Saint Peter Damian: Feast Day, February 21
The story of Saint Peter Damian: Doctor of the Church.
- A cardinal bearing a knotted rope in his hand,
- A pilgrim holding a papal Bull,
- A Cardinal's hat,
- A Benedictine monk's habit.
Saint Peter Damian is a Doctor of the Church, a Saint who's contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study, or writing has been recognized as being significant for the Universal Church. Born into a large family in Ravenna, Italy, he also became a Brother, Abbot, Bishop and eventually a Cardinal over his 65 years (1007 to 1072).
When Peter Damian was young he would not have been recognized as a child who would grow up to make any sort of contribution to anything, much less the Universal Church. His family was not rich, his parents died when he was still young and he was then raised by his brothers.
After his parents died, the brother who was raising him was very mean and physically abusive. Some say this brother refused to feed him properly so he was always hungry.
Rescued by another brother and becomes a monk
Fortunately for Peter, and for us, Peter was later adopted by another brother, an Archpriest of Ravenna who arranged to have Peter educated in a good schools in Faenza and Parma. When he was finished his formal studies he became a teacher in Ravenna, lived a very simple life and soon decided to become a monk. So in 1035 he joined the Camaldolese Benedictine monastery in Fonte Avellana. There he lived as a hermit and studied Patristic Theology and the scriptures. He must have been a very good monk because in 1043 he was elected Abbot of the monastery. He eventually founded five other monasteries following the same rules as the one he joined.
Peter was ardent and strict, insisted his monks follow the rules of solitude, charity and fidelity to the founding fathers of the monastery. However, he as often kind to his monks and could be indulgent to penitents (people who have gone to confession).
However he gained a reputation in his writing for being strict and severe. He had no hesitation for example in scolding Bishops who were not following their vocation properly and indulging in too many luxuries, or worse.
This strictness and severity to clerics (ordained men holding an office in the Church) was, in retrospect, justified because of the general breakdown of holiness, morals and mission among the clerics and as a result in the Church overall. This is to some extent similar to the crisis we are living through in the Church today.
Because of his great learning and strictness he was soon called to participate in many synods (a meeting of Bishops and sometimes others called to to decide an issue of doctrine, administration or application) in Italy that were trying to deal with the crisis. So, even though Saint Peter Damian was certainly not liked by many people, he was appreciated and used to great effect at these synods called by a series of reforming Popes. Among the issues afflicting the Church at the time and discussed at these meetings was simony (selling church offices and roles or sacred things) and clerical marriage (priests getting married contrary to their vows).
In 1057 Peter was made the Bishop of Ostia and also became a Cardinal. He was from then on very active in the great Gregorian Reform that saved the Church from corruption and collapse. He had a leading role in fighting agains anti-Popes (basically someone who calls themselves Pope but who were not legally elected). He travelled to Milan, France and Germany on diplomatic and ecclesiastical missions, always and everywhere preaching and encouraging reform of the Church.
Through all of this time of great honour and activity Peter remained at heart a monk and many times asked to be relieved of his responsibilities so he could return to being a hermit monk. Sometime between 1059 and 1061 Pope Nicholas II granted his wish and Peter returned to Fonte Avellana. There he took up the craft of making wooden spoons -- one of the most famous people of his time went back, by choice, to being a hermit monk making wooden spoons!
His last mission was to Ravenna who's Archbishop had been excommunicated. The city was divided into factions supporting and opposing the Archbishop and the situation was becoming dangerous. Peter arrived in the city and resolved the problem by carefully listening to all sides and eventually punishing the guilty.
Peter Damian died in a monastery in Faenza on the return trip from his last mission.
Peter Damian's example
We can look back on Peter Damian's life as a great example of holiness, charity, kindness, humility, statesmanship and most importantly his role as a reformer in the Church -- brave, fearless and direct. May we be so blessed today as to have another Peter Damian to help us through times of crisis!
In our own lives we should seek follow Peter's example and do the simple things first, study, pray, and if called, serve others to the best of our ability. May we find purpose in serving others even if it's only by making wooden spoons!
The main source for this article was the Oxford Dictionary of Saints.