A scientific thinker with the heart of an ascetic

A scientific thinker with the heart of an ascetic

The interior of Saint John Cantius Church in Chicago. Saint Cantius was both a scientist and a tireless advocate for the poor.

Just south of Goose Island here in Chicago sits a church recently voted the most beautiful in America by 16,000 online supporters. Named for the Polish Saint John Cantius (spelled in Eastern Europe as Jan Kanty), it is home to the Canons Regular of Saint John Cantius, an Augustinian community of religious men devoted to sacred art and music.

Their patron Cantius was a philosopher and scientist who lived from 1390 to 1473. He was particularly interested in physics and the observable universe, and studied the motion of objects with great exactitude. He built upon the work of another priest-professor, Jean Buridan (1295-1363), and asserted there was a process of “impetus” when objects were in motion.

Contradicting the widely held assumptions of the day, Cantius and Buridan read the Greek Aristotle (and perhaps the Muslim Avicenna) and came to argue against the former that the impetus, or momentum, of an object did not dissipate suddenly, but instead as a result of air resistance and forces (today recognized as gravitational pull) which opposed it. Thus invisible influences in reality were slowing a projectile in motion, not externally propelling it. Cantius and Buridan in many ways anticipated what would be more clearly articulated later in Newton’s laws regarding inertia.

When applied to celestial bodies, their theories of natural processes were among the first cracks in the static geocentric models of the universe. It would take another Pole, Nicolaus Copernicus, ultimately to effect the revolution in thinking about humanity’s vision of its own centrality in the universe. The “impetus” thinking then contained some of the seminal insights that would be cultivated to fuller flourishing by Galileo, and eventually Einstein.

Born in the Diocese of Krakow, Cantius lived in relatively close proximity to the eventual birthplace of Saint John Paul II. In addition to his scientific contributions, Cantius was a tireless advocate for the poor and destitute. Committed to asceticism, he often gave money, food or clothing out of his personal possession to those in need. He counseled others on medical and physiological matters, and he abstained from meat for much of his adult life.

He died on Christmas Eve in 1473 at the age of 83.

He was canonized by Pope Clement XIII in 1767, and his tomb is still a site of pilgrimage in Europe, where many claim miracles are worked. He’s a popular saint not only in Poland, but everywhere that natives of that country live in diaspora. Thus, it is unsurprising that he remains so widely venerated in Illinois, where roughly one in 10 of the current inhabitants are of Polish and Eastern European descent.

Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a native of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

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