St. Peter Damian

By Jonathan Lynch

Peter Damian. To be honest, as a kid, I had the vague idea that he was the same person as Saint Damien of Molokai, missionary to the lepers of Hawaii. Turns out he’s not. In fact, there aren’t very many similarities between the two. But that’s part of the beauty of the communion of saints. God does not call any two of us to be the same person.

To further emphasize this point, if you had the opportunity to meander through my last post about St. Francis de Sales, you might have thought, “That guy had such a start on life! Born into nobility! A dad who would literally spare no expense on him! An education at the best colleges in the continent! Ain’t no way I could become a saint like him.”

I should think not. But you could become a saint like you.

Remember all those advantages that Francis de Sales had? Peter Damian had none of them. He was the youngest child born into a large family of noble descent and extreme poverty. His family was so poor, in fact, that one of his older brothers convinced his mother not to feed Peter as a baby because of the stress that his very existence would put on the family’s extremely limited resources. One of the household servants, however, cared for him, and in the end convinced his mother to spare the child’s life. But Peter’s relative good fortune ended a few short years later when his parents both died, and he was left an orphan. He was taken in by an elder brother to work as a swineherd, and was underfed, overworked, and abused.

But lest you think that Peter’s entire family was heartless and cruel, it should be stated that yet another elder brother, a priest named Fr. Damian, came to visit one day, had pity on the lad and took him away to live with him in Ravenna. There he provided for Peter’s education and so cared for him that the child, who had never before known such care or love, took Damian’s name as his own. He applied himself so well to his studies that by the age of 25, he was a famed professor at the University of Parma. (Fun fact: the University of Parma is one of the oldest colleges in the world, founded in 966, and is still open to students.)

Now there comes the principle, put forth so eloquently by the great Catholic theologian and author G.K. Chesterton: “It is the paradox of history that each generation is converted by the saint who contradicts it most.”

Thus it was that the poor, penniless Francis of Assisi conquered the lavish worldliness of his age. Thus it was that Therese of Lisieux confounded the notion that holiness has anything to do with big titles and great spiritual accomplishments. And thus it was that Peter Damian became a Doctor of the Church.

In short, Peter was so dismayed by the immorality of the world around him, which was especially prevalent in college life, that after three years of teaching, he forsook his teaching position and went in secret to join the Monastery of Fonte Avellana, where he was accepted and clothed with the habit. After about five years, his teaching abilities were put to use, and he was requested to give lectures to the monks there. Soon neighboring monasteries requested his talents, so he spent the next two or three years abroad traveling and teaching. When he returned to Fonte Avellana, he was appointed as head steward and housekeeper, which made him successor to the abbot when he died in 1043. So it was that at the age of sixty, the ragamuffin orphan became abbot of Fonte Avellana. And while Peter’s primary attention and duty was to his own monastery, his eyes were not blind to the evils which plagued the Church in his times. And those evils were very real. Very wicked. And often quite shameless.  It recalls the abuse scandals that have cropped up in recent years, but this was on an entirely different level. Bishops and even the pope himself bought and sold their positions for political gain. In cities such as Milan, the clergy would publicly “marry” the women they were living with, and abuse of minors was widespread. Very few dared to take a stand against such abuses, and those who did were violently opposed, such as Saint Ariald the Deacon, who was excommunicated and martyred by a wicked bishop whom he dared to oppose.

In a sense, it is very sobering to read such a history. But at the same time, it is unbelievably encouraging. A seminarian friend of mine was once asked if he would ever consider leaving the Faith on account of the scandals that are rocking the Church. His response was to laugh and ask if they had ever heard of Marozia, the woman who had an affair with one pope, and was mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great-grandmother to six more. If the Church could, by the power of God, survive such corruption from within and not only survive but grow to flourish again, what do we have to fear? Despite the real and grave issues that we face today, we must remember that the Catholic Church is far, far more than the sum of the sins of its members and leaders. The Catholic Church is the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, the visible presence of God on earth, and it is not to be defined by the abuses or even by the successes of its members.

In 1049, the Church got a breath of fresh air when Pope Saint Leo IX was elected to the Chair of Peter. Under his guidance, a reform began. But the battle would be a long one, and he did not live to see the end of it. In 1057, Peter Damian got word that the new pope, Stephen X, meant to make him a cardinal. He pleaded against it, for his heart did not desire the duties and prestige of high offices but rather the silence and peace of monastic life. But as is commonly the case with the saints, God had other plans. At last Peter consented, and God plucked him from the enclosed garden of the monastery and placed him at work in the bustling vineyard of the wider world. In 1059, he was chosen as the papal legate sent to Milan to regulate the disputes which arose from the clergy abuses. He confronted the rioters in the Cathedral of Milan and somehow brought all those who came to oppose him to his own side. This accomplished, he begged to return to his former life, but the pope and his successors would not spare him. For thirteen more years, he was sent across Europe, from Germany to Italy to France, as the spokesman for the pope, to uphold orthodox doctrine, papal authority, and clerical continence. In 1072, however, his work on earth ended upon his death from a fever. His last great work was the reconciliation of Ravenna, the city of his childhood, to Rome after it had broken away in favor of an antipope.

So what makes him a Doctor of the Church? He did not write volumes upon volumes, or even just a couple of whopping great books on theology. But that’s not what makes a Doctor of the Church. A Doctor of the Church is someone who in a special way makes a significant contribution to the explanation or development of Catholic doctrine. And that is exactly what Peter did. He took a stand against worldliness and lust, and he spoke out boldly against not only clerical abuse but also against the many immoral practices that are still present in the world today – practices that are often justified and glorified by wicked people, worldly people, misguided people, and sometimes by hurting or frightened people.

I’ll close with a quote of his that recalls Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery: “It is not sinners, but the wicked who should despair; it is not the magnitude of one’s crime, but contempt of God that dashes one’s hopes.”

If you have struggled or do struggle with sins against purity, know that God does not hate you for your failings, but rather he desires your sanctification and holiness. Jesus never justifies or excuses our sins, but instead he calls us away from them and into the marvelous light of his loving presence: “Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.”

‘Till next time, may Christ be with you all, and may his Mother shield you beneath her mantle.

~Jonathan Lynch

All for Thee, Sweet Jesus,
Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary,
For the glory of God
And the salvation of souls.

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