Today, February 21, is the Feast of Saint Peter Damian
St. Peter Damian, Monk, Bishop, Cardinal and Great Reformer, is probably the least well known of the Doctors of the Church. We celebrate his feast day in the Church on February 21, the anniversary of his death. He was born in the year 1007 in Ravenna, Italy, the youngest child of a large family that struggled terribly to make ends meet. Orphaned at an early age he was taken in by an elder brother, an archpriest named Damian, and added his brother’s name to his own out of gratitude. Intellectually gifted, he made rapid progress in his studies which his brother had arranged for him. By the time he was twenty-five he was a well-known teacher in both Parma and Ravenna.
When St. Peter Damian was about twenty-eight years old, he abandoned his secular career pursuits and entered the Benedictine hermitage of Fonte Avellana, near Gubbio, seeking a monastic life that was uncompromising. His early years in the monastic community were marked by much fervor and the occasional extreme penitential episode which landed him in the infirmary. He continued to teach, inside his own community and at neighboring monasteries, and over time was given more responsibility and recognition at Fonte Avellana. In 1043, at the age of only 36, he was named prior at Fonte Avellana and remained, officially, in that office until his death.
Even though St. Peter lived the somewhat secluded life of a Benedictine hermit, he very carefully observed events in the Church of his time. The first century of the new millennium was a difficult time for the Church – scandalous public behavior by religious, clergy and even bishops was commonplace and emergent rulers throughout Europe attempted to subdue the Church to the State, often times using the most morally reprehensible means. With his proximity to Rome, and his great reputation for wisdom and sanctity, St. Peter Damian was often called upon by the Popes of his time for both advice on and intervention in a variety of matters. When Pope Stephen IX was elected in 1057, he pressed St. Peter to accept an episcopal appointment. Such was his reluctance to accept such a dignity, that Pope Stephen had to threaten him with excommunication in order for him to accept the position of Bishop of Ostia, and an appointment to the College of Cardinals as icing on the cake. Pope Stephen also named St. Peter as a papal legate – a position through which he mediated a number of difficult political and ecclesiastical crises over the years.
In 1059 things had become so bad at Milan that Pope Nicholas, successor to Pope Stephen, sent St. Peter there as his personal emissary. The corruption of the see of Milan had reached utterly new lows, with many clergy living openly with women in violation of chastity and the favors of the Church being bought and sold with no concern. Into the midst of this strode St. Peter Damian, and his awesome moral authority. He confronted clerical rioters in the cathedral and proved their submission to the Holy See, eventually winning over the scandalous clergy and bishops. Peter imposed a harsh public penitential sentence on them all and Milan was, as they say, re-converted.
In 1069, St. Peter traveled to Frankfurt to meet Henry IV, King of Germany, who had caused a crisis in the Church there by convincing his bishops to grant him a divorce, illicitly, from his wife Bertha. St. Peter intervened and convinced not only the bishops of their wrongdoing but the entire assembled noblemen of Germany. All rose up against the King in a public statement of defiance against his immorality. The king, needless to say, was sufficiently chastised.
In his lifetime, St Peter Damian battled kings and tyrants and anti-popes, heretics and wayward clergy. He did it all with a strong character, great moral authority and the sanctity of a true saint. He never resorted to violence or ill-means, only his faith in God and the eternal message of the Gospel of Christ were his “weapons at hand.”. St. Francis of Assisi, who lived some two centuries later, and who was himself known as a great reformer, viewed St. Peter Damian as the consummate hero of reform and renewal in the Church because of his witness and his accomplishments.
St. Peter Damian is truly a saint for all troubled times in the life of the Church. As Catholics who know our history, we must be thankful that the Lord always calls up saints to witness to the truth – especially in dark and difficult times. As Our Lord promised to the very first St. Peter regarding the Church, “the gates of Hell shall never prevail against it.”
Are you curious about what exactly “Doctor of the Church” means? According to Fr. John Hardon’s little gem of a book, the Pocket Catholic Dictionary, a handy reference work everyone should have, Doctor of the Church is “A title given since the Middle Ages to certain saints whose writing or preaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in all periods of the Church’s history. Originally the Western Fathers of the Church – Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome – were considered the great doctors of the Church but the Church has officially added many more names to the original four, including Sts. Catherine of Siena (1347-80) and Theresa of Avila (1515-82)” Currently their number stands at 33. The singular best book on the Doctors of the Church is Fr. Christopher Rengers’ “The 33 Doctors of the Church.” Find out who these men and women were and find out why they matter.
To understand more about the Church, Life and Culture in the early Middle Ages, the time of St. Peter Damian, a excellent book is Dr. Warren Carroll’s “Building of Christendom” – the second volume in his landmark series “A History of Christendom.” The story of this pivotal, turbulent era will fascinate and amaze the reader.
For a less dense and scholarly approach to the history of the Middle Ages, the years between 500 A.D. and 1500 A.D., try reading Professor Regine Pernoud’s wonderfully entertaining “Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths” This eye-opening work will change the way you think about the Middle Ages and will give you a new appreciation for this misunderstood period of history.
There is never a better time like the present to learn more about heroic figures in the Church like St. Peter Damian – those champions of orthodoxy, willing to give everything they had to serve the Truth – the Truth we know as Jesus Christ.
Would you be willing to let your children starve before denouncing your Catholic Faith? Do you have the courage to take the place of a galley slave so that he could return to his family, knowing that you will most surely die at sea? Could you hide a priest in your home even though the penalty for such a crime is to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered”?
From the green hills of Ireland to the rugged coast land of Algeria to the war-torn Balkans, ordinary men and women have been willing to take extraordinary risks in order to remain loyal to the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. In the book “Forgotten Catholic Heroes” you can discover the amazing stories of life, death, and allegiance to the Truth tucked within some of the most overlooked chapters of Catholic history. Once you’ve met these “forgotten heroes” and read their moving and inspirational stories, you’ll never take your Faith in Christ for granted again.
St. Peter Damian, champion of orthodoxy and witness to Christ, please pray for us and pray for the Church.