Feast Day: February 21
Peter Damian was born at Ravenna, Italy of a large and comparatively poor family. He lost both his parents in childhood and was placed in the care of one of his brothers, who treated him more like a slave. An elder brother, then archpriest of Ravenna, rescued him and gave him the best education he could provide. In due course Peter returned to Ravenna as a professor, already dedicated to an ascetic way of life.
In 1035 Peter left his secular professorship to embrace the eremitical life as a monk with the reformed Benedictines at Fonte Avellina. He soon became head of that community, governing with a strictness gloved in kindness that prepared him for his wider service in the Church. His studies at the monastery now consisted of Scripture and patristic theology, which he pursued with the same zeal and thoroughness which he had previously devoted to secular studies. As abbot, he taught his hermits the ideals of the Desert Fathers, told bishops they should pray without ceasing, and suggested to the abbot of Cluny that its monks should fast more. Peter had a great devotion to the image of Christ on the cross and to the motherhood of Mary, prefiguring the “modern devotion” of the later Middle Ages.
The state of the Church was so critical at this time that Peter was soon called on to direct his energies into a wider field. First his eloquent voice was heard at the synods of Italy held by reforming popes like Leo IX. He reproved bishops, spoke against simony (the buying or selling of ecclesiastical privileges) and clerical marriage, and he rebuffed monasteries for laxity. As bishop of Ostia and a cardinal after 1057, he vigorously opposed antipopes and went on diplomatic missions throughout Europe supporting the cause of church renewal. He was firmly convinced that a reformed papacy was essential for the future of the church. Thus he helped prepare the way for the work of St. Gregory VII. In 1059 he took part in the Lateran synod which proclaimed the right of the cardinals alone to elect the future bishops of Rome.
Peter Damian was also concerned with revitalizing the faith of ordinary believers. One of his prescriptions for a revitalized Christian life was frequent reception of the Eucharist, as he once wrote to a friend:
“Receive the body and blood of Christ frequently that you may deserve to hear his words: ‘Your lips, my promised bride, distill wild honey. Honey and milk are under your tongue’. (Song of Songs 4:11 NJB).”
Peter died in a monastery on his way home from one last embassy to reconcile factions in the diocese of Ravenna. He was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1828 for his preaching and writing in the cause of Church reform.
Burns, Paul. “Butler’s Saint for the Day.” (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2007).
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000).
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