Guiding Light in the Dark Ages

Saint Peter Damian

    The eighteenth Doctor in the chronological series on the Doctors of the Church lived during the reign of sixteen pontiffs - some antipopes, no less. He was the first Doctor in over three centuries - a time when the Church sank into laxity and corruption, especially in the disciplines and simony was rampant. It was truly the "Dark Ages" and into this darkness God sent a guiding light to reform His Holy Church early in the second millennium. This holy monk counseled seven popes. He was the first Doctor to be made a cardinal. He was Saint Peter Damian.

    Born in 1007 in Ravenna, Italy, St. Peter Damian became an orphan at an early age when he lost his parents. He was turned over to one of his brothers, who did not take kindly to him. He forced Peter to tend the pigs and treated him with disdain. When word reached Peter's older brother, who had gone on to become a priest, Padre Damian intervened, freeing Peter by sending him to Faenza and then to the University of Parma to receive his education. Peter adopted his older brother's religious name as his surname out of gratitude and respect for him, always praying for his other brother who seemed so tormented that he took out his frustration on others.

    At the university, Peter acquired great distinction. His studies were sanctified by vigils, fasts, and prayers. Throughout Peter's life he suffered insomnia. Rather than tossing and turning, he used the time for prayer and study, getting very little sleep throughout his life. Despite that, he still lived to be 71 years old which was considerable in those days when one considers the living conditions and sanitation problems of the middle ages.

    Peter's wisdom was so great that he was soon made a professor but he still felt unfulfilled spiritually, having that nagging feeling that all this teaching was only serving God halfway. Thus he resolved to leave the world. The pull toward something higher and more fulfilling was too much to resist. It is said that saints study, not in order to be accounted learned, but to become perfect before God. So also with Peter who followed the promptings of the Holy Ghost. This led him to join the Benedictines at the monastery of Fonte Aveliana where he lived as a hermit, devoting his life to an intensive study of the Scriptures. At the age of 42 he was chosen Prior and subsequently founded five more Benedictine hermitages. His fame for great austerity and denunciation of simony spread throughout Europe and he was consecrated a Cardinal as Bishop of Ostia by Pope Stephen IX in 1057. However, because of his disdain for worldliness and his uncompromising stance against the trappings of the bishopric, he tried to resign his see but Stephen's successor Pope Nicholas II wouldn't accept it, even going so far as to threaten excommunication if he refused the cardinalate.

    When Nicholas died Peter entreated the new pontiff Pope Alexander II to accept his resignation which was duly recognized and Peter returned to being a Benedictine monk, but he never stopped working on ecclesiastical reform. He especially defended Alexander against the antipope Honorius II and became known far and wide as a great reformer and peacemaker, including being sent by the Pope to Germany to talk the German King Henry IV out of divorcing his wife Bertha.

    Saint Peter was called upon for the most delicate and difficult missions, among others the reform of ecclesiastical communities, which his zeal accomplished. Seven Popes in succession made him their constant adviser, before he was finally created Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. He withstood Henry IV of Germany, and labored in defense of Pope Alexander II against an antipope, whom he forced to yield and seek pardon.

    There were, in fact, sixteen popes during his entire lifetime. Peter was charged, as papal legate, with the repression of simony and correction of scandals. Time and again, he was commissioned to settle discords amongst various bishops; and finally, in 1072, he was rousted from his monastery to go and adjust the affairs of the Church at Ravenna.

    He had never paid attention to his health, which was at best fragile, and after enduring violent onslaughts of fever during the night, would rise to hear confessions, preach, or sing solemn Masses, always ready to sacrifice his well-being and life for the salvation of the souls entrusted to him. Peter was a prolific writer and penned many mystical writings on the Eucharist and Purgatory as well as producing writings which hold today in regards the explanation of clerical celibacy, immorality, and simony. He died in Faenza, Italy in 1072 at the age of 71 enroute back from Ravenna after having reconciled that see with Rome. By some historians' account Peter was born before the turn of the millennium in 988 which would have made him 84 when he died on the eighth day of his fever sickness with his beloved monks chanting Matins around his death bed. Truly a gift from God had passed and they felt the loss. Yet what he left would forever sustain Holy Mother Church.

    It was not until the nineteenth century that he was canonized though he was popularized by local cults. He was even immortalized in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by Italian poet Dante in his work The Divine Comedy. In 1828 Pope Leo XII officially recognized Peter as a saint of the Church and proclaimed him a Doctor, extending his feast to the Universal Church on February 23rd each year.

    Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from:Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 2; Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler's Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894).

St. Peter Damian, Doctor of the Church