Saint Peter Damian, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

February 23

Today is the feast of Saint Peter Damian.  Ora pro nobis.

by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877


In the latter part of the tenth century was born, at Ravenna, in Italy, St. Peter Damian. Left an orphan at an early age, his elder brother took him into his house, where he was treated, not like one so nearly related, but as the lowest servant. The poor boy had neither enough to eat nor decent clothes to wear, and at last he was compelled by his brother to attend to the swine. He, however, complained to no one of treatment so heartless, but obeyed his brother in all things. When in the fields, he occupied most of his time in praying.

One day he found a piece of money, without knowing to whom it belonged. He had a strong desire to buy with it something to eat, or better clothes, but he overcame these wishes, and, instead of so doing, he had a Mass said for his departed parents. This pious deed was soon richly rewarded, for when another brother, who had been long away from Ravenna, returned and saw how cruelly Peter was treated, he took pity on him, gave him food and clothes, and sent him to a school, that he might not grow up ignorant. The unusual talent with which nature had endowed him, his untiring diligence, combined with true piety, made Peter progress so rapidly in all his studies that from a pupil he soon rose to be an excellent teacher, and made himself honored and respected by every one. This, by degrees, influenced his mind in such a manner that he began to be less fervent in his devotional exercises.

One day, however, by Divine inspiration, came the thought: “What does it avail in the end to be loved, honored, and praised by man? Does it bring true happiness? Why do you not think more earnestly on your salvation? Will you defer it to future years? Who knows whether you will live so long that you can make up for what you now neglect? Human life is short and uncertain. Is it not better, without delay, to begin what we ought to do?” Actuated by these wholesome thoughts, Peter resolved earnestly to turn his mind from earth to heaven. He therefore devoted himself to prayers and mortifications, in the hope that God would inspire him in what way to direct his life. Providence so ordered it, that two hermits from the Hermitage of the Holy Cross, at Font-Avellana, came to the city. Peter, having become acquainted with them, inquired into their mode of living, and was soon filled with the ardent wish to follow their example. As, however, their manner of life was extremely austere, he first tried himself in all those exercises which seemed to him hard to execute, such as fasting, watching, long prayers, retirement from all society, and the like; after which he repaired secretly to the hermitage, and was unhesitatingly received by the Superior. The zeal with which Peter commenced and continued his new life! was very great, and he became, in a short time, a perfect model of spiritual perfection, while, at the same time, he acquired almost more than human wisdom.

On account of his great endowments, his superior appointed him to guide the religious, by his advice and exhortations, in the path of sanctity. In this he evinced so much ability that his fame soon spread to other monasteries, whose religious humbly begged that this preacher might be sent to them, that they also might have the benefit of his instructions. This request was granted, and Peter continually travelled from one monastery to another, preaching and exhorting the religious to strive after holiness. In the course of time he was chosen Abbot, or Superior, which office he filled with great benefit to those in his charge, as well as to their great satisfaction. It also pleased Almighty God further to glorify His faithful servant by the gift of miracles. The fame of these, and still more of his heavenly wisdom, reached Rome; and Stephen IX., then Pope, sent for him, and, after sufficient proofs of his virtue and wisdom, made him Cardinal and Bishop of Ostia. Nothing but obedience could prevail on the humble servant of God to leave his monastery, and it would be no easy task to relate the works of this holy man, not only in Rome, but in other cities to which he was sent on affairs of importance, for the benefit of the Church and the salvation of souls.

One day, several years after his nomination as Cardinal, having happily concluded some business upon which the Pope had sent him to Milan and Parma, he was permitted to ask a favor as a recompense for the many great services he had rendered to the Pontiff. The Saint requested to be allowed to return to the desert, and quietly to employ the remainder of his life in preparing himself for the next world. It cost him, however, many prayers and tears before the permission could be obtained. As soon as he had received it, he went back to the desert, not to live there as a great Prelate, but in the same manner as the other hermits. He was even much more exact in keeping the rules, much more austere in fasting, praying, and watching, than the others. It was observed that often, for forty days, he partook of no prepared food, all his sustenance at such times consisting of some herbs and water. While he was indulging in the hope of continuing so peaceful a life, he received a sudden order from the Pope to undertake a journey upon some affairs of the Church. He obeyed the order, but, as he was returning to his beloved hermitage, having happily concluded the business on which he had been sent, he fell sick on the route near Faenza. He, however, reached the city, and, having been brought to the Convent of St. Mary, he received the holy Sacraments, and died on the feast of the See of St. Peter, for whose honor and advancement he had so zealously labored. His death took place in the year 1072, and the 84th of his age. The works that he left for the benefit of posterity contain the most wholesome advice, and are, to our day, proofs of the greatness of his virtue and learning. (2)

by Father Prosper Gueranger, 1870

It is the Feast of the austere reformer of the 11th century, Peter Damian, the precursor of the holy Pontiff Gregory the Seventh, that we are called upon to celebrate today. To him is due a share of that glorious regeneration, which was effected at that troubled period when judgment had to begin at the House of God. The life he had led under the Monastic Rule had fitted him for the great contest. So zealously did he withstand the disorders and abuses of his times, that we may attribute to him, at least in great measure, the ardent faith of the two centuries which followed the scandals of the 10th. The Church ranks him among her Doctors, on account of his admirable Writings; and his penitential life ought to excite us to be fervent in the work we have in hand,–the work of our Conversion.

The following Lessons, read by the Church, on this Feast, give us a sketch of our Saint’s Life.

Peter was born at Ravenna, of respectable parents. His mother, wearied with the care of a large family, abandoned him when a babe; but one of her female servants found him in an almost dying state, and took care of him, until such time as the mother, repenting of her unnatural conduct, consented to treat him as her child. After the death of his parents, one of his brothers, a most harsh man, took him as a servant, or more truly as his slave. It was about this period of his life that he performed an action, which evinced his virtue and his filial piety. He happened to find a large sum of money; but instead of using it for his own wants, he gave it to a priest, begging him to offer up the Holy Sacrifice for the repose of his father’s soul. Another of his brothers, called Damian (after whom, it is said, he was named), had him educated; and so rapid and so great was the progress he made in his studies, that he was the admiration of his masters. He became such a proficient in the liberal sciences, that he was made to teach them in the public schools, which he did with great success. During all this time, it was his study to bring his body into subjection to the spirit; and to this end, he wore a hair-shirt under an outwardly comfortable dress, and practised frequent fasting, watching, and prayer. Being in the very ardour of youth, and being cruelly buffeted by the sting of the flesh, he, during the night, would go and plunge himself into a frozen pool of water, that he might quench the impure fiame which tormented him; or, he would make pilgrimages to holy sanctuaries, aud recite the entire Psaltery. His charities to the poor were unceasing, and when he provided them with a meal, which was frequently, he would wait upon them himself.

Out of a desire to lead a still more perfect life, he became a religious in the Monastery of Avellino, in the diocese of Gubbio, of the Order of the Monks of Holy Cross of Fontavellana, which was founded by the blessed Ludolphus, a disciple of St. Romuald. Being sent by his Abbot, not very long after, first to the Monastery of Pomposia, and then to that of Saint Vincent of Pietra-Pertusa, he edified both Houses by his preaching, admirable teaching, and holy life. At the death of the Abbot of Avellino, he was recalled to that Monastery, and was made its superior. The institute was so benefited by his government, not only by the new Monasteries which he founded in several places, but also by the very saintly regulations he drew up, that he was justly looked upon as the second Founder of the Order, and its brightest ornament. Houses of other Orders, Canons, yea entire congregations of the Faithful, were benefited by Peter’s enlightened zeal. He was a benefactor, in more ways than one, to the diocese of Urbino: he aided the Bishop Theuzo in a most important suit, and assisted him, both by advice and work, in the right administration of his diocese. His spirit of holy contemplation, his corporal austerities, and the saintly tenor of his whole conduct, gained for him so high a reputation, that Pope Stephen the Ninth, in spite of Peter’s extreme reluctance, created him Cardinal of the holy Roman Church and Bishop of Ostia. The saint proved himself worthy of these honours by the exercise of the most eminent virtues, and by the faithful discharge of his Episcopal office.

It would be impossible to describe the services he rendered to the Church and the Sovereign Pontiffs, during those most trying times, by his learning, his prudence as Legate. and his untiring zeal. His life was one continued struggle against simony, and the heresy of the Nicolaites. He purged the Church of Milan of these disorders, and brought her into subjection to the Holy See. He courageously resisted the anti-popes Benedict and Cadolaus. He deterred Henry 4th, king of Germany, from an unjust divorce of his wife. He restored the people of Ravenna to their allegiance to the Roman Pontiif, and absolved them from interdict. He reformed the abuses which had crept in among the Canons of Velletri. There was scarcely a single Cathedral Church in the Province of Urbino that had not experienced the beneficial effects of Peter’s holy zeal: thus, that of Gubbio, which was for some time under his care, was relieved by him of many evils; and other Churches, that needed his help, found him as earnest for their welfare as though he were their own Bishop. When he obtained permission to resign his dignity as Cardinal and his Bishopric, he relented nothing of his former charity, but was equally ready in doing good to all.

He was instrumental in propagating many devout practices; among these may be mentioned, fasting on Fridays in honour of the Holy Cross: the reciting the Little Office of our Lady; the keeping the Saturday as a day especially devoted to Mary; the taking the discipline in expiation of past sins. At length, after a life which had edified the world by holiness, learning, miracles, and glorious works,–on his return from Ravenna, whither he had been sent as Legate, he slept in Christ, on the eighth of the Calends of March (February 23rd), at Faenza. His relics, which are kept in the Cistercian Church of that town, are devoutly honoured by the Faithful, and many miracles are wrought at the holy shrine. The inhabitants of Faenza have chosen him as the Patron of their City, having several times experienced his protection when threatened by danger. His Mass and Office, which were kept under the rite of Confessor and Bishop, had been long observed in several Dioceses, and by the Camaldolese Order; but they were extended to the whole Church by a decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, which was approved by Pope Leo the Twelfth, who also added to the name of the Saint that of Doctor. (2)

St Peter was buried in the monastery church, lest others should claim his relics. Six times has his body been translated, each time to a more splendid resting-place. It now lies in a chapel dedicated to the saint in the cathedral of Faenza in 1898. No formal canonization ever took place, but his cultas has existed since his death at Faenza, at Fonte-Avellana, at Monte Cassino, and at Cluny. In 1823 Leo XII extended his feast (23 Feb.) to the whole Church and pronounced him a Doctor of the Church. The saint is represented in art as a cardinal bearing a discipline in his hand; also sometimes he is depicted as a pilgrim holding a papal Bull, to signify his many legations. (5)

Image:  Monastery Ossiach – Celling-painting: Virgin Mary is appearing to Cardinal Petrus Damiani – Painter:Josef Ferdinand Fromiller (6)

Research by REGINA Staff


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