The hero chosen this day by the Church to greet our Risen Lord was so valiant in the good fight that martyrdom is part of his name. He is also known as Peter the Martyr; so that we cannot speak of him without raising the echo of victory. He was put to death by heretics, and is the grand tribute paid to our Redeemer by the 13th century. Never was there a triumph hailed with greater enthusiasm than this one. The martyrdom of St. Thomas of Canterbury excited the admiration of the faithful of the preceding century, for nothing was so dear to our forefathers as the liberty of the Church; the martyrdom of St. Peter was celebrated with a like intensity of praise and joy. Let us hearken to the fervent eloquence of the great Pontiff Innocent IV, who thus begins the Bull of the Martyr's canonization: "The truth of the Christian Faith, manifested, as it has been, by great and frequent miracles, is now beautified by the new merit of a new Saint. Lo! a combatant of these our own times comes, bringing us new and great and triumphant signs. The voice of his blood shed (for Christ) is heard, and the fame of his martyrdom is trumpeted throughout the world. The land is not silent that sweateth with his blood; the country that produced so noble a warrior resounds with his praise; yea, the very sword that did the deed of parricide proclaims his glory… Mother Church has great reason to rejoice, and abundant matter for gladness; She has cause to sing a new canticle to the Lord, and a hymn of fervent praise to Her God… the Christian people has cause to give forth devout songs to its Creator. A sweet fruit, gathered in the garden of faith, has been set upon the table of the Eternal King: a grape-bunch taken from the vineyard of the Church has filled the royal cup with new wine… The flourishing Order of Preachers has produced a red rose, whose sweetness is most grateful to the King; and from the Church here on earth there has been taken a stone, which, after being cut and polished, has deserved a place of honor in the temple of Heaven."
Such was the language wherewith the Supreme Pontiff spoke of the new Martyr, and the people responded by celebrating his Feast with extraordinary devotion. It was kept as were the ancient festivals, that is, all servile work was forbidden upon it. The churches served by the Fathers of the Dominican Order were crowded on his Feast; and the faithful took little branches with them, that they might be blessed in memory of the triumph of Peter the Martyr.
How are we to account for all this fervent devotion of the people towards Saint Peter? It was because he died in defense of the Faith; and nothing was so dear to the Christians of those days as faith. Saint Peter had received the charge to seize all the heretics who at that time were causing geat disturbance and scandal in the country around Milan. They were called Cathari, but in reality were Manicheans; their teachings were detestable, and their lives most immoral. Saint Peter fulfilled his duty with a firmness and equity which soon secured him the hatred of the heretics; and when he fell a victim to his holy courage, a cry of admiration and gratitude was heard throughout Christendom. Nothing could be more devoid of truth than the accusations brought by the enemies of the Church and their indiscreet abettors against the measures formerly decreed by the public law of Catholic nations, in order to foil the efforts made by evil-minded men to injure the true Faith. In those times, no tribunal was so popular as that whose office it was to protect the Faith, and to put down all those who attacked it. It was to the Order of St. Dominic that this office was mainly entrusted; and well may they be proud of the honor of having so long held one so beneficial to the salvation of mankind. How many of its members have met with a glorious death in the exercise of their stern duty! Saint Peter is the first of the Martyrs given by the Order for this holy cause: his name, however, heads a long list of others who were his brethren in religion, his successors in the defense of the Faith, and his followers to martrydom. The coercive measures that were once, and successfully, used to defend the faithful from heretical teachers have long since ceased to be used: but for us Catholics, our judgment of them must surely be that of the Church. She bids us today to honor as a Martyr one of Her Saints, who was put to death whilst resisting the wolves that threatened the sheep of Christ's fold; should we not be guilty of disrespect to our Mother the Church if we dared to condemn what She so highly approves? Far, then, be from us that cowardly bowing to the spirit of the age, which would make us ashamed of the courageous efforts made by our forefathers for the preservation of the Faith! Far from us that childish readiness to believe the calumnies of Protestants against an institution which they naturally detest! Far from us that deplorable confusion of ideas which puts truth and error on an equality, and, from the fact that error can have no rights, concludes that truth can claim none!
