February 20, 2017

Optional Memorial of Saint Peter Damian, Reformer

St. Peter Damian
On February 21st, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of Saint Peter Damian (1007-72), the reforming bishop and cardinal who lived as an ascetic hermit, scholar and advisor to popes. Although the austerities that St. Peter Damian undertook during his life in the 11th century may seem extreme to us in the 21st, they nonetheless prepared him to be one of the great reformers of the Church in an era when it took great holiness and strength of character to prevail against the status quo.

He was born in the city of Ravenna, Italy, in the year 1007, and lost both his parents while still a young boy. He was brought in by an older brother who, unfortunately, treated him more like a slave in his household than a member of the family. Fortunately, Peter's brother, the arch-priest of Ravenna, took pity on him and took him into his own household. There, he made sure his younger sibling attended good schools, and Peter, who proved to be an apt student, would became a professor of tremendous renown.

But he realized that this was not the life he was created for. Even as a young man, he began to practice severe austerities, wearing a hair shirt while fasting and praying almost constantly. After meeting two Benedictines of the reform of St. Romuald at Fonte Avellana, Peter left teaching and went to live with the brothers in a hermitage. There, he overdid his asceticism to the point where he suffered greatly from insomnia, which he overcame with difficulty. After that, he became more prudent in caring for his health and physical well-being.

By the 1040s, Peter (who had taken his second brother’s name, Damian, as his surname) was gaining renown in the Church as both a leader and a great reformer. He was so respected by the brothers he lived with that they decided by acclaim that he should become abbot upon the death of their present spiritual leader. Always one who preferred a life of solitude and prayer, Peter refused until the abbot himself made it a matter of obedience. Thus, in 1043, Peter succeeded to the leadership of his community and went on to found five other hermitages in Italy. In all of them, he urged the brothers to a life of solitude and prayer.

But such solitude was to elude Peter himself. The Holy See often called upon him to mediate conflicts between religious and religious communities and, in 1057, Pope Stephen IX appointed him cardinal-bishop of Ostia, an area southwest of Rome. Peter accepted the post with great reluctance, but used it to continue and intensify his mission of reform. He targeted specifically the practice of simony, in which clergy would charge money in return for spiritual services. He also insisted on the practice of clerical celibacy, and urged diocesan priests to live together in order to promote a deeper prayer life and religious observance. It was his desire to "restore a primitive discipline" that was lacking in the priests of his time. Known for the vehemence of his teaching, it was said of him that "his genius was to exhort and impel to the heroic, to praise striking achievements and to record edifying examples... an extraordinary force burns in all that he wrote."

And yet, Peter’s desire was always to live the life of a simple monk, a wish that was finally granted by Pope Alexander II who nevertheless reserved the right to call on him from time to time to settle disputes for the Holy See. It was while returning from one of these missions in 1072 in the city of Ravenna that he contracted the fever that would kill him eight days later, surrounded by monks praying the Divine Office.

Saint Peter Damian was pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1828 by Pope Leo XII. In his poem, the Divine Comedy, Dante places Damian in the "Seventh Heaven," the place where the holiest saints contemplate God. All-powerful God, help us to follow the teachings and example of Peter Damian. By making Christ and the service of His Church the first love of our lives, may we come to the joys of eternal light. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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