Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

St. Peter Damian

by Fr. Paul Haffner


Fr. Paul Haffner provides a brief, but interesting account of the life and works of St. Peter Damian. Although never formally canonized, St. Peter Damian was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XII in 1928 and his feast (February 21) was extended to the Universal Church.

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Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, February 2008

Peter Damian was born at Ravenna in Italy around 1007. The parents of this brilliant teacher and writer died shortly after his birth. Peter's elder brother brutally used the young lad as an unpaid servant until another brother, Damian, found Peter tending pigs and rescued him, sending him to be educated at Faenza and Parma. This brother was a priest and Peter took his Christian name — Damian — as his own surname.

Peter Damian responded readily to his teachers and became proficient enough in grammar, rhetoric, and law that he later taught at Ravenna.

He began to practice austerities by himself, gave liberal alms, seldom went without some poor persons at his table, and took pleasure in serving them with his own hands. But he longed to do more for his Lord. The Lord answered his prayer by sending two religious of Fonte Avellana to visit his home. They told him much about their way of life.

So, at age 34, in the year 1035, he became a Benedictine monk at Fonte Avellana, a monastery founded 20 years earlier by Blessed Rudolph.

The brothers of Fonte Avellana lived as hermits in bare cells, utterly disciplined and given to constant study of the Bible. Their regimen was so austere that, for a time, Peter's health broke down. Nevertheless, he became a model monk who occupied himself by studying Scripture and patristic theology and transcribing manuscripts. He was elected prior of this small, poor community in 1043. Others were attracted to imitate his life, and Peter founded five more religious houses for them. He became famous for his uncompromising attitude toward worldliness and denunciations of simony and clerical incontinence.

In 1057, Peter was named cardinal-bishop of Ostia by Pope Stephen IX. His fame spread as he took a leading role in the Gregorian Reform. In 1059, he participated in the Lateran synod that proclaimed the right of the cardinals alone to elect future bishops of Rome. After a brief time as bishop, with the permission of Pope Alexander II (a permission previously denied by Nicholas II) and under the condition that he continue to serve the Holy See as needed, Peter returned to his cell.

There he wrote unceasingly on Purgatory, the Eucharist, and other theological and ascetical topics, but he also wrote poetry. While his Latin verse is among the very best of the Middle Ages, especially that in honor of Pope St. Gregory, which begins "Anglorum iam Apostolus," Peter Damian never considered his learning something of which to boast. What counted, he said, was to worship God, not to write about Him. What use was it to construct a grammatically correct sentence containing the word "God," if you could not pray to Him properly, he said.

In his ideas about monasticism, the saint always looked back to the example of the early desert monks. Although he regarded the monastic life as inferior to eremitic life, he advocated regular canonical life for cathedral clergy, and was a precursor of the devotion to the Passion of Christ. In some respects, he was not unlike St. Jerome in character, fervor, and impatience. Although he was kind to his monks and indulgent to penitents, his writings reveal his severity. It may seem odd to us that Peter Damian reproved the bishop of Florence for playing a single game of chess, or objected strenuously to monks seating themselves as they chanted the Divine Office.

His onslaught on clerical misconduct is called The Gomorrah Book. But the austerities he prescribed for others, he practiced himself. When not employed in prayer or work, he made wooden spoons and other utensils to keep his hands from idleness.

Peter also continued the work of ecclesiastical reform. He opposed the antipopes, especially Honorius II. And he went on missions for the Pope — once even managing to persuade the king of Germany not to divorce his wife, Bertha.

When Henry, archbishop of Ravenna, had been excommunicated for grievous enormities, Peter was sent by Alexander II as legate to settle the troubles. When he arrived at Ravenna, he found the bishop had died, and he brought his accomplices to repentance.

Peter died at Faenza, Italy, February 22, 1072, on route back from Ravenna, which he had just reconciled with the Holy See. His life was written by his disciple John of Lodi.

Although he was never formally canonized, local cults arose at his death, and, in 1828, Pope Leo XII extended his feast to the Universal Church. He was also declared Doctor of the Church in 1828. In art, St. Peter Damian is portrayed as a cardinal archbishop holding a birch and a book. Sometimes he may be shown either as a bishop with the cardinal's hat above his head or by his side, or as an old hermit, dead in a cave, lying on a stone slab with a crucifix on his breast, books, miter, cardinal's hat, and angels near him, or again praying before a cross with a miter and cardinal's hat on the ground.

Text from Dante's Paradiso, Canto XXI, which refers to St. Peter Damian and his cardinal's hat

The mind, bright here, on earth is dulled and smoky.
Think: how, below, can mind see that which hides
even when mind is raised to Heaven's height?

His words so curbed my query that I left
behind my questioning; and I drew back
and humbly asked that spirit who he was.

Not far from your homeland, between two shores
of Italy, the stony ridges rise
so high that, far below them, thunder roars.

These ridges for a hump called Catria;
a consecrated hermitage beneath
that peak was once devoted just to worship.

So his third speech to me began; then he
continued: There within that monastery,
in serving God, I gained tenacity:

with food that only olive juice had seasoned,
I could sustain with ease both heat and frost,
content within my contemplative thoughts.

That cloister used to offer souls to Heaven,
a fertile harvest, but it now is barren
as Heaven's punishment will soon make plain.

There I was known as Peter Damian
and, on the Adriatic shore, was Peter
the Sinner when I served Our Lady's House.

Not much of mortal life was left to me
when I was sought for, dragged to take that hat
which always passes down from bad to worse.

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