Saints for Our Times: St. John Cantius of Poland known for his teaching
By Mary Lou Gibson
St. John Cantius takes his name from his birthplace of Kanti (or Kenty), a small town near Oświęcim in the Diocese of Kraków, Poland. He was born in 1390 in this small southern town which is only 13 miles from Blessed John Paul II’s birthplace of Wadowice. John’s family were well to do country people and they recognized their son’s intelligence at an early age.
He enrolled in the Department of Liberal Arts at the University of Kraków and became a doctor of philosophy in 1418. He spent the next three years preparing for the priesthood while also conducting philosophy classes at the university.
John continued to teach after he was ordained and earned a reputation for scholastic excellence. He accepted a position as rector of the school of the Canons Regular of the Most Holy Sepulcher in Miechow, a post usually reserved for an older and more experienced man. It was there that John became firmly grounded in the writings and spirituality of St. Augustine and wove those teachings into formation classes for young novices.
For a time, he served as a pastor in a country parish of Olkusz, but left after a few years to return to the University in Kraków as head of the Philosophy Department. He became professor of Sacred Scripture, a position he held until his death.
In addition to teaching and preaching, John spent many of his free hours hand copying manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures. A total of more than 18,000 pages of his work have survived to our time. He is also credited with helping to develop Jean Buridan’s theory of impetus, which preceded the work of Galileo and Newton.
He was a compassionate and caring teacher who had a special affinity towards needy students. This compassion extended to all those who needed help and John gave alms regularly to the poor, leading a very austere life personally. David Hugh Farmer writes in the “Oxford Dictionary of Saints” that John slept on the floor and never ate meat. When people cautioned him to take better care of his health, he pointed out that the fathers of the desert lived long lives. This proved true for John as well because he was in his 83rd year when he died.
He made one pilgrimage to Jerusalem and four pilgrimages to Rome walking all the way and carrying his luggage on his back.
The medieval Polish historian and biographer, Michael Miechowita, described John’s extreme humility and charity and his motto: “Beware disturbing: it’s not sweetly pleasing, Beware speaking ill: for taking back words is burdensome.”
John told his students to fight all false opinions but do so with moderation and courtesy. Editor Michael Walsh notes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that John was held in such high esteem at the university that his doctoral gown was used to vest each candidate at the conferring of degrees.
He died on Dec. 24, 1473, while living in retirement at his alma mater. The people of Kraków already considered him a very holy man. There were numerous favors and miracles attributed to John’s intercession beginning immediately following his death. His tomb in the university’s Collegiate Church of St. Anne became a popular pilgrimage site and remains so to this day.
He was beatified in Rome by Pope Clement X in 1676 and was named patron of Poland and Lithuania by Pope Clement XII in 1737. He was canonized by Pope Clement XIII in 1767 and his feast day is Dec. 23.
In 1998, a religious institute was founded, based in Chicago, which took St. John Cantius as their patron saint. They are known as the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius.