The adage “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is so old that its origins are lost. It’s one of those things that anyone might have said, thus it’s attributed to everyone. The usual suspects, from Plato to Ben Franklin to Mark Twain, are often proposed as candidates. But today’s saint, though he did not originate the phrase, certainly lived it out.
Peter Canisius was born in 1521 in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. Peter’s father was a wealthy town official; his mother died shortly after his birth. Having earned a master’s degree by 19, Peter met one of the founders of the Society of Jesus, Peter Faber, and became the first Dutchman to enter the Jesuits.
He became one of the most renowned teachers of the faith in his time, working tirelessly to recapture the German-speaking countries for the Catholic faith. He was so dedicated to his mission of itinerant preaching and setting up universities and seminaries that he even declined the call to be made a bishop, though he did make time to participate in one of the sessions of the Council of Trent. Peter’s efforts led many to call him “the second apostle to Germany” or “the successor to St. Boniface.”
Peter was known for his homilies and expositions that presented the truths of the faith in a way that was accessible to people of his day and age.
He once said rather colorfully, “Anyone who wishes to frolic with the devil cannot rejoice with Christ.” Against the tendency of some Protestants to downplay the celebration of Christmas, thinking such festivity unbecoming for Christians, Peter wrote, “If the princes and rulers of this world are privileged to make merry over the sons of their flesh, what a mountain of reasons we have for exulting over the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Savior!”
While Peter fought hard against the errors of Protestantism, he was keen not to attack Protestants themselves. Peter preferred to write catechisms explaining the faith and engage in debates that illuminated the Catholic position rather than simply attack the reformers. To Peter, attacks seemed counterproductive. As he wrote, “With words like these, we don’t cure patients, we make them incurable.”
Peter’s phrase demonstrates both charity and practical wisdom. In the first place, it’s wrong to impugn a person’s character simply for disagreeing with you. Secondly, personal attacks only put people on the defensive. They don’t open someone up to a new way of thinking. You may attack an idea as incorrect, but attacking a person for holding that idea is neither practical nor charitable—it’s an illegitimate means, and it won’t achieve the desired end.
Catholics can learn this truth simply by looking at their own history. When the earliest Christians were slandered as cannibals and executed in the most gruesome manner, far from stamping out the budding movement, these actions only served to highlight the faith of the suffering Church. When Romans saw that isolation and threat of violence would not stop these Christians from proclaiming that Christ is Lord (and that Caesar is not), many concluded that there must be something to the Christians’ claims. As Tertullian famously observed, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
Just so, Peter Canisius noted, attempts to suppress the Protestant movement by force only bolstered the resistance of the reformers. What is more effective and attractive than attacking the messenger, more so even than attacking the message itself, is to present your own position winsomely and joyfully.
The Church recognized this superior quality in St. Peter when in 1925 it both canonized him and declared him a Doctor of the Church. As we find ourselves in an age increasingly marked by rancor and ad hominem attacks, we can turn to St. Peter Canisius as an example of one who preferred sweet words to sour, to invite people to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”