Today is the feast day of Saint Peter of Verona. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
St. Peter, upon whom God bestowed a truly apostolic zeal, was born at Verona in the year 1205. His parents were Manicheans, but he himself evinced from his earliest youth an aversion to the Arian and Manichean heresies, and would not be instructed in them nor even play with a child that was not a Catholic. His parents sent him to a Catholic school because there was no other in the city: and he soon learned not only reading and writing, but also the Articles of Faith. One day, when he was hardly seven years old, on coming from school he was met by a cousin, a Manichean who asked him what he had learned. The boy answered: “The Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in God, the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.” “That is wrong,” said his blasphemous cousin. “The devil is the creator of the earth, not God.” But Peter was not to be misled by such sacrilegious words: he repeated the first article of the Creed and added all the others undauntedly. The cousin, much vexed, hastened to Peter’s father, informed him of it, and advised him not to send his son to a Catholic school. The father, however, attached so little importance to it, that he even sent Peter, afterwards, to Bologna to continue his studies. There he had the opportunity to read Catholic books, by which he profited to increase his knowledge and strengthen his Catholic faith. In this city he became acquainted with St. Dominic, the celebrated Founder of the Dominican Order, and begged him upon his knees to admit him into the newly founded community. His request was granted, and he aspired so zealously after spiritual perfection, that in a short time he became an example of every virtue. Having finished his studies and being ordained priest, he was appointed to preach, and he discharged this function so successfully that he acquired through all Italy the name of an Apostle.
Meanwhile to increase the merits of his servant, God permitted him to be most shamefully calumniated. Peter was at Como in a monastery; and one day, when he was as usual absorbed in prayer, three holy virgins and martyrs appeared to him, whom he, on account of their chastity, especially loved and daily honored. These were St. Agnes, St. Catherine, and St. Caecilia. While they spoke to him as human beings converse, a monk, who passed the cell, heard them, and going to the Superior, said that Peter had admitted women into his room; and that he had heard him conversing with them. The Prior who regarded this as the greatest scandal, called Peter before him and reproved him in the presence of others. Peter was too humble to reveal the grace which heaven had vouchsafed him, but falling on his kness, he said: “I am a sinner, and ready to receive my punishment.” These words were taken as an acknowledgment of the truth of the brother’s accusation, and he was banished to another Convent, where he was kept almost like a prisoner and neither allowed to preach nor to associate with any one. The innocent man complained not of this punishment, but bore it patiently, hoping that God would, in His own time, reveal his innocence. As, however, several months passed without bringing any change, he became almost faint-hearted, and one day, prostrating himself before a crucifix, he cried out in these words: “O, my Lord; is it unknown to Thee that I am innocent? Why hast Thou allowed me to suffer so long, and dost not reveal my innocence? Thou knowest that I have not deserved this punishment.” Having thus spoken, he heard a voice which said to him: “And have I deserved to be nailed upon the cross? Let not your courage sink, but learn from me patiently to bear your cross, the heaviness of which cannot be compared to mine.” Peter, on hearing this, blushed with shame, but his heart was at the same time filled with such comfort, that he no longer had any other wish than to suffer for Christ’s sake. At length God brought the innocence of the Saint to light, and his brethern, highly esteeming the silence and patience with which he had borne the humiliation, sent him back to his convent, where, installed once more in his former functions, he continued preaching in divers cities and villages until his death. He converted many thousand sinners, and a still greater number of heretics. He convinced the latter in public disputations of their error, and thus led them to return to the true faith.
