Thursday, February 21, 2019

Saint Peter Damian, Pray For Us! A Recurring Theme


Andrea Barbiani, St. Peter Damian
Italian, 18th Century (d. 1779)
Classense, Town Library

February 21 is the feast of Saint Peter Damian, who lived from 1007 to 1072, a period that perhaps to most of us seems impossibly far away, literally a thousand years ago.  However, a look at the life and times of Peter Damian is, in some ways, even more shocking because it sounds uncomfortably like today.  It is, therefore, extremely interesting that the much commented on meeting of the heads of every bishops’ conference, worldwide, to discuss the abuse of minors should open on his feast day.

Peter Damian was born into a noble family in the area around Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast of Italy.  Once this had been the capitol of the Byzantine Empire in Italy, by the time of his birth it had lessened in importance versus the rising star of the Adriatic, Venice.  Being noble doesn’t, by itself, guarantee wealth, either then or now, and Peter’s family seems to have been large and poor.  His parents died when he was still a child and his care was assumed by one of his older brothers.  This brother sounds a bit like the evil sisters in Cinderella, for he sent his own brother to work as a shepherd and deprived him of status and birthright.  After a few years, a different brother, a man who was a priest in the diocese of Ravenna, learned of his younger brother’s plight, adopted him and took him with him to Ravenna for an education.  In gratitude for this brotherly kindness, Peter added that brother’s name, Damian, to his own name. 

Peter Damian grew up to be a fine scholar and a notable teacher.  He contributed a great deal to the ongoing creation of medieval philosophy.  However, in spite of his success, Peter Damian was uncomfortable with the corruption he saw around him, especially corruption within the Church. He gave up his academic career in favor of life in a recently formed monastery called Fonte Avellena.  This was one of a series of monastic foundations that were shaking up the face of western European monasticism.  Up until this time the great Benedictine foundation of Cluny in France had been the summit of the monastic life.  From this point on a variety of other possible ways of living out an orderly, vowed, existence would be possible in many different ways, from multiple religious orders. 

Attributed to Girolamo Muziano, Peter Damian Writing the Rule for His Hermits
Italian, 16th Century
Vatican, Vatican Museums,  Apostolic Palace, Map Rooms
Fonte Avellena was a monastery of hermits.  Many years later it would be merged into another religious order, called the Camaldolese Order, founded around this time by Saint Romauld (also from the Ravenna area).  But at the time it seems to have been a sole institution, not affiliated with any other religious foundation.  Saint Peter Damian eventually became Abbot of Fonte Avellena.  He wrote a rule for his monastery and also contributed much to philosophy and theology and is remembered today primarily for these writings. It is for these works that he is placed in Heaven by Dante Alighieri, in his third book of the Divine Comedy, Paradise.
Giovanni di Paolo, Dante and Beatrice Meet St. Peter Damian
From Paradiso, Canto XXI of the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
Italian, c. 1450
London, British LIbrary
MS Yates Thompson 36, fol. 167

However, in the last year or so, renewed interest has focused on another of his activities, as a monastic and Church reformer.  The last years of the tenth century were bad ones for the Church.  One might say with some justice that there is a recurring flow within the greater history of the Church.  Approximately every 500 years a wave of sin seems poised to overwhelm the Church, to nullify its mission and to destroy it from within.  One such occurred in the fifth century, when the wave of barbarians from outside combined with the lack of faithfulness within.  But great reformers such as Saint Benedict and Saint Gregory the Great arose and redirected the Church toward a more rigorous following of the Gospel.  Similarly, the year 1500 found the Church in the hands of the horribly corrupt Pope Alexander VI, with his string of acknowledged children, reigning over a corrupt and venal clergy.  The disgust among the faithful caused by this was one of the factors that led within a few years to the beginning of the Protestant upheaval, to the Council of Trent and, eventually, to the great reforming saints of the sixteenth century.


In the years around 1000 the problems were no different.  There was terrible corruption, among them the selling of sacramental offices, such as that of bishop, and worst of all, much sexual sin among the clergy.  Priests were still permitted to marry at this time, but there were those who were unfaithful to their wives, unmarried priests with mistresses and a huge wave of homosexual activity among the clergy, especially in the abuse of boys, young men and fellow clerics.  Indeed, it sounds like virtually the same situation we find ourselves in today. 

When, last summer, Pope Francis called the heads of the bishops’ conferences worldwide to Rome for a meeting on the topic of sex abuse and the protection of minors and announced the date of February 21 as the opening day, many commentators mentioned the irony of the choice of dates.  For it is the feast day of Saint Peter Damian. 
Ercole de Roberti, Virgin and Child with Saints Anne, Elizabeth, Augustine and Peter Damian
Italian, c. 1479-1481
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
In his day, Peter Damian was asked by a string of reforming popes to undertake the task of cleaning up the situation.  He was somewhat reluctant to undertake this as he was very contented with his monastic life and with his work.  However, he accepted the job and went on to become a very effective reformer, traveling considerable distances to do his work.  By reminding the world what following Christ should look like and contrasting it with the debauched lives many were leading, he persuaded them to repent and sin no more.  He used the information he gained from the work to write a book called The Book of Gomorrah, which was recently published in a new translation1.  It makes hair raising reading that, sadly, sounds like it comes directly from current 2019 newspaper accounts    Then, as now, it is evident that for some clerics the Church is a career path and not a vocation, leading to a cynical attitude to all aspects of church life.  So, not much has changed in a thousand years!
Josef Ferdinand Fromiller, Virgin and Child Appearing to Peter Damian
Austrian, c. 1740-1750
Osslach, Monastery Church
Peter Damian worked tirelessly for several years preaching and writing and guiding the clergy and the monks back to fidelity, to renounce their sin.  Along the way he was made the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia and was also sent on diplomatic missions for the popes.  However, he eventually renounced his titles and position and returned to the life of his monastery, from which he had been called by necessity and obedience.  He did continue to undertake some missions for the Holy See and on one of these he died in 1072.

Up till now, the Church has been rescued from these recurring periods of clerical vice by great reforming voices.  In our current period they have not yet appeared.  We can pray that the event of the Vatican meeting, opening on Saint Peter Damian’s feast day, will be the first event of a new reform movement, with great saints among it, to lead the Church away from sin and back to fidelity to the Lord. 
Philipp Veit, Scenes from Dante's Paradiso
German, c. 1818-1824
Rome, Casino Massimo


“Grant, we pray, almighty God, that we may so follow the teaching and example of the Bishop Saint Peter Damian, that, putting nothing before Christ and always ardent in the service of your Church, we may be led to the joys of eternal light. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” 2

© M. Duffy, 2019

1.  Saint Peter Damian, The Book of Gomorrah and St. Peter Damian’s Struggle Against Ecclesiastical Corruption, Translated and Annotated, with Biographical Introduction by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman, New Braunfels, Texas, Ite Ad Thomam Books and Media, 2015. 
2.  Optional Prayer for Feast of Saint Peter Damian. 

No comments: