Updated: Feb 23, 2021
“It is not sinners, but the wicked who should despair; it is not the magnitude of one’s crime, but contempt of God that dashes one’s hopes.”
Bishop, confessor and Doctor of the Church
Saint Peter Damian was born around 988 AD in Ravenna (Northern Italy) into a very large noble family. Tragedy struck in his life early and found himself as an orphan as a young child. One of his older brother's adopted him but treated him terribly. He was often treated more as a slave than a brother and was forced to tend to the swineherds for days at a time. Another older brother of his, Damianus (who was serving as archpriest at Ravenna) heard of the way he had been treated and took him into his household to treat him as a son. It was during this time Saint Peter added Damian to his name to honor this older brother who loved him so.
He quickly became very educated under Damianus, first studying theology and canon law at Ravenna, then at Faenza and finally graduating at the University of Parma. He was well known by this time as a great professor and teacher. Saint Peter began fasting, long nights of prayer and wearing a hairshirt to rid himself of the enticements of worldly pleasure. He began inviting poor peoples from the town to dine with him and began giving away alms in large amounts. This religious devotion drove him to embrace a total monastic life. He entered the isolated hermitage of Fonte Avellana around 1035. His strict prayer regimes and extreme self mortifications took their toll on his body and he soon began to suffer from severe insomnia.
Around 1042, Saint Peter was named economus (manager) of the house by the prior and designated his successor. Because of the extreme reluctance Saint Peter had to take upon the role of prior, his superior explained to him that it would be a matter of obedience. He would become the prior of Fonte Avellana in 1043. He quickly introduced much more severe discipline to the house set out to create many reforms. He founded subject-hermitages at San Severino, Gamogna, Accereta, Murciana, San Salvatore, Sitria and Ocri.
When Pope Benedict IX resigned the pontificate in 1045, Saint Peter wrote to the new Pope (Gregory VI) urging him to deal with the many scandals of the Church in Italy. Saint Peter set out to reform the church during a very scandalous and difficult time. He entered into communication with Emperor Henry III and was present in Rome when Pope Clement II crowned him Emperor. He also attended the synod in 1047 that passed decrees against simony. Returning home from the synod, he began writing several letters on theological and disciplinary controversies. During this time, Pope Benedict XVI described Saint Peter as:
"one of the most significant figures of the 11th century, ... a lover of solitude and at the same time a fearless man of the Church, committed personally to the task of reform."
On November 30th, 1057, Pope Stephen IX consecrated Saint Peter as Cardinal Bishop of Osita after a long period of convincing and urging. He immediately wrote a letter to his fellow cardinals, urging them to be an example to the world in their actions and interactions with laity. Just two years later, in 1059, the new Pope Nicholas II asked Saint Peter and the Bishop of Lucca to travel to Milan as Papal legates. The situation with clergy in Milan was terrible - benefices were being openly bought and sold and clergy were marrying women they were living with. Saint Peter overcame the objections of the local clergy (who had argued that Milan did not have to submit to Rome) and confronted the rioters in the cathedral. He spoke boldy and with confidence. The archbishop and his clergy submitted. Saint Peter had them swear an oath to no longer sell preferments, imposed penances and reinstated in their benefices all who undertook celibacy.
Over the next few years he served as legate in a dispute between the Abbey of Cluny and the Bishop of Macon, summoned a council at Chalon-sur-Saone, and travelled to Florence to settle a dispute between the Bishop and local monks. He asked for and was granted his resignation of his bishopric in 1067 and retired for two years at Fonte Avellana. In 1069, at the Pope's request, he travelled to Germany and persuaded emperor Henry IV not to divorce his wife. The next few years he spent peacefully in retirement until 1072 when he travelled to Ravenna to help reconcile excommunicated laity with the Holy See. On his return trip he was gripped with a terrible fever. At the monastery of Santa Maria degl'Angeli (now Santa Maria Vecchia) he ordered the office of the feast to be recited during the night before the feast of the Chair of Saint Peter. At the end of Lauds , on February 22, 1072, he died and was buried at the monastery church.
Saint Peter Damian was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XII in 1828. His feast day is celebrated on February 21st (Originally February 23rd but was moved during the 1969 revision) Over 170 letters have been preserved, 53 sermons and seven biographies he wrote. Among his most important writings are:
De Divina Omnipotentia - a letter describing the power of God
Dominus vobiscum - a short treatise on the life of a Monk
Life of Romauld and The Eremitical Order - writings that demonstrate solitude and ascetisism as ideals
Liber Gomorrhianus - treaty about the insiders of the Catholic Church
De Instiutione monialis - an attempt to safeguard the Western church from the decadent uses of the East at the time
Liber Gratissimus - a letter against simony