21 Feb: St. Peter Damian, Bp and Doctor

St. Peter Damian, Cardinal, Bishop, DoctorSt. Peter Damian (+21 Feb. 1072), Bishop and Doctor, Cardinal, was a great reformer.   In 1823 he was declared Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XII.   His youth in Ravenna was quite poor and hard.  He entered into the intellectual circles of the great Universities of northern Italy and, by his mid-twenties was quite famous.  He eventually sought the hermit’s life, near Gubbio (where later St. Francis would be), where he damaged his health through terrible mortifications.  

From the vantage point of his monastery, he followed the life of the world, and did not refuse to travel and take part in great events of his time.  There was terrible corruption in the Church.   He sought to address them.  For example, he attended a synod at the Lateran in Rome whcih issued a decree against simony (the selling of ecclesiastical preferments).  when Benedict IX resigned in 1045 and Gregory VI ascended to the See of Rome, Peter Damian wrote to urge him to heal many wounds in the Church in Italy.  He wrote specifically, pointing his finger at certain bishops.  

When Stephen X was elected Pope in 1057 he desired to name Peter Damian Cardinal.  After refusing for some time, he accepted and was consecrated Bishop of Ostia in 1057.  When Stephen died there was a schism in the Church and Peter Damian strove against the anti-Pope "Benedict X".

In 1059 Pope Nicholas sent him to Milan, which was in horrid shape.  He even had to deal with a violent riot against him and his reforming efforts with theTomb of St. Peter Damian clergy.

Opera OmniaIn the years that followed by served many Popes and was an arbiter in numerous disputes.

Although his mortal remains have been "translated" (moved) several times, his body is now in the Cathedral of Faenza. 

In his writings, St. Peter Damian explored the concepts of the omnipotence of God and seriously put to the test an understanding of the principle of non-contradiction.  He was very concerned that the Faith be protected, especially among those members of the Church who were less schooled.  Thus, he wrote in his De divina omnipotentia (597C): "For if it should reach the common people that God is asserted to be impotent in some respect (which is a wicked thing to say), the unschooled masses would instantly be confused and the Christian faith would be upset, not without grave danger to souls."  His position was that God’s remains omnipotent even though He cannot undo what has been done, change His mind, etc.  However, in order to defend the faith of people in God’s omnipotence he counsels against saying that God cannot undo the past because it would be "a wicked thing to say".  Thus, he understood well that a little knowledge can be a dangerous things, confusing to people who are little practiced in dealing with deeper questions.  

Another of his principal contributions as an author was his devastating condemnation of homosexulity.  His Liber Gomorrhianus ad Leonem IX Romanum Pontificem (PL 145: 161-190).  It is particuarly a blast at clerics who are sodomites.  This is a brutally explicit work, at least in Latin and it pulls no punches at all about the fate those who engage willingly in homosexual sex: "The devil’s artful fraud devises these degrees of failing into ruin such that the higher the level the unfortunate soul reaches in them, the deeper it sinks in the depths of hell’s pit" (PL 145:161).

There is an English translation available (Pierre J. Payer. Book of Gomorrah. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982) and an online version in Italian.

St. Peter DamianCOLLECT:
Concede nos, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus,
beati Petri episcopi monita et exempla sectari,
ut, Christo nihil praeponentes
et Ecclesiae tuae servitio semper intenti,
ad aeternae lucis gaudia perducamur.

LITERAL TRANSLATION:
Grant us, we beseech You, Almighty God,
eagerly to follow the examples and counsels of blessed Peter the bishop,
so that, preferring nothing to Christ
and always intent upon the service of Your Church,
we may be guided through unto the joys of light eternal.

St. Peter Damian was also simultaneously the Cardinal Bishop of the Diocese of Velletri from 1060 until his death.  This was before Pope Eugene III united the dioceses of Ostia and Velletri, which were then separated again by St. Pope Pius X in 1914.

Paradise 21 - Angels descending the ladder by Gustave DoréThe Poet Dante finds places the saint amidt the highest spheres of Paradise (go read Paradiso XXI right now – especially if you have the Sayers/Reynolds edition!! Reynolds actually took over at this very Canto after Sayers’ death) in the Heaven of Saturn: "In quel loco fu’ io Pietro Damiano…"

The saint, like a flame, responds to Dante’s questions, but at a certain point falls silent for the same reason that Beatrice does not smile in this place.  He warns Dante about mortals trying to grasp the supernatural.
«Tra ’ due liti d’Italia surgon sassi,
e non molto distanti a la tua patria,
tanto che ’ troni assai suonan più bassi,

e fanno un gibbo che si chiama Catria,
di sotto al quale è consecrato un ermo,
che suole esser disposto a sola latria».

Così ricominciommi il terzo sermo;
e poi, continüando, disse: «Quivi
al servigio di Dio mi fe’ sì fermo,

che pur con cibi di liquor d’ulivi
lievemente passava caldi e geli,
contento ne’ pensier contemplativi.

Render solea quel chiostro a questi cieli
fertilemente; e ora è fatto vano,
sì che tosto convien che si riveli.

In quel loco fu’ io Pietro Damiano,
e Pietro Peccator fu’ ne la casa
di Nostra Donna in sul lito adriano.

