This week brings the feast of St Peter Damian (d February 22, 1072 or 1073), Doctor of the Church (February 23 in the traditional calendar, the 21st in the Ordinary Form – so as to make way for the feast of the Cathedra of Peter on the 22nd).
Peter Damian was a monk, a cardinal and, to start out, an orphan. He was a great reformer of monastic and clerical life, preceding Francis of Assisi and Gregory VII, a brilliant Latinist, a deep theologian, and an astute diplomat in turbulent times.
We have quite a large body of his writings, including theological treatises, sermons and liturgical texts. It is he who composed the Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was included in many Catholic prayer books down to our own day. So great was his influence that Dante, in his Paradiso, placed him very high in the Seventh Heaven’s silent Sphere of Saturn. It is unpopular today to mention one of his hardest-hitting works, his Liber Gomorrhianus, which blasts homosexuality and pederasty among the clergy.
Speaking of Peters in Dante, don’t confuse Peter Damian with the other Peters in the Divine Comedy, such as the theologian Peter Lombard, and Peter Comestor (“Peter the Eater”) who had an insatiable appetite for books while in this vale of tears. There is also Peter the Comb-Seller, Peter of Spain (aka Pope John XXI, killed in Viterbo in 1277 when a ceiling collapsed in the papal palace), Peter III of Aragon (in the Ante-Purgatory) and, of course, St Peter the Apostle. Now we must move on before my column inches peter out.
In Paradiso XXI, Peter relates how he was dragged from his happy monastic life to become a cardinal. The great ascetic and contemplative lambasts the papacy and, indeed, all clergy. Popes were once good, he quips, and (please pardon the prose):
St Peter, Cephas, came, and St Paul, the great vessel of the Holy Spirit, lean and unshod, taking their food from any place. Now the modern shepherds have to be buttressed on both sides, and have someone to lead them, they are so fat and heavy, and someone to support them from behind. They cover their ponies with cloaks, so that two creatures go under one hide: O patience that endures so much!
A “no” vote from Peter for the cappa magna? That just goes to show that saints aren’t always right.