The devil, however, enraged at the loss of so many souls, tempted the Saint day and night endeavoring to weaken his faith. Peter fought manfully with him, and as in every other tribulation went for refuge to the Divine Mother, humbly praying to be released from these temptations. Imploring her thus one day, he heard, proceeding from her image, the same words that Christ had spoken to St. Peter: “I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not, and that thou mayst strengthen thy brethren.” From that same moment he was free from all temptations, and began anew to labor for the Church of Christ, to the great benefit of numberless souls. To this end God conferred on him the power to work miracles, to prophesy and to read the innermost thoughts of the heart. It would fill many pages to relate all the miracles he wrought, or all the prophesies he uttered. The heretics, in their wickedness, called him an impostor, and to make his frauds (as they termed them) better known, one of them, advised by the rest, pretended to be sick. Having called the Saint to him, he begged him to restore his health, and Peter, enlightened by the Almighty, said: “Jesus Christ, whose Gospel I preach, according to the Catholic faith, may restore your health if you are really suffering; if you, however, are intent on deceiving me, he will make you sick indeed.” The wretch was immediately seized with a malignant fever, and suffering great pain, he confessed his wickedness and begged the Saint’s forgiveness. The latter having compassion on him, cured him and converted him to the true faith.
When he had for many years administered his sacred functions as a preacher, God revealed to him that his end was near and that his death should be such as he had always desired: namely, that he should shed his blood for the sake of Christ. At Milan, he said, one day, in a sermon: “I know that the heretics have set large sums upon my life. They have already hired the assassin. Let them, however, know that they cannot bestow greater happiness upon me than by taking my life for the faith of Christ. To obtain this grace, I have daily prayed to the Almighty in the holy Mass for many years; but let them not think that my death will be of the slightest benefit to them.” A fortnight later he travelled from Como to Milan. Two bandits, whom the heretics had hired, were lying in wait for him on the road, and when the first of them perceived him coming, he hastened from behind the bushes where he had been hiding and gave him several strokes upon the head with his sword. Sinking to the ground, the Saint dipped his finger into the blood streaming from his wounds and wrote upon the sand: ” I believe in God the Father:” then lifting his eyes towards heaven, he said: “Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my soul:” and expired. The murderer left him after having stabbed him to the heart.
The body was brought with much solemnity to Milan, and buried in the Church of St. Eustorgius. The many miracles, which were wrought at his shrine, and still more, the holiness of his life, induced Pope Innocent IV. to canonize him. According to the testimony of the Roman Breviary, St. Peter kept soul and body undefiled from every stain of impurity, though he had been subjected to a thousand temptations and dangers. This alone says enough in praise of the Saint. (2)
Saint Peter of Verona
Father Prosper Gueranger 1870
The hero deputed this day, by the Church, to greet our risen Lord, was so valiant in the good fight, that martyrdom is part of his name. He is known as Peter the Martyr; so that we cannot speak of him, without raising the echo of victory. He was put to death by heretics, and is the grand tribute paid to our Redeemer by the 13th Century. Never was there a triumph hailed with greater enthusiasm than this. The martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury excited the admiration of the faithful of the preceding century, for nothing was so dear to our forefathers as the liberty of the Church; the martyrdom of St. Peter was celebrated with a like intensity of praise and joy. Let us hearken to the fervid eloquence of the great Pontiff, Innocent the Fourth, who thus begins the Bull of the Martyr’s Canonization:
“The truth of the Christian faith, manifested, as it has been, by great and frequent miracles, is now beautified by the new merit of a new Saint. Lo! a combatant of these our own times comes, bringing us new and great and triumphant signs. The voice of his blood shed (for Christ) is heard, and the fame of his martyrdom is trumpeted, through the world. The land is not silent that sweateth with his blood; the country that produced so noble a warrior resounds with his praise; yea, the very sword that did the deed of parricide proclaims his glory. Mother Church has great reason to rejoice, and abundant matter for gladness; she has cause to sing a new canticle to the Lord, and a hymn of fervent praise to her God: the Christian people has cause to give forth devout songs to its Creator. A sweet fruit, gathered in the garden of Faith, has been set upon the table of the Eternal King: a grape-bunch, taken from the vineyard of the Church, has filled the royal cup with new wine. The flourishing Order of Preachers has produced a red rose, whose sweetness is most grateful to the King; and from the Church here on earth, there has been taken a stone, which, after being cut and polished, has deserved a place of honour in the temple of heaven. (The Apostolic Constitution Magnis et crebris, of the 9th of the Kalends of April, 1253)”
Such was the language wherewith the supreme Pontiff spoke of the new Martyr, and the people responded by celebrating his Feast with extraordinary devotion. It was kept as were the ancient Festivals, that is, all servile work was forbidden upon it. The Churches served by the Fathers of the Dominican Order were crowded on his Feast; and the faithful took little branches with them, that they might be blessed, in memory of the triumph of Peter the Martyr. This custom is still observed; and the branches blessed by the Dominicans, on this day, are venerated as being a protection to the houses where they are kept.
