Saint Peter Canisius, SJ (1521-1597) was a Dutch priest who lived in the sixteenth century and was one of the first members of the Jesuit order. He lived a blameless and holy personal life, preached widely, wrote constantly, and humbly declined multiple offers to be made a bishop. It’s not surprising that Pope Pius XI declared him to be both a saint and a Doctor of the Church in 1925, with his feast celebrated on December 21st.
But it might seem surprising that he could help twenty-first century Catholics prepare for something that many may be dreading: Christmas parties.
Yes, while celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace should be a spiritual highlight for every Catholic, attending holiday get-togethers with family, friends, and coworkers in our overstressed world can feel more like entering a battlefield. Past grievances and current crises have the potential to turn even an innocuous conversation into a public fight.
But Saint Peter Canisius can help us. After all, he traveled as a Catholic priest to Germany at a time when Protestantism was by far the dominant religion. Catholic churches were empty, Catholic priests and religious were jeered at in the streets, and Catholic teachings were publicly ridiculed. When the great Saint Boniface brought the German people from paganism to Catholicism in the eighth century, he died a martyr. Peter must have wondered if the same fate awaited him.
It is unlikely that we will face martyrdom over dessert this Christmas, but surely every Christian would like to avoid saying anything that will irreparably harm a relationship—which is not unthinkable considering the divisions in our culture today. In years past, it was enough to avoid discussions of politics and religion; now we wonder how to steer the conversation around the latest news about COVID and a half dozen other hot-button topics. Fortunately, three examples from the life of Saint Peter can help us prepare ourselves mentally and spiritually before we head to those parties.
In 1552, Ferdinand I (king of Bohemia, Hungary, and Croatia at the time and later the Holy Roman emperor) requested that Peter come to Vienna, Austria. The king wanted the renowned Jesuit priest to bring orthodox Catholic teaching back to the city. At first, the people of Vienna stayed away from the brilliant preacher’s sermons for the rather shallow reason that they disliked his foreign accent. When there was an outbreak of the plague and Peter personally threw himself into the care of the sick and dying, the Viennese became more receptive to his explanations of the Catholic faith. The lesson for us? People may find our opinions and personal idiosyncrasies annoying, but compassion is always attractive. Rather than trying to figure out whether someone is on “our side” or not of any issue, we can try to simply listen to them first and show compassion for whatever challenges they are currently facing.
In Saint Peter’s day, it was popular to have public debates between Catholic and Protestant thinkers over controversial topics. Even though he was a famous scholar and an excellent speaker, he flat-out refused to participate in such discussions unless he was ordered to do so by his superiors. Why? Because they were “worse than useless”, he said. Listeners walked away from such meetings even more hardened in their own opinions, polarized even farther away from one another than before. Does that sound familiar? Similarly, we should remember that it is often prudential, not cowardly, to avoid bringing up a topic that is only going to instantly split your listeners into two hostile camps.
The third example from Peter’s life offers us a final lesson. Saint Peter Canisius spent his lifetime talking to people who had rejected the Catholic faith, and he used a simple analogy to help others try to do the same. First, Peter wrote that it was a mistake to immediately bring up a subject in a conversation that the other person completely rejects. In his day, that included topics such as purgatory and the sacrament of Confession. In our day, those rejected topics may involve acknowledging a belief in God or any number of moral issues. But just because the other person might disagree with you on important matters, that doesn’t mean you’re limited to talking about the weather, your kids, and your favorite side dish.
Instead, said Peter, the other person should be treated like someone with a fever, that is, someone who is too ill to judge which foods to safely eat. Offer that person milk or simple foods suitable for children, he said, and then gradually introduce more complex foods.
When we talk with a friend, relative, or coworker at Christmas and the other person expresses a strong opinion with which we strongly disagree, resist the temptation to add fuel to the fire. After all, if this is just a difference of opinion, respect the other person enough to acknowledge their right to have a different opinion. If this is a matter of right and wrong—something related to Catholic faith or morals—ask the Holy Spirit to help you see the other person as Peter described: someone who simply doesn’t know that God has a better answer. Then ask for more divine guidance to find a related but simpler matter to discuss, perhaps privately. Think of it as the first step in a long-term plan, not as a battle to the death.
After all, the temptation that most of us are fighting is the desire to come up with a perfect and witty response, a real zinger, that will rock the other person’s world and make him or her re-evaluate everything they believe. Fortunately, God already did that two thousand years ago when He sent His Son. And His birthday is the reason for the party in the first place.
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