December 23: Saint John of Kanty, Priest

Optional Memorial; Liturgical color: Violet
Patron Saint of Poland and Lithuania


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Conquering generals returning home from the rim of the Empire were awarded triumphal parades through Rome’s crowded masses. The booty of war entered the city first on carts—gold plate, silver goblets, piles of aromatic spices—then came the exotic animals, the caged prisoners of war, and row after row of legionaries. Finally, the victorious general split the crowd in a chariot pulled by two white horses. Slaves waving huge plumes fanned the emperor while another slave stood behind him, continually whispering in his ear: “Thus passes the glory of the world” or “Remember you are a mere mortal.” Tertullian, a North African Christian, specifically cites this triumphal custom: “…amid the honours of a triumph, (the emperor) sits on that lofty chariot, and he is reminded that he is only human. A voice at his back keeps whispering in his ear, ‘Look behind thee; remember thou art but a man’” (Apologies Chpt. 33).

Today’s saint needed no such professional whisperers. Nature spoke loudly into one ear and Christ into the other, reminding him of life’s fleeting nature, that the “here and now” must one day cede to the “there and then.” John of Kanty (or John Cantius) was impressively unimpressed with all that the world had to offer. Saint John’s prodigious intellectual gifts could have garnished his life with a fair share of the world’s riches, if he had desired them. But the only glory Saint John sought was knowledge of God, the hard floor he slept on every night, and the hunger that seasoned what little food he ate. Saint John was a gifted student at Poland’s University of Krakow, who after priestly ordination became a professor of philosophy, theology, and Scripture there. Apart from a few year’s interlude serving in a parish, he spent all of his adult life as a professor.

John gave to the poor until he deprived himself of life’s necessities. When he walked on pilgrimage to Rome, he carried his meager sack on his own back. His cassock was threadbare, he did not eat meat, and his personal sweetness and patience made his impressive theological knowledge even more impactful. He dismissed the concerns of friends that his punishing austerities would damage his health by invoking the example of Egypt’s long-lived desert fathers, whose gaunt frames were draped in skin as cracked and dry as the desert itself. John’s virtuous life proves the mutually reinforcing character of poverty and celibacy. Once a priest abandons his vow of poverty or simplicity and begins leading a bourgeoisie life of comfort, he risks abandoning his vow of celibacy too. He starts to imperceptibly drift downriver from where he first entered the stream of his vocation, until it’s too late, and he is swept over the falls into the sea of mere bachelorhood.

From an external perspective, Saint John lived a mundane, predictable existence. It is in keeping with his personal history that he is one of the most obscure saints on the Church’s liturgical calendar. His life was like a flat plain, without great events jutting up like mountains from the even, everyday terrain. Saint John was a humble scholar who sought no legacy through wealth, fame, property, marriage, or offspring. Such goods were arrows that glanced off his spiritual armor. He did not want to cheat death by colluding with the desires of his fallen nature. His mind, his body, and his life would serve no one and nothing except Christ and His Church. Such a serious, mortified life is not for the many, but a few are indeed called to live it.

After his death, John’s holiness and academic excellence were so highly esteemed that his doctoral gown was long placed on the shoulders of the University of Krakow’s doctoral graduates to ceremoniously vest them. On a pilgrimage to Krakow in 1997, Saint John’s countryman, Pope Saint John Paul II, prayed at his tomb, noting that his fellow Krakovian’s life exemplified what emerges when “knowledge and wisdom seek a covenant with holiness.”

Saint John of Kanty, we ask your heavenly intercession to infuse the virtues of poverty, chastity, and perseverance in all students of higher education, that they may be diligent in furthering their knowledge of all things sacred and mundane for God’s glory and their own sanctification. Amen.

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