Saint of the Day – St. Peter Damian – February 21
St. Peter Damian is the figure on the right, with Sts. Augustine, Anne and Elizabeth.
St. Peter Damian lived in the 11th century. He was orphaned at a young age and raised by two of his brothers. The first treated him as little more than a slave, but the second treated him kindly, took him into his own home and sent him to school. Peter took this second brother’s name, Damian, as part of his own name.
Peter Damian grew up to become a teacher and, later, became a Benedictine monk. He was always very devout and passionate about prayer, fasting, sacrifices and caring for the poor. He regularly welcomed poor people to eat with him. He spent so much time in prayer and reading Scripture that he developed insomnia. He had to learn to use his time more wisely, so that he could have the time he wanted for prayer and still get enough sleep to maintain his health.
He eventually became abbot of his monastery and founded 5 others. His reputation as a reformer of monastery life, peacemaker and troubleshooter led a series of popes to send him as their representative to settle problems in various monasteries and dioceses, as well as to be a representative of the Church with local government officials. If he saw a churchman or government official who was not living in a way that witnessed to the Gospel, he would intervene with that person and publicly call him back to a more appropriate lifestyle. He wrote passionately against practices which he saw as sinful and did not hesitate to argue with persons in authority.
Peter Damian never sought titles or office within the Church, but he was forced to accept the position of Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. In this role he led the diocese and worked for reform among priests, bishops and laity. Though he had not wanted to be a bishop, he served faithfully until finally Pope Alexander II allowed him to retire. Even in retirement, he traveled extensively as the Pope’s representative. He died of a fever on his way home from a final journey to Ravenna as papal legate.
Though never officially canonized, Peter Damian is a Doctor of the Church, a title granted to him in part because of his efforts to reform the Church from within and to encourage the practice of prayer and study of Scripture. He was a prolific writer, a man of great influence in his world, and yet also a humble monk in spirit, retreating to the monastery whenever possible to live his preferred life of simplicity and prayer.
“With his pen and his words he addressed all: he asked his brother hermits for the courage of a radical self-giving to the Lord which would as closely as possible resemble martyrdom; he demanded of the Pope, Bishops and ecclesiastics a high level of evangelical detachment from honours and privileges in carrying out their ecclesial functions; he reminded priests of the highest ideal of their mission that they were to exercise by cultivating purity of morals and true personal poverty.
In an age marked by forms of particularism and uncertainties because it was bereft of a unifying principle, Peter Damien, aware of his own limitations – he liked to define himself as peccator monachus – passed on to his contemporaries the knowledge that only through a constant harmonious tension between the two fundamental poles of life – solitude and communion – can an effective Christian witness develop.”
This tension and these ideals are still the ones with which we wrestle today as we each try to fulfill the vocations to which we are called, in a world filled with controversy, using the gifts we have received for the larger community, and being renewed through prayer and Scripture.