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Bringing the wisdom of Saint Peter Canisius to your Christmas party

While celebrating the birth of the Prince of Peace should be a spiritual highlight for every Catholic, attending holiday get-togethers can feel more like entering a battlefield. Here are three lessons from a Doctor of the Church.

St. Peter Canisius, Doctor of the Church (Image: Wikipedia; Christmas tree image: Ibrahim Boran/Unsplash.com)

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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About Dawn Beutner 40 Articles
Dawn Beutner is the author of Saints: Becoming an Image of Christ Every Day of the Year from Ignatius Press and blogs at dawnbeutner.com.

3 Comments

  1. St. Peter Canisius was also responsible for composing the second half of the Hail Mary prayer, “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

  2. Unfortunately we now live in an extremely polarized society. So when someone makes a hideous remark are we just going to smile. In the past I would normally say nothing or try to change the topic. Unfortunately now I have become probably a tad too strident in my response. For example when someone says they are pro choice I correct them and say they are really pro baby killers or something similar. I will admit that does not change any minds, but I can no longer sit by and smile, and I must admit I like to see them cringe just for a second or too as they try to respond.

    Of course there are other options, such as change the subject and ask the person if they are still shanking the ball (a golf term golfers hate to hear). Or if your in Michigan change the subject to the Detroit Lions and say that you think they are a fine team.

    • The Sisters of Life have a great way of engaging people who state that they are pro-choice. Sr. Agnes Dei related a story of encountering a woman on the streets of New York who seemed happy to see a sister in full habit. When Sister told the woman that she is a Sister of Life, the woman balked and said “I guess that means that you’re anti-choice!”. In the moment, Sister knew that she needed the power of the Holy Spirit to speak to this woman in truth and in charity. Sister related that she felt the Holy Spirit inspire her to look at this woman with love and to gently question her. “It seems like the issue of abortion is very important to you. Tell me more.” This gentle questioning from Sister opened up a space where the woman felt received and heard. She was vulnerable enough with Sister to tell her about her personal story with abortion. While Sister reflected back love, she shared the truth of the Gospel of life. The two parted understanding more about each others’ perspectives. Sister doesn’t know if the woman was convinced or converted, but she does know that woman appreciated the conversation and left with a hug. Very likely, this woman will reflect on what Sister shared instead of dismissing her as an “anti-choice” fanatic.

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