Category Archives: Peter Damian

Feb 21 – St Peter Damian (1007-1072 AD) – Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church, Reformer of the Clergy, Patron of Priests


-by Steve Weidenkopf

“By the eleventh century, the Church found itself in great need of reform, especially the clergy, and the Holy Spirit provided a series of reform-minded popes. These popes began their ecclesial careers as monks, and many of them had spent time at the famous reformed Benedictine monastery at Cluny in France. When Bruno of Alsace was elected pope in 1049, taking the name Leo IX, he initiated one of the most comprehensive reforms in Church history.

Leo (r. 1049-1054) recognized that simply issuing reform decrees from Rome would not change clerical behavior and restore the Church, so he decided to go on one of the most important road trips in papal history. During his five-year pontificate, he spent only six months in Rome, taking his reform road show to France, Italy, and Germany. Wherever he went, Leo deposed immoral bishops and punished clerics who were guilty of simony. Although those actions were necessary, the pope recognized that the major problem with clerical behavior was infidelity to the promise of celibacy.

In the first three centuries of Church history, there was no law prohibiting the ordination of married men, and many priests were married; however, marriage was never permitted after ordination. Moreover, all priests—married, single, or widowed—practiced sexual abstinence after ordination. The first recorded Church legislation concerning clerical celibacy in the West was decreed at the Synod of Elvira in Spain around the year 300, and in 385, Pope Siricius (r. 384-399) mandated celibacy for all clergy in the West.

But despite the longstanding practice of the Church, clergy in the early medieval Church often did not live celibacy faithfully. Many priests were not properly trained or formed, and they flouted their vow of celibacy, taking mistresses and concubines who bore them children, causing great scandal. Other priests engaged in homosexual acts. All the while, bishops and abbots seemed hesitant to act and restore virtue to the priesthood and monasteries.

But one monk was not afraid, and he wrote a book in which he called for Leo IX to remove this stain of clerical immorality. His name was Peter Damian, and today is his feast day.

Peter was born in Ravenna seven years into the eleventh century. His early life was marked by suffering; both his parents died when he was an infant. An older, abusive brother and his concubine took Peter into their home, where he was beaten, starved, and sent to work as a swineherd. In the midst of this tribulation, Peter took solace in Christ and developed deep piety. When he found a gold coin in the mud while tending the pigs, for example, instead of spending it on himself, Peter ran to the parish priest and paid a stipend for a Mass to be celebrated for the repose of his father’s soul.

Eventually, Peter was rescued from his horrible conditions by another brother who recognized Peter’s intellectual gifts and ensured he received an education in the liberal arts. This brother’s love and generosity influenced Peter to add his brother’s name, Damian, to his own and he henceforth was known as Peter Damian.

Peter’s devoted his life to growing closer to God, and he performed many acts of mortification to drive away temptations of the flesh. His spirituality was focused on the Cross, and he wrote, “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ” (Sermo XVIII, 11). He incorporated this focus into his life to such a degree that he came to describe himself as “Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ.”

In his late twenties, Peter joined a monastery, where he committed himself to personal reform and to pursuing reform within his community. He knew that reform in the larger Church and even in secular society was impossible without first focusing on the individual. Peter was appalled by the immoral behavior of the diocesan clergy and monks and endeavored to return his brother priests to virtuous living. During the time of Leo’s reign, he composed a book critical of clerical sexual immorality.

Addressed to the pope, the book (given the title The Book of Gomorrah centuries later) was not just a diatribe against sin but was also an exhortation to personal penance and a return to virtue and was written in a firm yet compassionate tone. He exhorted fellow priests who were tempted by the devil toward carnal pleasures to orient “your mind to the grave.” Even as he offered a chapter on “a weeping lamentation over souls surrendered to the dregs of impurity,” he provided also “an exhortation to the man who has fallen into sin, that he might rise again.”

He also noted that the “cancer of sodomitic impurity” was raging through the clergy “like a cruel beast,” decrying that “degenerate men do not fear to perpetuate an act that even brute animals abhor.”

Pope Leo IX favorably responded to Peter’s book and adopted many of his recommendations. Over time this work became an important part of the eleventh-century reform movement.

A few years after completing his manuscript, Peter was ordained a bishop and later created a cardinal. Peter wrote extensive letters, sometimes signing them as “Peter the Sinner” or “Peter the Sinner-Monk,” which provide a window into the soul of this important saint in the life of the Church. The life of St. Peter Damian is a model of virtue to Catholic clergy, and his words provide an exhortation and a warning for all Catholics not to let sexual vice taint the life and mission of the Church.”

Love, and praying all our ordained,
Matthew

Feb 21 – St Peter Damian, OSB, (1007-1072), Doctor of the Church, Great Catholic Reformer

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St Peter Damian was one of the forerunners of the Gregorian Revolution/reformation in the Church of the late 11th century, a revolution marked by the effort to centralize Church governance, establish a distinction between lay and clerical states, and proper revulsion against sexual vice, especially within the clergy and the general reform of the clergy.  Dante placed St Peter Damian in one of the highest circles of his Divine Comedy’s Paradiso.

