17 February 2023

Saint of the Week – St Peter Damian

As a young child Peter Damian lost both his parents and he was raised by an elder brother, who is said to have treated him more like a slave than a brother.

Name: Peter Damian

Born: c. AD 1007; Ravenna.

Died: 22nd February AD 1072; Faenza.

Feast Day:; 21st February

After some years of mistreatment, another brother, who was the Archpriest of Ravenna, intervened and sent Peter to Faenza and later Parma for schooling where he proved himself to be a very capable student. The difficulties he faced in childhood steeled him for a life of asceticism and he was eventually drawn to the monastic life, joining a reformed community of Benedictines in Fonte Avellana who lived as hermits. Peter devoted himself to prayer and the study of scripture, and quickly won the admiration of the community who saw Peter as the natural successor to the Abbot. In his time as abbot Peter established five other hermitages.

Before long, the fame of the saintly hermit reached Rome, and successive Popes would prevail upon Peter Damian for his counsel and service to the Universal Church. Peter was reluctant to leave his hermitage on any permanent basis but his fate was sealed in 1057 when Pope Stephen IX made him Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, placing him in easy reach of the Pope. Popes Nicholas II and Alexander II likewise used the zeal, acumen and moral authority of Peter Damian to resolve various complex pastoral problems. Foremost among the crises confronting the Church in the 11th century was the moral corruption of the clergy, which was a cause of continuous scandal and unrest. In his Book of Gomorrah, of 1047, Peter Damian railed against the lax morals of the clergy, particularly the twin scourges of clerical incontinence and simony (the misuse of spiritual goods for financial gain). He denounced sodomy and pederasty in the strongest of terms, as vices that are incompatible with the clerical office, insisting that such clerics be removed from office. Peter was continuously engaged in diplomatic missions on behalf of the various Popes which he undertook with aplomb yet his heart was always set on a life of solitude and prayer as a monk. His last undertaking was to resolve a scandal concerning the excommunicated Archbishop of Ravenna. Whilst on his return to Rome he was struck with fever and died a week later surrounded by monks as they prayed Matins.

The year after Peter Damian’s death, Gregory VII became Pope (from 1073-1087). Like Peter Damian, Gregory VII had been the Abbot of a monastery, and in fact the two had been well-acquainted and united in their vision for ecclesiastical reform. Using the momentum gained by Peter’s moral crusade to reform the clergy, Pope Gregory VII initiated the Gregorian (or Hildebrandine) Reform, one of the great top-down ecclesiastical reforms of the Church, that specifically sought to reassert the ancient discipline of clerical celibacy, as a universal norm for the Latin Rite. [Note well: on account of the Gregorian Reform it is sometimes falsely claimed that celibacy only began in the 11th century, when in fact Pope Gregory was merely ensuring that the long-standing law of clerical celibacy in the Church was actually being followed].

Peter Damian had done much to till the soil of ecclesiastical reform that would bear abundant fruit in the following century with the flourishing of the High Middle Ages. The following century would see the establishment of the mendicant orders (the Dominicans, the Franciscans, and the Carmelites), a flowering of popular devotions and an explosion of cathedral building throughout Europe. The century after Peter Damian’s death is considered a Golden Age of the Church (think: Francis of Assisi, Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Dante, Giotto, etc.). Yet, it was Peter Damian who had in so many ways set the stage for this renewal, according to the Pauline maxim: “I sowed, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (cf. 1Cor 3:6). When Dante came to write the third part of his Divine Comedy, he placed St Peter Damian in one of the highest realms of heaven.

Today the faithful are constantly bombarded with salacious headlines about the moral failings of religious, priests and bishops, that reach even into the heart of the Vatican. Indeed, the sexual immorality and financial scandals that St Peter Damian sought to address in his lifetime are eerily reminiscent of our own times. The result of these scandals is a crisis of moral credibility for the Church, which gravely undermines her entire mission. The Church’s capacity to proclaim the moral teachings of Jesus Christ (who said “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) is compromised while such manifest moral corruption festers within her own ranks. When one considers the growing number of prelates especially those in Germany, Holland and Belgium who openly and noisily reject the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, one wonders what St Peter Damian would make of such prelates, or moreover, what they would make of St Peter Damian? Indeed, as bad as the morality of the clergy may have been in the 11th century, they at least were not attempting to receive the Church’s blessing for their sins, in stark contrast to the situation today. The Church is indeed ecclesia semper reformanda (a “Church always in reform”). The moral decay that has set into the Church can indeed be expunged, but only when there are saints with a prophetic voice like St Peter Damian, who can call evil by its proper name.

St Peter Damian leaves behind a substantial body of writings: letters, homilies and treatises addressing a wide range of subjects, as well as hymns and poems. In 1828 he was declared a Doctor of the Church.

St Peter Damian, pray for us!