Today we are called upon to celebrate the Feast of the austere reformer of the 11th century, St. Peter Damian, the precursor of the holy Pontiff, St. Gregory VII. To him is due in part that glorious regeneration, which was effected at that troubled period when judgment had to begin at the house of God (1 Peter 4: 17). The life he had led under the monastic rule had fitted him for the great contest. So zealously did he withstand the disorders and abuses of his times, that we may attribute to him, at least in great measure, the ardent faith of the two centuries which followed the scandals of the 10th. The Church ranks him among Her Doctors, on account of his admirable writings; and his penitential life ought to excite us to be fervent in the work we have in hand, the work of our conversion.
The following lessons, read by the Church on this Feast, give us the details of the Saint's life:
St. Peter was born at Ravenna, of respectable parents. His mother, wearied with the care of a large family, abandoned him when an infant; but one of her female servants found him half dead, and took care of him, until such time as the mother, repenting of her unnatural conduct, consented to treat him as her child. After the death of his parents, one of his brothers, a most harsh man, took him as a servant, or more truly as his slave. It was about this period of his life that he performed an action, which evinced his virtue and his filial piety. He happened to find a sum of money: but instead of using it for his own wants, he gave it to a priest, begging him to offer up the holy sacrifice for the repose of his father's soul. Another of his brothers, called Damian (after whom, it is said, he was named), received him kindly and had him educated; and so rapid and so great was the progress he made in his studies, that he was the admiration of his masters. He became so proficient in the liberal sciences, that he was made to teach them in the public schools, which he did with great success. During all this time, it was his study to bring his body into subjection to the spirit; and to this end, he wore a hair-shirt under an outwardly comfortable dress, and practiced frequent fasting, watching and prayer. Being in the very ardor of youth, and being cruelly buffeted by the sting of the flesh, he would go during the night and plunge himself into a frozen pool of water, that he might quench the impure flame which tormented him; or he would make pilgrimages to holy sanctuaries, and recite the entire psalter. His charities to the poor were unceasing, and when he provided them with a meal, which he did frequently, he would wait upon them himself.
Out of a desire to lead a still more perfect life, he became a Religious in the monastery of Avellino, in the diocese of Gubbio, of the Order of the Monks of the Holy Cross of Fontavellana, which was founded by the Blessed Ludolphus, a disciple of St. Romuald. Being sent by his Abbot, not very long after, first to the Monastery of Pomposia, and then to that of St. Vincent of Pietra-Pertusa, he edified both houses by his preaching, admirable teaching, and holy life. At the death of the Abbot of Avellino, he was recalled to that monastery, and was made its superior. The institute so benefited by his government, not only by the new monasteries which he founded in several places, but also by the very saintly regulations he drew up, that he was justly looked upon as the second founder of the Order, and its brightest ornament. Houses of other Orders, canons, and entire congregations of the faithful, were benefited by St. Peter's enlightened zeal. He was a benefactor, in more ways than one, to the diocese of Urbino: he aided the Bishop Theuzo in a most important case, and assisted him, both by advice and work, in the right administration of his diocese. His spirit of holy contemplation, his corporal austerities, and the saintly tenor of his whole conduct, gained for him so high a reputation, that Pope Stephen IX, in spite of St. Peter's extreme reluctance, created him Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church and Bishop of Ostia. The Saint proved himself worthy of these honors by the exercise of the most eminent virtues, and by the faithful discharge of his episcopal office.
It would be impossible to describe the services he rendered to the Cburch and the sovereign Pontiffs, during those most trying times, by his learning, his prudence as legate, and his untiring zeal. His life was one continued struggle against simony and the heresy of the Nicolaites [who denied priestly celibacy]. He purged the Church of Milan of these disorders, and brought her into subjection to the Holy See. He courageously resisted the anti-popes Benedict and Cadalous. He deterred Henry IV, King of Germany, from an unjust divorce of his wife. He restored the people of Ravenna to their allegiance to the Roman Pontiff, and absolved them from interdict. He reformed the abuses which had crept in among the canons of Velletri. There was scarcely a single cathedral church in the Province of Urbino that did not experience the beneficial effects of St. Peter's holy zeal: thus, that of Gubbio, which was for some time under his care, was relieved of many evils; and other churches, that needed his help, found him as earnest for their welfare as though he were their own Bishop. When he obtained permission to resign his dignity as Cardinal and his bishopric, he relented nothing of his former charity, but was equally ready in doing good to all. He was instrumental in propagating many devout practices; among these may be mentioned: fasting on Fridays in honor of the Holy Cross, the reciting of the Little Office of Our Lady, the keeping of Saturday as a day especially devoted to Mary, the taking of the discipline in expiation of past sins. At length, after a life which had edified the world by holiness, learning, mircles, and glorious works, on his return from Ravenna, whither he had been sent as legate, he fell asleep in Christ, on the eighth of the Calends of March (February 22), at Faenza. His relics, which are kept in the Cistercian church of that town, are devoutly honored by the faithful, and many miracles are wrought at the holy shrine. The inhabitants of Faenza have chosen him as the Patron of their city, having several times experienced his protection when threatened by danger. His Mass and Office, which were kept under the rite of Confessor and Bishop, had been long observed in several dioceses, and by the Camaldolese Order; but they were extended to the whole Church by a decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, which was approved by Pope Leo XII, who also added to the name of the Saint the title of Doctor.
Thy soul was inflamed for the zeal of God's house, O Holy Peter! God gave thee to His Church in those sad times when the wickedness of the world had robbed Her of well-nigh all Her beauty. Thou hadst the spirit of an Elias within thee, and it gave thee courage to waken the servants of the Lord. Thou wast not only an apostle, thou wast moreover a model, of penance in the midst of a corrupt age; pray for us, that we may be eager to atone for our sins by works of mortification. Excite within our souls the remembrance of the sufferings of our Redeemer, that so His Passion may urge us to repentance and hope. Increase our confidence in Mary, the Refuge of Sinners, and make us, like thyself, full of filial affection towards Her, and of zeal so that She may be honored and loved by those who are around us.
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