Painting of St. John Cantius by Tadeusz Żukotyński
from the High Altar of St. John Cantius Church, Chicago
Our Patron Saint
St. John of Kenty
To most Catholics in this country, St. John from Kenty—otherwise known as John Kanty or 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.
Only thirteen miles from the Holy Father’s own birthplace, John was born in the small southern Polish town of Kenty on June 24, 1390. At the age of 23, he registered for studies at the Jagiellonian University, located in the not too distant city of Krakow—then, the capital of the Polish Kingdom. Founded 1364 by royal decree, it was the same university at which astronomer, Nicolas Copernicus, would study almost 80 years later.
Enrolled in the Department of Liberal Arts, John became a doctor of philosophy in 1418. During the following three years, he undertook further studies in preparation for the priesthood, while supporting himself by conducting philosophy classes at the university.
Immediately following ordination, he accepted a position as rector at the prestigious school of the Canons Regular of the Most Holy Sepulcher in Miechow. That such a school would offer him this position at his relatively young age was evidence of John’s exceptional intellect and talents. It was there in conducting formation classes for the young novices that he became firmly grounded in the writings and spirituality of St. Augustine.
In 1429, a position became vacant in the Philosophy Department at the Jagiellonian University. John quickly returned to Krakow for the Job, taking up residence at the university where he remained until his death. He also began studies in theology and after 13 long years of study intertwined with teaching and administrative duties as head of the Philosophy Department, He finally received his doctorate. Later, after the death of his mentor, the eminent theologian Benedykt Hesse, John assumed directorship of the university’s Theology Department.
As most learned men of his day, John spent many of his free hours hand copying manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures, theological tracts, and other scholarly works. Although only 26 volumes have survived to our time, their total of over 18,000 pages is a testament to his exceptional industriousness.
During the course of his life in Krakow, John became well know among the city’s residents for his generosity and compassion toward the poor, always sacrificing his own needs in order to help those less fortunate. He felt a special affinity toward need students at the university, helping to care for their spiritual, physical, and academic needs, Whether it was in the classroom or in the pulpit, everyone knew him as a staunch defender of the faith and enemy of heretics.
By the time the Master from Kenty died on December 24, 1473, the people of Krakow already considered him a very holy man. That his opinion was wholly justified can be evidenced by the numerous favors and miracles attributed to John’s intercession beginning immediately following his death. Before long, John from Kenty became know widely throughout Europe, drawing pilgrims from many countries to his tomb in the university’s Collegiate Church of St. Anne.
Despite this, the process for his beatification did not begin until 150 years later. Finally, in 1676, Pope Clement XIII declared him a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, proclaiming October 20 as his feast day.
Throughout, his many years in Krakow, our philosopher Pontiff drew much inspiration at the grave of his patron saint of learning. It was no surprise, therefore, that during his 1997 pilgrimage to Poland, he once more prayed at the Saint’s tomb. There, during a special gathering with professors from the Jagiellonian-both his and St. John’s alma mater—he alluded to the Master from Kenty when he stated: “Knowledge and wisdom seek a covenant with holiness.”
Time Not Unlike Our Own
(Taken from Society of St. John Cantius newsletter Via Sacra, Vol.1, Issue 2, May 25, 1999)
Saint John from Kenty, patron of our religious community, lived in times not unlike our own. Although not as intense as the cultural crisis of the late twentieth century, his time was nonetheless as period of tension and sweeping change. As for us, it was a time of crisis as well as reform in the realms of culture, politics and religion.
In Europe of the fifteenth century, the Church was still reeling from the effects of the western schism. The emergence of antipopes divided the allegiances of Catholics. Criticism of Church authority led to the support of conciliarism, which asserted that the only solution to the Church’s problems was submission of the Pope to the authority of Church councils.
Many philosophers wished to separate the Church from the realm of learning, some mystics wished to separate piety from a search for the truth, Hussite heretics wished to detach the Church from all temporal matters, and academics defended the rights of pagans and schismatics, under the banner of freedom of conscience. The similarity to our time is uncanny.
However, even amidst such sentiments among many of his colleagues at the Krakovian Academy, St. John from Kenty stood firm in his loyalty to the Roman Pontiff and the timeless teachings of the Church.
Despite the turmoil, it was also a period of renewal within the Church. St. John stood out as one of a number of mystics in fifteenth-century Krakow who were influenced by devotio moderna—a contemporary Dutch movement, which encouraged lay people to a life of individual piety through reflection on the Gospels, personal consecration, and works of mercy. It also promoted a renewed devotion to the Eucharist through the practice—considered revolutionary for the time—of frequent reception of Confession and Holy Communion.
The influence of this movement on the Master from Kenty may explain why, among the numerous manuscripts produced by this seasoned scholar, we find no great theological or mystical treatises. One trait characteristic of devotio moderna was that it did not encourage the writing of such works as was popular in that day. It called rather for a humble silence and renunciation of the unnecessary praise from others, that such works would have entailed.
What the Master from Kenty did leave us, however, were many volumes of transcribed manuscripts, as well as practical commentaries on morality and faith.
St. John from Kenty didn’t found a school of mysticism or live in a monastery but in a manner unique for his day, he demonstrated how one could live the gospel in everyday life through service to the Church and one’s fellow man. He drew constant inspiration from a deep devotion to Christ’s Passion and a profound love of our Savior’s Blessed Mother.
So exemplary was he, that two centuries later Pope Clement XIII wrote for his canonization that the Saint from Kenty “belonged to a group of outstanding men, distinguished by knowledge and holiness, who both taught and put into practice, as well as defended, the true faith which was under attach by its enemies.”