Poca vita mortal m’era rimasa,
quando fui chiesto e tratto a quel cappello,
che pur di male in peggio si travasa.

Venne Cefàs e venne il gran vasello
de lo Spirito Santo, magri e scalzi,
prendendo il cibo da qualunque ostello.

Or voglion quinci e quindi chi rincalzi130
li moderni pastori e chi li meni,
tanto son gravi, e chi di rietro li alzi.

Cuopron d’i manti loro i palafreni,
sì che due bestie van sott’ una pelle:
oh pazïenza che tanto sostieni!».

In his letters to Popes and princes, the Saint often referred to himself simply as "peccator… sinner". 

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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3 Responses to 21 Feb: St. Peter Damian, Bp and Doctor

  1. Henry Edwards says:

    Father Z translation:
    Grant us, we beseech You, Almighty God,
    eagerly to follow the examples and counsels of blessed Peter the bishop,
    so that, preferring nothing to Christ
    and always intent upon the service of Your Church,
    we may be guided through unto the joys of light eternal.

    ICEL version:
    All-powerful God, help us
    to follow the teachings and example of Peter Damian.
    By making Christ and
    the service of his Church the first love of our lives,
    may we come to the joys of eternal light.

    Not so bad, I guess — by now we’re inured to help us instead of we beseech — but ICEL’s ingenuity in getting the word love into every English “translation” never ceases to amaze.

  2. Don Marco says:

    A marvelous Benedictine collect! I rendered it thus:

    Grant us, we beseech you, almighty God,
    to follow the counsel and example of the blessed bishop Peter,
    that by preferring nothing whatever to Christ (Rule of St. Benedict 72:11)
    and always set upon the service of your Church,
    we may come, at length, to the joys of eternal light.

  3. Don Marco says:

    Thought of sharing these reflections too:

    Before we get to today Saint Peter Damian, I want to acknowledge the birthday of the Venerable John Henry Newman, born in Londay on this day in 1801. I picture him in Paradise with Saint Peter Damian; the one quintessentially British, given to careful reflection and sober understatement; the other, Italian, blazing like a holy lightning and hurling thunderbolts in his zeal for reform. Though both received the cardinal’s red hat; their temperaments could not have been more different. In art, the fierce and passionate Peter Damian – a man rather given to extremes – is often depicted brandishing a discipline or knotted scourge. The gentle Newman, on the other hand, I picture seated in his study, with a comfortable cup of tea near at hand. It’s all splendidly Catholic.
    The collect we prayed at the beginning of Mass expresses the two guiding principles of Saint Peter Damian’s life:

    “Grant us, we beseech you, almighty God,
    to follow the counsel and example of the blessed bishop Peter,
    that by preferring nothing whatever to Christ
    and always set upon the service of your Church,
    we may come, at length, to the joys of eternal light.”

    The first principle comes directly from the fourth chapter of the Rule of Saint Benedict: “To prefer nothing whatever to Christ” (RB 72:11). Before being or doing anything else, Peter Damian was a monk, a son of Holy Father Benedict. He belonged, as you know, to the white-habited Camaldolese who, down through history, have given so many holy monastics to the Church. The second principle of Peter Damian’s life – being ready always to serve the Church – is inseparable from the first. “To prefer nothing whatever to Christ” translated, for Peter Damian, into a passionate devotion to the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the Church.
    The Church that Peter Damian loved and served was beset with troubles and scandals of all sorts: sacred offices being bought and sold, a clergy addicted to gambling, wine, concubinage, and other vices best left unmentioned, and the widespread collapse of monastic discipline. He wrote a book on the sexual immorality of the clergy that is shocking – even by today’s troubling standards. For all of that, he also had time to write a little book for cave-dwelling hermits who wondered if, in their celebration of the Divine Office, they should say or omit the “Dominus vobiscum.” For Peter Damian, the affairs of the Church were the affairs of Christ. “The love of Christ put before all else” made him a man of the Church, an apostle and a prophet.
    In every age of the Church there are moments of trouble, conditions that, while they demand reform, also stir up a lot of talking. True reform comes not from much talking, but from much silence. Holy Father Benedict says that “if you talk a lot you will not escape falling into sin” (RB 6:4). A tongue obedient to the Holy Spirit can do immense good; a tongue that wags this way and that is, as Saint James says, “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (Jas 3:8). Authentic prophecy begins in silence; true reform begins with holding one’s own tongue.
    There comes a moment when even the conversation of the saints and prophets must return to the silence whence it springs. In that silence, redeeming Love carries out the work of making whole all that is fragmented, of healing the weak and wounded members of Christ’s Mystical Body.
    Cardinal Newman has a little poem that addresses the tension between zeal and meekness, speaking and silence. I wonder if in paradise he recited it for Saint Peter Damian.

    CHRIST bade His followers take the sword;
    And yet He chid the deed,
    When Peter seized upon His word,
    And made a foe to bleed.

    The gospel Creed, a sword of strife,
    Meek hands alone may rear;
    And ever Zeal begins its life
    In silent thought and fear.

    Ye, who would weed the Vineyard’s soil,
    Treasure the lesson given;
    Lest in the judgment-books ye toil
    For Satan, not for heaven.

    Off Sardinia.
    June 20, 1833.