The following is the account given us by the Church of the virtues and heroism of Saint Peter the Martyr:
Peter was born at Verona of parents who were infected with the heresy of the Manichees; but he himself, almost from his very infancy, fought against heresies. When he was seven years old, he was one day asked by an uncle, who was a heretic, what they taught him at the school to which he went. He answered that they taught him the Creed of the Christian Faith. His father and uncle did all they could, both by promises and threats, to shake the firmness of his faith: but all to no purpose. When old enough, he went to Bologna, in order to pursue his studies. Whilst there, he was called by the Holy Ghost to a life of perfection, and obeyed the call by entering the Order of St. Dominic.
Great were his virtues as a Religious. So careful was he to keep both body and soul from whatsoever could sully their purity, that his conscience never accused him of committing a mortal sin. He mortified his body by fasting and watching, and applied his mind to the contemplation of heavenly things. He labored incessantly for the salvation of souls, and was gifted with a special grace for refuting heretics. He was so earnest when preaching, that people used to go in crowds to hear him, and numerous were the conversions that ensued.
The ardor of his Faith was such that he wished he might die for it, and earnestly did he beg that favor from God. This death, which he foretold a short time before in one of his sermons, was inflicted on him by the heretics. Whilst returning from Como to Milan, in the discharge of the duties of the holy Inquisition, he was attacked by a wicked assassin, who struck him twice on the head with a sword. The Creed, which he had confessed with manly courage when but a child, he now began to recite with his dying lips; and having received another wound in his side, he went to receive a martyr's palm in Heaven, in the year of Our Lord 1252. Numerous miracles attested his sanctity, and his name was enrolled the following year by Innocent IV in the list of the Martyrs.
O Holy Protector of the Christian people! what other motive hadst thou, in all thy labors, but charity? What else but a desire to defend the weak from danger induced thee not only to preach against error, but to drive its wicked teachers from the flock? How many simple souls, who were receiving divine truth from the teaching of the Church, have been deceived by the lying sophistry of heretical doctrine, and have lost their precious Faith? Surely the Church would do Her utmost to ward off such dangers from Her children; She would do all She could to defend them from enemies, who were bent on destroying the glorious inheritance which had been handed down to them by millions of Martyrs! She knew the strange tendency that often exists in the heart of fallen man to love error; whereas truth, though of itself pure and unchanging, is not sure of its remaining firmly in the mind, unless it be defended by learning or by faith. As to learning, there are but few who possess it; and as to faith, error is ever conspiring against it, and, of course, with the false appearance of truth. In the Christian ages it would have been deemed not only criminal, but absurd, to grant to error the liberty which is due only to truth; and they that were in authority considered it a duty to keep the weak from danger, by removing from them all occasions of a fall; just as the father of a family keeps his children from coming in contact with wicked companions who could easily deceive them in their inexperience, and lead them to evil under the name of good.
Obtain for us, O Holy Martyr, a keen appreciation of the precious gift of Faith – that element which keeps us in the way of salvation. May we zealously do everything that lies in our power to preserve it, both in ourselves and in them that are under our care. The love of this Holy Faith has grown cold in so many hearts; and frequent discourse with heretics or free-thinkers has made them think and speak of matters of Faith in a very loose way. Pray for them, O Saint Peter, that they may recover that fearless love of the truths of religion which should be one of the chief traits of the Christian character. As we all live in an age when the modernist system prevails of treating all religions alike – that is, of giving equal rights to error and to truth – let us be all the more courageous in professing the truth, and detesting the errors opposed to the truth. Pray for us, O Holy Martyr, that there may be enkindled within us an ardent love of that Faith without which it is impossible to please God (Hebr. 11: 6). Pray that we may become all earnestness in this duty, which is of vital importance to salvation; that thus our Faith may daily gain strength within us, till at length we shall merit to see in Heaven what we have believed unhesitatingly on earth. Amen.
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