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St. Peter Damian (February 21)

February 21, 2005

In the late 900’s or early 1000’s (sources vary),
a Doctor of the Church was born in northern Italy to noble but impoverished parents.
He was the youngest of a large family, and his mother,
fearing there wouldn’t be enough to go around, threw her son out to die.
He was rescued by a woman who talked his mother into nursing him, but was soon orphaned.
Raised by an older brother who starved and abused him,
the boy was treated more like a slave and sent to take care of the pigs.
Another brother, a priest, learned of the child’s sorry plight and took him under his wing,
sending him to school where the boy quickly excelled.
This child, Peter, took the surname Damian in honor of this merciful brother.

Because of his intellectual gifts, Peter Damian became a professor.
However, he never abandoned the poverty in which he had been raised.
Like other holy professors we’ve already met, he fasted often,
regularly served the poor at his own table, dressed in old, simple clothing,
gave away most of what he owned and prayed much.
Wanting to give himself more completely to God,
he left his profession to join a branch of the Benedictines called the Camaldolese.
In this order, the monks lived a hermit-like life in pairs in separate cells,
devoting their time to prayer, spiritual reading and manual labor, living in strict simplicity.

Peter loved this life and would have happily remained a simple monk for the rest of his days,
but God had other plans for him.
The Church was morally in sad shape.
Because abbots, priests and bishops had political power,
kings often chose their friends for these positions.
Sometimes the men chosen in this way were (or became) worthy of the priesthood.
All too often they were not.
The buying and selling of religious positions (simony) had become commonplace
and since these men had no vocation to the priesthood,
they had no motivation to draw on the graces necessary to live a celibate life either.
Adultery, even so-called “marriage”, among the clergy was rampant.

God eased Peter into his new role in stages.
First he was appointed abbot of his own monastery.
He resisted this appointment, relenting only when ordered to do so as a matter of obedience.
Once he accepted his new role, however, he fulfilled it fervently.
He inspired his brother monks to even greater holiness,
and because his holy example attracted others to imitate him,
he founded several new monasteries to accommodate them.
Then popes began to call upon him to carry out diplomatic missions,
enforcing papal decrees of reform.
Finally, pope Stephen IX made him a bishop and cardinal,
offices which Peter only accepted under threat of excommunication!
He was relieved of this responsibility a few years later,
but spent the rest of his life fighting abuses within the Church through letters, books
and periodic missions in which he served as the pope’s representative.
He was especially stern with priests, religious and bishops
who did not live up to their high calling, who caused scandal by their sinful lifestyles
or who were simply more interested in their own amusements
than in the spiritual well-being of the faithful.

As might be expected from his university career, Peter Damian was a philosopher as well as a reformer.
He explained that the reason God does not create evil is that evil has no existence of its own.
Evil is a lack, it is no-thing.
God creates that which is.
“You ask, therefore, harsh critic, that God make what is not His,
that is to say nothing.
But behold! the Evangelist stands against you,
saying that nothing is made without Him (John 1:3).
God has not yet learned to make nothing.
You, teach Him, and command Him to make nothing for you!
(608C; translated in Holopainen 1996, 32)

In addition, Peter was a poet, his Latin verse being among the best of the Middle Ages:

“Here they live in endless being:
Passingness hath passed away:
Here they bloom, they thrive, they flourish,
For decayed is all decay.”
Saint Peter Damian from his Hymn on the Glory of Paradise.

Indeed, even Peter Damian’s body was spared from decay.
Over 400 years after his death, his body was exhumed and found to be incorrupt.

St. Peter Damian, please pray for a renewal of holiness within our lives and within our Church.
*************
St. Peter Damian lost his parents when he was only a child.
He was left to the care of one of his older brothers, who was very cruel to him.
His clothing was only rags scarcely sufficient to cover him,
and his food barely enough to sustain his life.

One day the child found on the road a piece of money in silver.
This was for him a treasure, and he would now be able to buy some dainty food, or shoes for his feet.
As he was thinking of what he would purchase with it,
he thought of his parents who were dead, and how kind they had been to him;
and he remembered at the same time that perhaps they might be at that moment suffering in Purgatory.
So he said to himself: So I shall, take this piece of silver to the priest
and ask him to offer up the holy Mass for them.”

This he did, and from that moment a great change came over his life;
for one of his brothers who was living at a distance, hearing of his distress,
went and took him to his own house, and treated him with kindness and brotherly affection.
Under his care Peter grew up in piety. He afterwards became a priest, and is now a Saint in Heaven.

Thus did God reward him with the greatest spiritual and temporal blessings
on account of his devotion to the suffering souls in Purgatory.
-found in the Catechism in Examples

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