How are we to account for all this fervent devotion of the people towards St. Peter? It was because he died in defence of the Faith; and nothing was so dear to the Christians of those days as faith. Peter had received the charge to take up all the heretics, who, at that time, were causing great disturbance and scandal in the country round about Milan. They were called Cathari, but, in reality, were Manicheans; their teachings were detestable, and their lives of the most immoral kind. Peter fulfilled his duty with a firmness and equity, which soon secured him the hatred of the heretics; and when he fell a victim to his holy courage, a cry of admiration and gratitude was heard throughout Christendom. Nothing could be more devoid of truth, than the accusations brought, by the enemies of the Church and their indiscreet abettors, against the measures formerly decreed by the public law of Catholic nations, in order to foil the efforts made by evil-minded men to injure the true Faith. In those times, no tribunal was so popular as that whose office it was to protect the Faith, and to put down all them that attacked it. It was to the Order of St. Dominic that this office was mainly intrusted; and well may they be proud of the honour of having so long held one so beneficial to the salvation of mankind. How many of its members have met with a glorious death in the exercise of their stern duty! St. Peter is the first of the Martyrs given by the Order for this holy cause: his name, however, heads a long list of others, who were his brethren in Religion, his successors in the defence of the Faith, and his followers to martyrdom. The coercive measures that were once, and successfully, used to defend the Faithful from heretical teachers, have long since ceased to be used: but for us Catholics, our judgment of them must surely be that of the Church. She bids us today honour as a Martyr one of her Saints, who was put to death whilst resisting the wolves that threatened the sheep of Christ’s fold; should we not be guilty of disrespect to our Mother, if we dared to condemn what she so highly approves? Far, then, be from us that cowardly truckling to the spirit of the age, which would make us ashamed of the courageous efforts made by our forefathers for the preservation of the Faith! Far from us that childish readiness to believe the calumnies of Protestants against an Institution which they naturally detest! Far from us that deplorable confusion of ideas which puts truth and error on an equality, and, from the fact that error can have no rights, concludes that truth can claim none!
The following is the account given us by the Church of the virtues and heroism of St. Peter the Martyr.
Peter was born at Verona, of parents who were infected with the heresy of the Manichees; but he himself, almost from his very infancy, fought against heresies. When he was seven years old, he was one day asked by an uncle, who was a heretic, what they taught him at the school he went to. He answered, that they taught him the symbol of the Christian Faith. His father and uncle did all they could, both by promises and threats, to shake the firmness of his faith: but all to no purpose. When old enough, he went to Bologna, in order to prosecute his studies. Whilst there, he was called by the Holy Ghost to a life of perfection, and obeyed the call by entering into the Order of St. Dominic.
Great were his virtues as a Religious man. So careful was he to keep both body and soul from whatsoever could sully their purity, that his conscience never accused him of committing a mortal sin.
He mortified his body by fasting and watching, and applied his mind to the contemplation of heavenly things. He laboured incessantly for the salvation of souls, and was gifted with a special grace for refuting heretics. He was so earnest when preaching, that people used to go in crowds to hear him, and numerous were the conversions that ensued.
