A life of heroic virtue: St. Peter Damian

Saint Peter Damian spent himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time. He gave all his spiritual and physical energies to Christ and to the Church, but always remained, as he liked to describe himself, Petrus ultimus monachorum servus, Peter, the lowliest servant of the monks.

By Kimberly Bruce

He was a monk, cardinal, and Doctor of the Church. 

He confronted kings and clergy, lived a life of heroic virtue, and was a prolific writer for the Church. 

He is St. Peter Damian (feast day: Feb. 21), known for his Church reforms, diplomatic ability, holiness, and great theological mind. 

Love of the Cross
Born in Ravenna, Italy, in the year 1007, St. Peter’s parents passed away when he was just a child. He was taken in by one of his married brothers after their parents’ deaths, but was treated as a slave. Hearing about his brother’s ill-treatment, another brother, Damian, the arch-priest of Ravenna, arranged for Peter’s education. It is assumed that Peter later added his brother’s name to his own in a gesture of appreciation and gratitude to Damian.

After finishing his education in Faenza and Parma, St. Peter became a much-acclaimed teacher. He lived a life steeped in prayer and undertook austere personal sacrifices. He wore a rough hair shirt under his clothes, plunged himself into a cold river whenever temptations of concupiscence arose, and assumed strict fasting regimens, to name a few of his acts of penance. He undertook these sacrifices to conquer the flesh and make himself more obedient to God. 

In 1035, St. Peter entered a hermitage dedicated to the Holy Cross at Fonte Avellana. Pope Benedict XVI, in his Sept. 9, 2009 general audience, quoted St. Peter’s words regarding love for the Cross: “O Blessed Cross, You are venerated, preached and honoured 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). He continued, in St. Peter’s words, “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ” (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117).

Reform and Mercy
Saint Peter became prior at Fonte Avellana in 1043, and was sent to found and reform many other monasteries, as well. He was famous for instilling within his brethren the importance of solitude, charity, and humility. He was a merciful man, known to give generously to those in need, often inviting the hungry to share his table. He loved poverty to such an extent that he was ashamed to wear anything but a threadbare habit. Saint Peter made the point that a monk’s life must be centered on Christ, said Pope Benedict, and quoted St. Peter’s prayer: “May Christ be heard in our language, may Christ be seen in our life, may he be perceived in our hearts” (Sermo VIII, 5).

Saint Peter considered the life of a hermit “the loftiest of the states of life,” said Pope Benedict, because a hermit was free from worldly bonds, cares, and self-interests. He encouraged his disciples to rigorously live renunciation, fraternal charity, and obedience to God and one’s prior. To him, obedience was a supreme virtue. The least word of any superior to him caused him to set about immediately attending to the superior’s wishes with the utmost thoroughness. 

Moral authority
Several bishops and four popes during his years as prior (Gregory VI, Clement II, Leo IX, and Victor II) engaged St. Peter in service whenever they needed his advice, diplomacy, expertise, and strong, virtuous character. Against his own wishes, he was made cardinal bishop of Ostia in 1057 and began to undertake many ecclesiastical reforms. He was famous for preaching against worldliness, immorality, and simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges). His teachings lent him great moral authority in the Church. He wrote much pertaining to sexual immorality, the spiritual life, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and the Trinity, and was an outstanding canon lawyer. 

But his achievements all happened in the service of and in light of his relationship with God. Pope Benedict XVI highlighted St. Peter’s love of solitude and quiet, without which one can’t hear God’s voice. He said St. Peter referred to a monk’s cell as a “parlor in which God converses with men.” It is imperative, said the Pope, especially today, that we “know how to make silence within us ... to seek, as it were, a ‘parlor’ in which God speaks with us.” For it is only through reading Sacred Scripture, prayer, and meditating on God’s word, said Benedict, that we encounter “the path to life.” He said St. Peter cautions us against letting ourselves be “absorbed by the activities, problems and preoccupations of every day” lest we forget “that Jesus must truly be the center of our life.”

Gave all
Pope Benedict ended his address in a summary of St. Peter’s life, saying he gave:

… an appeal to all to walk towards holiness, free from any compromise with evil. He spent himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time. He gave all his spiritual and physical energies to Christ and to the Church, but always remained, as he liked to describe himself, Petrus ultimus monachorum servus, Peter, the lowliest servant of the monks.

Saint Peter finally obtained permission to resign from his position in Ostia in 1067. Nevertheless, he was sent two years later to Germany by Pope Alexander II to prevent King Henry IV from divorcing his wife, Bertha. He succeeded in this endeavor, much to the chagrin of the king, by impressing upon the king the importance of adhering to God’s law; the dishonor the foul act would bring to his reputation; and the scandal that would result by so profane an action.

On Feb. 22, 1072, while returning to Rome, St. Peter became sick with fever and stopped at a monastery dedicated to Our Lady. He died there eight days later, surrounded by the monks engaged in their evening prayer. 

Saint Peter Damian was, according to Pope Benedict XVI, “one of the most significant figures of the 11th century.” But his extraordinary example of prayer, penance, and service should inspire Catholics of the 21st century. 

Saint Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
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