Laity for Moral Reform in the Catholic Church

St. Peter Damian, a biography

Posted: 2021-05-16

Peter Damian was born close to the year 988 AD, in the city of Ravenna on the Italian peninsula. He was born to a family of noble lineage, though little money, and knew a certain amount of poverty from a young age. He knew yet more when he lost both of his parents as a boy. His poverty took on an especially cruel turn when, after the deaths of his mother and father, he was sent to live with one of his brothers, who treated him quite inhumanely. It has been said by numerous biographers that this brother treated Peter more like a slave than a sibling.

Peter had other brothers, and one of them was the archpriest of his native Ravenna. This holy man rescued Peter from his troubled life with the first brother, and this brother in time became like a father figure to Peter, a man Peter loved and cherished—and from whom he adopted the name “Damian.” Damian the priest, in addition to caring for Peter Damian, arranged for him to be educated, and Peter proved a talented student—as he advanced in age, he became extremely learned, and skilled in the scholar’s craft, eventually becoming a teacher and an instructor himself. From a young age he cultivated personal holiness: fasting, praying, keeping watch in the late hours. He wore a hairshirt under his clothes to increase his personal penance, and guard himself against sin. His time in poverty was not forgotten, and he was a great lover of and benefactor to the poor: he gave away much in alms, and often dined in the company of poor folk, sitting at table with them and personally waiting on them.

Peter’s love of the poor, and his love of God, would grow. Though he was celebrated as a teacher and lecturer in Ravenna as early as age 25, he gradually became determined to follow Christ to the furthest of ends, and so joined the new, strict house of the Benedictine monks at the great abbey of Fonte Avellana. While there, his dedication to penance and mortification grew to such an extent that he developed insomnia, a problem from which he eventually recovered. But he was noted for his great holiness and love of God, and by 1043 he became Fonte Avellana’s prior, a position he would hold his entire life.

Though ensconced within the walls of his abbey, Peter was keenly aware of the great crisis of corruption and wickedness then afflicting the Church. Doctrinal confusion and sexual corruption had reached great heights in both the clergy and the hierarchy, culminating in the dishonorable abdication of Pope Benedict IX in 1045; Peter was quite pleased at this man leaving his office, and wrote to his successor, Gregory VI, urging him to combat the evils facing him. Throughout this time he was also founding subject-hermitages that would follow after his own example of fasting and penance, and he was in close communication with the Emperor Henry III. He also at this time composed his most famous work, The Book of Gomorrah, a vigorous condemnation of sexual corruption in the clergy, including harsh criticisms of sodomy and pederasty.

He was not unrecognized for his efforts. Though he long resisted the elevation, in 1057 he was created a cardinal by Pope Stephen IX, and appointed bishop of the diocese of Ostia. He was soon after appointed administrator of the diocese of Gubbio, and soon became known as a pious, principled, and thoroughly just administrator; he merely responded to this praise by challenging all his brother cardinals to follow his example. He was instrumental in combating the evils of heresy, schism, and the machinations of the antipopes that plagued the Church in this period. He also traveled abroad, serving as the Holy See’s legate to various locations in Europe: to France, to Florence, to Milan, and elsewhere. Milan, to which he was sent in 1059, deserves special attention: the clergy there openly took part in the buying and selling of benefices, selling their good deeds to the highest bidder; they also freely married the women with whom they lived. Peter was sent to deal with the city directly, and he took on all who opposed him, boldly confronting them at the city’s great cathedral and bringing them all into eventual obedience to Rome.

He was, at last, allowed to resign his bishopric in 1067; though he had long rendered fruitful service, and done much good, in his heart of hearts Peter was a monk, and longed for the solitary life of penance and prayer. Nonetheless, he continued in his efforts to serve the Church, including his passionate defense of the sanctity of marriage before the Emperor Henry IV in 1069. And, at last, his earthly life came to an end in 1072 or 1073, shortly after he had completed a journey to his own beloved Ravenna to reconcile it to the Holy See. He was seized with fever upon his return journey, and took rest at the monastery of Santa Maria Vecchia. He lay ill for a week, and, finally, he passed, on the eve of the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, with the divine office being recited around him as his soul left his body.

In 1828 he was canonized by Pope Leo XIII, who also declared him a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is February 21st in the Ordinary Form of the Mass, and February 23rd in the Extraordinary Form.