t hide the decrees like our modern fictional spies with their microfilmed messages in collar buttons or cans of shaving cream. Peter traveled from Rome and crisscrossed Germany successfully loaded down with the Tridentine tomes — 250 pages each — not to mention the three sacks of books he took along for his own university!

Why did the Vatican choose Peter Canisius for this delicate task?

Born in Holland in 1521, Peter had edited and written several volumes on Church history and theology, been a delegate to the Council of Trent, and reformed the German universities from heresy. Called to Vienna to reform their university, he couldn’t win the people with preaching or fancy words spoken in his German accent. He won their hearts by ministering to the sick and dying during a plague. The people, the king, and the pope all wanted to make Peter bishop of Vienna, but Peter declined vigorously and administered the diocese for a year.