St. John Cantius: a saint for all of us

St. John Cantius, Midnight Mass, Chicago, IL

🏈 From 12-23-12. Now that the 21st of December has passed, and the world has not ended as predicted by Mayan sympathizers and end-times profiteers, it’s time to turn our attention to today’s (December 23rd) saint, an underrated holy priest perfect for Christmas time or anytime. For if “Festivus is for the rest of us,” John Cantius is a saint for all of us.

The patron saint of everyone from professors to pilgrims, I was first turned on to this saint at the same place I fell in love with the Latin Mass, namely St. John Cantius Parish in Chicago. As the parish website attests, “To most Catholics in this country, St. John from Kanti—otherwise known as John Cantius—is an obscure saint, but even in Europe, probably few people know of Pope John Paul II’s deep and lifelong devotion to this professor saint.” But any friend of JPII’s is a friend of mine, and I soon found there was reason far beyond the fact that both were from Poland and attended the same alma mater that this St. John was one of John Paul’s favorites.

The son of the pious but unlearned Stanislaus and Anne, John soon proved to be both pious and learned, accepting a position as rector at the prestigious school of the Canons Regular of the Most Holy Sepulcher in Miechow at the tender age of 23. However, the success of the youthful teacher and preacher aroused opposition there, and after a brief stint as parish priest, he was appointed Professor of Sacred Scripture at the University of Cracow, a post he would hold for the remainder of his life. But it was how he held it that makes John’s Christmastime story both faithful and unique.

A simply brilliant scholar, John of Kanti was welcomed by nobles but preferred to spend his scant free time among the poor. And little wonder; John lived on such meager amounts of food (later giving up meat completely) and sleep (which he did on the floor) that he was not only able to give away everything that he had but sometimes that which he didn’t have, as the following story illustrates. 

One day, when walking among the poor, John saw a servant girl drop and break a milk jug. When she started crying in anticipation of being punished by her mistress, John’s sorrow for her was so pure that when he picked up the pieces his prayers not only made the jug whole again, but changed the water with which he then filled it with into milk. 

When his studies permitted (which then included copying the Doctors of the Church and Sacred Scripture as well as teaching them), John also loved becoming a pilgrim, travelling to Jerusalem once and Rome four times. However, unlike his learned contemporaries, John always ventured on foot. Indeed, on one of these journeys he was robbed by brigands, who after beating him asked if he had anything more to give. The stunned saint replied in the negative, but after later remembering that he had some gold pieces sewed into his cloak, he ran after the robbers to offer them the money! Stunned by their victim’s sincerity, they gave everything they had stolen back before fleeing in the other direction. 

By the time John died on December 24, 1473, the common people of Krakow already considered him a very holy man, but the multiple miracles that attributed to his intercession after his death, certainly sealed the deal. Still, I think that John’s learned poverty is a perfect message for our time, for it reminds us that the Catholic Church remains the only Church that was never either/or, but everyone and all. 

In John’s day, the emergence of the anti-popes had many attempting to separate the laity from the clerics or piety from science; now the new heretics seek to separate social justice from orthodoxy or theology from obedience. While John’s promotion of frequent communion and confession for the laity was considered radical at the time, one does well to note it was radically Roman Catholic. If St. John Cantius Parish showed me you can love both the Latin and Novus Ordo Mass—provided they are both prayed faithfully—John Cantius showed that Christ, through His Church, loves both the learned clergy and the lowly layman: provided they both serve Him humbly. 


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