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SAINT PETER DAMIAN

Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c. 1007-1072

Peter Damian was born in Ravenna, Italy, about 1007, the youngest of many children in an impoverished family. He was orphaned while very young and sent to the home of an older brother, who treated the boy more like a slave than a relative. As soon as the lad was old enough, he was made to tend swine and do all the lowest tasks around the farm. Another brother, archpriest of Ravenna, took pity on Peter and provided for his education, first at Faenza and finally at the University of Parma, where he became a famous professor when he was barely twenty-five. The brother who acted as his patron was called Damian, and it is generally accepted that Peter took this new surname in gratitude to the one who had been so kind to him.

Repelled by the undisciplined gaiety of university life, Peter decided to enter the Benedictine monastery at Fonte Avellana. Although he willingly embraced all the penance's and mortification's expected of a monk, he did not neglect his teaching. After spending much time studying Scripture, he was summoned by the abbot of Pomposa, to instruct his monastery of a hundred monks. He taught there for several years, later returning to his own monastery, where he became abbot shortly after the superior's death. Peter founded five new monasteries, in which he placed priors under his own general direction, keeping uppermost in his mind the basic needs of the monk: solitude, charity, and prayer.

For the next twelve years Peter Damian worked closely with bishops and popes, helping to curb the vices of the clergy by preaching and especially by writing a treatise, Liber Gomorrhinus, which exposed and condemned sins of simony and concubinage among religious.

In 1057, Pope Stephen IX forced Peter, under pain of excommunication, to accept the rank of cardinal and take up his position as bishop of Ostia. Peter was so impressed with his responsibility to his flock that he wrote to his fellow cardinals exhorting them to make their lives an example to all. Nicholas II likewise called on Peter to serve the Church in the hierarchy and as legate of the Holy See, but his successor Alexander II agreed to let him relinquish his position as bishop of Ostia and return to the solitude of Fonte Avellana.

In his monastery again, Peter continually preached the necessity of penance in a pleasure-loving world. Whatever penance he prescribed for others he performed himself. He lived closeted in his cell, fasting every day and wearing iron chains next to his body. He viewed extreme penance's not as ends in themselves, but rather as means to make the body subject to the spirit.

Peter's last undertaking for the Church was a journey to Ravenna, where he put down a schism begun by the archbishop of that city. He succeeded in reconciling the schismatics to the Holy See and imposed severe penance's on all involved. On his way back to the monastery he was afflicted with a fever; he died February 22, 1072.

Saint Peter Damian stands out in Church history as a strong figure, one of the greatest reformers of the Middle Ages, who preached penance and love, not only by words, but by the example of his life.

 

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