The ardour of his faith was such, that he wished he might die for it, and earnestly did he beg that favour from God. This death, which he foretold a short time before in one of his sermons, was inflicted on him by the heretics. Whilst returning from Como to Milan, in the discharge of the duties of the holy Inquisition, he was attacked by a wicked assassin, who struck him twice on the head with a sword. The Symbol of faith, which he had confessed with manly courage when but a child, he now began to recite with his dying lips; and having received another wound in his side, he went to receive a Martyr’s palm in heaven, in the year of our Lord twelve hundred and fifty-two. Numerous miracles attested his sanctity, and his name was enrolled the following year by Innocent the Fourth, in the list of the Martyrs.
The following Antiphons and Responsory are taken from the Dominican Breviary.
Ant. There rises a light from smoke, and a rose from the midst of briars: Peter, the Doctor and Martyr, is born of infidel parents.
Ant. A soldier once in the ranks of the Order of Preachers, he now is joined to the troop of the heavenly army.
Ant. His mind angelic, his tongue fruitful, his life apostolic, his death most precious.
R. Whilst in search of Samson’s foxes, he is slain by the wicked: the lictor strikes the holy head, the blood of the just man is shed: *Thus he holds the palm of triumph, whilst dying for the faith.
V. The brave soldier is unconquered: at the hour of death, he courageously confesses the faith, for which he suffers. *Thus he holds the palm of triumph, whilst dying for the faith.
The victory was thine, O Peter! and thy zeal for the defence of holy Faith was rewarded. Thou ardently desiredst to shed thy blood for the holiest of causes, and, by such a sacrifice, to confirm the Faithful of Christ in their religion. Our Lord satisfied thy desire; he would even have thy martyrdom be in the festive Season of the Resurrection of our Divine Lamb, that His glory might add lustre to the beauty of thy holocaust. When the death-blow fell upon thy venerable head, and thy generous blood was flowing from the wounds, thou didst write on the ground the first words of the Creed, for whose holy truth thou wast giving thy life.
Protector of the Christian people! what other motive hadst thou, in all thy labours, but charity? What else but a desire to defend the weak from danger, induced thee not only to preach against error, but to drive its teachers from the flock? How many simple souls, who were receiving divine truth from the teaching of the Church, have been deceived by the lying sophistry of heretical doctrine, and have lost the Faith? Surely, the Church would do her utmost to ward off such dangers from her children: she would do all she could to defend them from enemies, who were bent on destroying the glorious inheritance, which had been handed down to them by millions of Martyrs! She knew the strange tendency that often exists in the heart of fallen man to love error; whereas Truth, though of itself unchanging, is not sure of its remaining firmly in the mind, unless it be defended by learning or by faith. As to learning, there are but few who possess it; and as to faith, error is ever conspiring against, and, of course, with the appearance of truth. In the Christian Ages, it would have been deemed, not only criminal, but absurd, to grant to error the liberty which is due only to truth; and they that were in authority, considered it a duty to keep the weak from danger, by removing from them all occasions of a fall, just as the father of a family keeps his children from coming in contact with wicked companions, who could easily impose on their inexperience, and lead them to evil under the name of good.
Obtain for us, O holy Martyr, a keen appreciation of the precious gift of Faith, that element which keeps us in the way of salvation. May we zealously do everything that lies in our power to preserve it, both in ourselves and in them that are under our care. The love of this holy Faith has grown cold in so many hearts; and frequent intercourse with heretics or free-thinkers has made them think and speak of matters of Faith in a very loose way. Pray for them, O Peter, that they may recover that fearless love of the Truths of Religion, which should be one of the chief traits of the Christian character. If they be living in a country, where the modern system is introduced of treating all Religions alike, that is, of giving equal rights to error and to truth, let them be all the more courageous in professing the truth, and detesting the errors opposed to the truth. Pray for us, O holy Martyr, that there may be enkindled within us an ardent love of that Faith, without which, it is impossible to please God (Heb. xi. 6). Pray that we may become all earnestness in this duty, which is of vital importance to salvation; that thus our Faith may daily gain strength within us, till at length we shall merit to see in heaven, what we have believed unhesitatingly on earth. (2,3)
Image: crop Madonna and Child with St Peter Martyr, artist: Lorenzo Lotto, circa 1503 (6)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff