“Let Your Life Always Serve as a Witness”
A Biographical Sketch of Saint Peter Damian
[Note: The following is a brief account of the life and times of Saint Peter Damian, a theological giant and moral reformer of the Middle Ages. Over the years ahead, we will be exploring his life and works in much greater depth and intimacy, but for those who are just making Peter Damian’s acquaintance, this summary can serve as a valuable introduction.]
It appears that whenever Holy Mother Church has had a great need for a special kind of saint for a particular age, God, in His infinite mercy, has never failed to fill that need. And so, in the year 1007 AD, a boy child was born to a noble but poor family in the ancient Roman city of Ravenna, who would become a Doctor of the Church, a precursor of the Hildebrand reform, and a key figure in the moral and spiritual reformation of the lax and incontinent clergy of his time.
Tradition tells us that Peter Damian’s entrance into this world was initially an unwelcome event that overtaxed and somewhat embittered his already large family. He was orphaned at a young age. His biographer, John of Lodi, tells us that were it not for the solicitude of his older brother Damian, an archpriest at Ravenna, the youth might have lived out his life in obscurity as a swineherd, but God deemed otherwise. Peter’s innate intellectual talents and remarkable piety in the light of great adversity were recognized by the archpriest, who plucked his younger brother from the fields and provided him with an excellent education first at Ravenna, then Faenza and finally at the University of Parma. In return, Peter acknowledged his brother’s loving care by adopting Damian as his surname.
Although he excelled in his studies and quickly rose in academic ranks, Peter felt drawn to the religious rather than university life. His spirituality would be formed by his love for the Rule of St. Benedict and his attraction to the rigorous penance and individualistic practices of St. Romuald.
In his late twenties he was welcomed into the Benedictine hermitage of the Reform of St. Romuald at Fonte-Avellana where he eventually became prior, a position he retained until his death on February 21, 1072. He also served as Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, an honor bestowed upon him by Pope Stephen IX in 1057. The life of the well-traveled holy monk was distinguished by his great learning and a marvelous knowledge of Holy Scripture and by great penitential acts, which served both as a rebuke and as an inspiration to his fellow monks and the secular clergy at a time when moral turpitude was endemic in clerical ranks.
Owen J. Blum, O.F.M., Saint Peter Damian’s chief translator and biographer in modern times, in one of his many works on the hermit-monk, notes that for the great saint, the spiritual life was first and foremost a life of prayer, penance and reparation. Peter Damian also promoted and practiced a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin.
The two hallmarks of the holy monk’s teachings on the spiritual life were his great hatred of sin and his fundamental and overriding interest in the spiritual advancement of the Catholic priesthood. As Blum states, “Peter Damian thought of the priesthood as an order of the greatest dignity. Indeed, it was the exalted nobility of this office that caused him to speak in such dire terms to priests who forgot their position and tarnished their souls with incontinence.”
Peter Damian showed remarkable insight into the importance of model episcopal leadership, stating that “the example of a virtuous life” filters down from “the princes of the Church to all levels of the clergy and laity.” The holy monk was equally insistent on the deposition of unworthy incumbents to the priesthood, the duty of which fell to the local bishop.
Much of the success of his program of clerical moral reform was due to the fact Peter Damian was able to closely link his own efforts with that of the Papacy. Indeed, his wise council and diplomatic skills were employed by a long succession of Popes.
Peter Damian died in the odor of sanctity on February 22, 1072, in his sixty-sixth year at Faenza while returning to Rome from a papal mission to Ravenna. Although he was never formally canonized, he was revered as a saint immediately after his death and his cultus has existed at Faenza, at Fonte-Avellana, at Monte Cassino, and at Cluny to the present day.
Over the centuries his body has been moved six times, each time to a more splendid setting. In 1898, Peter Damian’s found his final resting place in a beautiful side chapel dedicated to the saint in the Cathedral of Faenza, seat of the Bishop of Faenza-Modigliana.
True Church Reform Begins with the Vicar of Christ
Saint Peter Damian would never had been able to carry out his program for the moral and spiritual reform of religious and the secular diocesan clergy without the support and cooperation of another future saint, Pope Leo IX, a German aristocrat who worthily occupied the Chair of St. Peter from February 12, 1049, until his death on April 19, 1054, at the age of 51.
