|The Madonna and Child with Ss Anne, Elizabeth, Augustine and Peter Damian, by Ercole Roberti, 1479-81. Executed for the church of Santa Maria in Porto outside Ravenna, now in the Brera Gallery in Milan.|
The revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints describes Peter Damian very well as “one of those stern figures who seem specially raised up, like St John the Baptist, to recall men in a lax age from the error of their ways and to bring them back into the narrow path of virtue.” He was born in the early years of the 11th century, an age in which the Church in Western Europe lay very low indeed. Lay control of ecclesiastical offices and the attendant vice of simony were rampant, and the discipline of clerical celibacy was widely ignored; the years of his youth also saw the appalling spectacle of Pope Benedict IX, whom St Robert Bellarmine called “the nadir” of the Papacy. It is perhaps difficult to for us even imagine the history of this man, who was temporarily driven off the Papal throne by violence for his personal immorality, reinstated, then sold the Papacy (see note below), attempted to take it back, and was deposed again by the Holy Roman Emperor.
However, even the darkest days of the Church’s history are not without their Saints. As France gave the Church the abbey of Cluny, which was ruled by six Saints in a row over a 190 year period, to pave the way for reform, Italy saw a new flourishing of strict and reform-minded monastic orders in the 11th century, led by St Romuald, the founder of the Camaldoese Order, and St John Gualbert, the founder of the Vallombrosians. It was among these communities that Peter Damian was formed as a religious, and was called to serve as abbot of an important Camaldolese house at Fonte Avellana.
It is often darkest before the dawn; after the deposition of Benedict IX and the extremely brief (24 day) reign of Damasus II, the Papal throne was occupied by Leo IX (1049-54), an active and enthusiastic reformer, now canonized as a Saint. From this time, the reform party within the Church was very much in the ascendant, with St Peter Damian as one of its most powerful leaders and spokesmen. In 1057, Pope Stephen IX made him the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia, to which office it then belonged to crown the Pope, but he was later released from this position at his own request by Pope Alexander II. He continued to serve as a Papal legate and ambassador, and to write a great deal in exhortation to the clergy at all levels to a stricter and more disciplined life. Two particularly famous example of his severity are his rebuke to the canons of Besançon in France for sitting down during the Office (!), although he was willing to allow this during the lessons of Matins, and to the bishop of Florence for playing a game of chess.
|King Otto IV of Brandenburg indulges in frivolity. (From the Codex Manesse, 1305-13; public domain image from Wikipedia)|
In his large body of writings, three of his letters were regarded as especially important treatises for the reformers of the age, and circulated widely as “books.” The “Liber gratissimus” treats of the problem of simony, which he condemns in the harshest possible terms. (“Judas sold the Lord, … but soon thereafter cast away the price of blood… you, on the other hand, … keep the profit from the sacrilege you commit.”) The “Liber gomorrhianus” treats of the worst aspects of sexual immorality among the clergy. The third is known by the odd title “Liber ‘Dominus vobiscum’ ”, and is of particular interest in the field of liturgical history.
It was addressed to a monk and hermit named Leo, who had written to St Peter to inquire whether he ought to say “The Lord be with you” and “Pray, lord, give the blessing” when saying the Divine Office alone in his cell. St Peter’s answer is argued at length and with great thoroughness, but what it really boils down to is “the liturgy is not about you.” Since it is the public prayer of the Church, which is made of many members and yet One in the Holy Spirit, the liturgy may rightly speak in the singular in choir (he cites Psalms such as “Incline to me Thy ear, o Lord” and “I will bless the Lord at all times”), and in the plural when celebrated by only one. He also notes, perhaps more persuasively, that a very large part of the Divine Office is said in the plural, invitatories such as “Come, let us worship the Lord”, hymns such as “Rising in the night let us all keep watch” etc.; so much, in fact, that to switch it to the singular in private prayer would mean to either omit most of it or mutilate it.
(footnote: It should be noted that the man who bought the Papacy from Benedict IX was his godfather, an archpriest named John Gratian, who did so for the worthiest of motives, namely, to get Benedict out of the way; as Pope he was called Gregory VI. Although he was deposed for this act of simony, he was held in such high regard that almost 30 years, later, when St Gregory VII was elected, certainly no laxist in matters of church discipline, he chose his Papal name in John Gratian’s honor.)