St. Peter Damian must be numbered among the greatest of the Church’s reformers in the Middle Ages, yes, even among the truly extraordinary persons of all times. In Damian the scholar, we admire wealth of wisdom: in Damian the preacher of God’s word, apostolic zeal; in Damian the monk, austerity and self-denial; in Damian the priest, piety and zeal for souls; in Damian the cardinal, loyalty and submission to the Holy See together with generous enthusiasm and devotion for the good of Mother Church. He was a personal friend of Pope St Gregory VII.  In his lifetime, he served seven Popes, there were sixteen during his lifetime.

St Peter Damian was a monk, a lover of solitude, and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform, initiated by the Popes of the time. He was born in Ravenna in 1007, into a noble family but in impoverished circumstances.  The family was large, Peter was the youngest, and it was reported Peter’s mother was overwhelmed by the care of so many children such that she was not an affectionate or dutiful mother.

Peter had a difficult childhood, he lost both parents at an early age, as well. Put in the care of a brother who mistreated him, Peter’s brother used him more as a slave than loved him as a sibling.  Peter never forgot his poverty and was always kind to the poor he encountered throughout his life thereafter.  Another brother, Damian, the eldest, was a priest in the city of Ravenna and took pity on his younger sibling and took him in.  Damian could see Peter’s intellectual gifts and sent him to be educated at Parma and Faenza.  Peter was so grateful he took his brother Damian’s name.

The Cross was the Christian mystery that was to fascinate Peter Damian more than all the others. “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ”, he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117); and he described himself as “Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ” (Ep, 9, 1). Peter Damian addressed the most beautiful prayers to the Cross in which he reveals a vision of this mystery which has cosmic dimensions for it embraces the entire history of salvation: “O Blessed Cross”, he exclaimed, “You are venerated, preached and honored by the faith of the Patriarchs, the predictions of the Prophets, the senate that judges the Apostles, the victorious army of Martyrs and the throngs of all the Saints” (Sermo XLVII, 14, p. 304). The example of St Peter Damian should always spur us, too, always to look to the Cross as to the supreme act of God’s love for humankind.  St Peter Damian also had a very special devotion to the Blessed Mother.

However, the ideal image of “Holy Church” illustrated by Peter Damian does not correspond as he knew well to the reality of his time. The eleventh century was rife with corruption within the Church, especially among its clergy.  Peter wrote Liber Gomorrhianus (Book of Gomorrah), which described the vices of priests, including sexual sins, offenses against their vows of celibacy including sodomy, and mainly in their concern with worldly matters, with money, and the evil of simony, the buying and selling of church offices.

For this reason he did not fear to denounce the state of corruption that existed in the monasteries and among the clergy.  The practice of the conferral by the lay authorities of ecclesiastical offices was common, such that various Bishops and Abbots were behaving as the rulers of their subjects rather than as pastors of souls. Their moral life frequently left much to be desired. For this reason, in 1057 Peter Damian left his monastery with great reluctance and sorrow and accepted, if unwillingly, his appointment as Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. So it was that he entered fully into collaboration with the Popes in the difficult task of Church reform. He saw that to make his own contribution of helping in the work of the Church’s renewal contemplation did not suffice. He thus relinquished the beauty of the hermitage and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.

Because of his love for monastic life, 10 years later, in 1067, he obtained permission to return to Fonte Avellana and resigned from the Diocese of Ostia. However, the tranquility he had longed for did not last long: two years later, he was sent to Frankfurt in an endeavor to prevent the divorce of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV from his wife Bertha.

Henry IV was eventually excommunicated for other offenses, entanglements, and interferences in Church affairs, including conspiring and executing a plot to the kidnap and imprison the Pope.  He famously stood in the snow at Canossa for three days, 25-27 January 1077, wearing no shoes, taking no food or drink, wearing a hair shirt, The Walk of Canossa as it is called, as penance imploring that his excommunication by Pope St Gregory VII be lifted.  While meant as remedy to make clear the error of ways, excommunication absolves, it gets technical, the Christian community from Gospel obligations towards the excommunicated, including fealty to a sovereign.  Once having known the love of Christ in the bosom of the Church and having rejected it, Christian duty no longer applies towards the excommunicated.  Repent or lose your crown was the message.  The expression “going to Canossa/nach Canossa gehen”, as in doing penance of some type for some wrong, is still contemporary in Europe.

After another mission, on the journey home to his hermitage, an unexpected illness obliged St Peter Damian to stop at the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria Vecchia Fuori Porta in Faenza, where he died in the night between 22 and 23 February 1072.

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-Saint Peter Damian (far right), depicted with Saints Augustine, Anne, and Elizabeth, by Ercole de’ Roberti (ca 1451–1496)

“Therefore, my brother, scorned as you are by men, lashed as it were by God, do not despair. Do not be depressed. Do not let your weakness make you impatient. Instead, let the serenity of your spirit shine through your face. Let the joy of your mind burst forth. Let words of thanks break from your lips.”
— St. Peter Damian

Prayer of St Peter Damian:

“Have mercy, Lord, on all my friends and relatives, on all my benefactors, on all who pray to You for me, and on all who have asked me to pray for them. Give them the spirit of fruitful penance; mortify them in all vices, and make them flower in all your virtues.  Amen.”

Love,
Matthew