In the closing segments of his Book of Gomorrah, which was addressed to Pope Leo IX, Peter Damian pleaded with the Holy Father to use the papal office to reform and strengthen the decrees of the sacred canons with regard to the disposition of clerical sodomites including religious superiors and bishops who sexually violate their “spiritual sons.”
Peter Damian asked the Holy Father to “diligently” investigate the four forms of the vice of sodomy cited at the beginning of his treatise and to provide him (Damian) with definitive answers to the following questions by which the “darkness of uncertainty” might be dispelled and an “indecisive conscience” freed from error:
Is one who is guilty of these crimes to be expelled irrevocably from holy orders?
Whether at a prelate’s discretion, moreover, one might mercifully be allowed to function in office?
To what extent, both in respect to the methods mentioned above and to the number of lapses, is it permissible to retain a man in the dignity of ecclesiastical office?
Also, if one is guilty, what degree and what frequency of guilt should compel him under the circumstances to retire?
Damian closed his famous letter by asking Almighty God to use Pope Leo IX’s pontificate “to utterly destroy this monstrous vice, that a prostrate Church may everywhere rise to vigorous stature.”
Pope Leo IX —The Precursor of Gregorian Reform
Bruno, Count von Egisheim of Dagsburg, entered the world under much more favorable material circumstances than those of Peter Damian. He was born near the border of Alsace on June 21, 1002. At the age of five, his illustrious and pious parents committed him to the care of the energetic Berthold, Bishop of Toul, who had a school for the sons of the nobility. The future Pope’s principal biographer and intimate friend, Wilbert, records that the youth was handsome, intelligent, virtuous and kindly in disposition, a description which later manifested itself in the distinguishing title given him when he served as chaplain at the Imperial Court — “the good Bruno.”
In 1027, Bruno became Bishop of Toul, the frontier town of his youth, that was plagued by both war and famine He remained at this rather obscure See for more than twenty years until his ascendancy to the papacy on February 12, 1049.
After his election in Worms, when the saintly Bruno entered Rome dressed humbly in a friar’s robe and barefooted, he was greeted by a cheering populace who acclaimed with one voice that they would have no other but Bruno as their new pope. Little wonder as under the on-again off-again reign of the dissolute Benedict IX (1032-1044, 1045, 1047-1048) the papacy had fallen into serious disrepute. Bruno’s predecessor, Damasus II, the Bishop of Brixen, had died of malaria after only twenty days in office.
Like any pontiff determined to reform abuses within the Church, Pope Leo IX immediately surrounded himself with like-minded virtuous and able clerics including the saintly Benedictine, Hildebrand of Tuscany, and the saintly monk, Peter Damian.
Only four months after coming into office, Pope Leo IX convened the famous Easter Synod of 1049 which condemned two of the most notorious evils of the day — simony (the buying, selling or exchange of ecclesiastical favors, offices, annulments and other spiritual considerations) and clerical sexual incontinence (concubinage/married priests). The new pope demanded a more perfect observance of celibacy, a life-long state of self-denying continence, down to the rank of the subdeacon.
Immediately following the April synod, the new pope began his journeys through Europe to carry out his message of reform. In May 1049, he held a council of reform in Pavia, which was followed by visits and councils in Cologne, Reims and Mainz before returning to Rome. It was during the second half of Leo IX’ first year as pope, mid-1049, that Peter Damian brought his Book of Gomorrah to the pontiff’s attention
Pope Leo IX Rules on Clerical Sodomy
Pope Leo IX responded to Peter Damian’s concerns in the form of a lengthy letter (JL 4311; It Pont 4.94f., no.2), which is generally attached to manuscripts of the Book of Gomorrah.
Pope Leo IX opened his letter to “his beloved son in Christ, Peter the hermit,” with warm salutations in recognition of Peter Damian’s pure, upright and zealous character. He agreed with Damian that clerics, caught up in the “execrable vice” of sodomy … “verily and most assuredly will have no share in His inheritance, from which by their voluptuous pleasures they have withdrawn. Such clerics indeed, profess if not in words, at least by the evidence of their actions, that they are not what they are thought to be,” the pope declared.
