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For a large part of the liturgical year, we devote ourselves to listening to the mystery of Christ in all its aspects unfolded as we seek God's truth and understanding.
Peter Damian, Cardinal and Doctor, 1001-1072
Peter was orphaned when he was very young. He was raised for a time in the household of a brother who put him to work at the heaviest chores as soon as Peter was able to handle them. Another brother, Damian, who was a priest in Ravenna (Italy) felt pity for the boy and took charge of raising and educating him. Perhaps in gratitude, Peter took his brother’s name as his surname.
Peter was educated first at Faenza and then at Parma. He was an excellent student and went on to become a noted professor. Yet this was not the life which Peter wanted to lead. Even while teaching, he practiced austerities; it is said he fed the poor from his table on a regular basis. As Peter was contemplating giving up his position for the monastic life, two monks of the order of Saint Benedict happened to call at his house. Discussion with them decided it for Peter. In 1035, he joined their hermitage at Fonte Avellana and resolved to spend the remainder of his life as a humble monk, praying, studying Scripture, and living a life of great austerity.
Around the year 1043, Peter became abbot of Fonte Avellana. Not only did he govern with great wisdom and piety, but Peter founded five other monasteries and appointed the priors who led their communities under Peter’s general direction.
Peter Damian’s wisdom commended him to several popes, and his skills were employed by many of them in the service of the Church. In 1057, Pope Stephen II prevailed upon Peter to leave his hermitage and appointed him cardinal-bishop of Ostia. In this see, he began a program of ecclesiastical reform. While severe with the clergy, Peter could treat penitents with kindness and mildness.
This was not the life that Peter contemplated however. He constantly sought from Stephen’s successors permission to resign this office and return to his monastic life. Pope Alexander II was finally persuaded to allow Peter to resign on the condition that he be available if his help were needed. Peter considered this papal consent to not only relieve him from the responsibility of governing his see, but also from the governance of his religious settlements. He thus returned to the life of a simple monk.
In his retirement, Peter set an example of piety, humility and penitence. He also used this period to write extensively, continuing to push for ecclesiastical reform. He often called upon monks to strictly observe their vows and denounced simony, which is the practice of paying for ecclesiastical favors. Peter also wrote on the sacraments of penance and Eucharist, as well as other theological and religious topics. Many of his letters exist today.
Peter died in a monastery near Faenza on February 22, 1072. For many years, devotions to St. Peter Damian were centered in his order and in the areas where he lived and worked. In 1828, Pope Leo XII extended the saint’s feast to the entire Church and declared Peter Damian a Doctor of the Church. A memorial to this saint is celebrated on February 21st.
Peter's message today: Peter, though a brilliant man, sought a simple life of prayer and penance. Yet when God called him to undertake a different mission, Peter said yes. We too are sometimes called upon to step out of our “comfort zones” to respond to a call for a particular purpose in God’s plan.