Reiterating the category of the four forms of sodomy which Peter Damian elucidated in his treatise, the Holy Father declared that it is proper that by “our apostolic authority” we intervene in the matter so that “all anxiety and doubt be removed from the minds of your readers.”
“So let it be certain and evident to all that we are in agreement with everything your book contains, opposed as it is like water to the fire of the devil,” Pope Leo IX continued. “Therefore, lest the wantonness of this foul impurity be allowed to spread unpunished, it must be repelled by proper repressive action of apostolic severity, and yet some moderation must be placed on its harshness.”
Next, Pope Leo IX gives a detailed explanation of the Holy See’s authoritative ruling on the matter:
In light of divine mercy, the Holy Father commands, without contradiction, that those who, of their own free will, have practiced solitary or mutual masturbation or defiled themselves by interfemoral coitus, but who have not done so for any length of time, nor with many others, shall retain their status, after having curbed their desires and atoned for their infamous deeds with proper repentance.
However, the Holy See removes all hope for retaining their clerical status from those who alone or with others for a long time, or even a short period with many, have defiled themselves by either of the two kinds of filthiness which you have described, or, which is horrible to hear or speak of, have sunk to the level of anal intercourse.
Pope Leo IX warned potential critics, that those who dared to criticize or attack the apostolic ruling stood in danger of losing their rank.
Pope Leo IX praised Peter Damian for teaching by example and not mere words, and concluded his letter with the beautiful hope that when, with God’s help, the monk reaches his heavenly abode, he may reap his rewards and be crowned, “… in a sense, with all those who were snatched by you from the snares of the devil.”
Differences on the Matter of Discipline
Clearly, on the objective immorality of sodomy, that is, anal penetration, Peter Damian and Pope Leo IX were in perfect accord. However, in terms of Church discipline, the pope appeared to have taken exception with Damian’s appeal for the wholesale deposition of all clerics who committed acts of anal coitus. I say, appeared, because I believe that even in the matter of punishing known clerical offenders, both men were more in agreement than not.
Certainly, Peter Damian, who was renowned for his exemplary spiritual direction of the novitiates and monks entrusted to his care, was not unaware of certain mitigating circumstances that would diminish if not totally remove the culpability of individuals charged with acts of sodomy, broadly defined. For example, there were situations where novices or monks may have been forced or pressured by their superiors to commit such acts. No doubt, it was circumstances such as these that prompted Pope Leo IX to use the term, “who of his own free will” which distinguishes a cleric who was forced to participate in these sexual acts from one who voluntarily engaged in sodomy and who had become habituated to the grave sin. Also among the four varieties of sodomy described by Peter Damian in his introductory remarks to the Book of Gomorrah, the holy monk stated that two grave sins of interfemoral and anal coitus are to be judged more serious than acts of solitary or mutual masturbation.
All in all, what this writer found to be most remarkable about Pope Leo IX’s letter to Peter Damian, was the absolutist position the pontiff took concerning the ultimate responsibility of the offending cleric’s bishop or religious superior. If the latter criticized or attacked this apostolic decree, he risked losing HIS rank! “ For he who does not attack vice, but deals lightly with it, is rightly judged to be guilt of his death, along with the one who dies in sin,” voiced the pope.
Pope Leo IX was canonized by Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) in 1082. His feast day is April 19th.
Certainly, Damian’s reputation and credibility were not diminished in the minds of the great and holy men of his day by either the writing or the publication of his treatise on sodomy. Pope Leo IX and future Popes continued to seek out his services and advice including Pope Nicholas II (1059-1061) and Pope Gregory VII (1073-1085). Also, Pope Stephen X (1057-1058) consecrated Peter Damian Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia in 1057 and appointed him administrator of the Diocese of Gubbio.
[For additional details on Saint Peter Damian’s life see New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia, “St. Peter Damian,” by Leslie A. ST. L. Toke (transcribed by Joseph C. Meyer) pp. 1-2, at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11764a.htm.]