‘May Christ be heard in our language, may Christ be seen in our life, may he be perceived in our hearts.’
It’s a struggle for some to discern their vocation. Many want to tell God what they are going to do. And then there is what God has in store for us. If St. Peter Damian (988-1073) would have had his way, he would have spent his days as a hermit, far removed from the cultural and political turmoil of his day, from the doctrinal illiteracy and corrupt clergy. Yet God called him out of his comfort zone and used his skills for the good of the Church.
Peter Damian’s total commitment to Christ made him ideal for a Church in desperate need of a reformer, and, in God’s providence, he brought many gifts to a Church in crisis. For his prophetic forthrightness and eminent virtue, the Italian poet Dante situated him among those closest to God in heaven in his Divine Comedy.
Although he excelled in school and had a promising life in store for him as a professor, Peter Damian abandoned it all in favor of the monastic life. In 1035, he took on a life of prayer and penance as a hermit. He embraced extreme penances, including wearing a hair shirt and practicing regular fasting. The nights spent in prayer and contemplation brought on insomnia, which took some time to overcome and demanded moderation in his habits. He was living in a fashion quite contrary to many of the clergy in his day, but in a way the Church needed its clergy to live.
After taking on studies in Scripture and the theology of the early Church Fathers, the other hermits of his monastery prevailed upon him to take up the office of abbot, which he accepted only out of obedience. Peter Damian’s adept leadership skills and qualities of personal holiness gained him a reputation, particularly in Rome. Various popes sought his support and counsel. He spoke out against Pope Gregory VI’s purchase of the papal office at the resignation of Pope Benedict IX. In the wake of that scandal, Peter Damian devoted great attention to reforming the manner in which popes were elected. After Leo IX was elected pope 1049, he employed Peter Damian’s talent to combat simony — the practice of buying and selling ecclesial goods or offices in the Church — a topic on which he had become quite outspoken.
Peter Damian contributed to reform in the areas of liturgy and religious life, but, perhaps more than anything else, he is remembered for his work to advance clergy reform. He argued against the luxurious and immoral lives to which clergy had become accustomed, proposing a return to apostolic simplicity of life as the cure. He published the “Book of Gomorrah,” in which he railed against the lax moral lives of clerics. He was primarily concerned about clerical sexual immorality, particularly outraged by homosexual practices. Peter Damian traced out the consequences of the corrupted clergy’s behavior: undermining the hierarchy’s authority with the possibility of provoking civil unrest given the laity’s outrage.
Ultimately, Peter Damian saw the most fruitful reform of the Church as rooted in a reform of the papacy. Leo IX heeded his saintly counsel and was the first pope to suggest the College of Cardinals alone elect a pope.
Pope Stephen IX named Peter Damian cardinal-bishop of Ostia, just outside of Rome. Subsequent popes called on his counsel and expertise on many occasions. After many fruitless requests to retire to the tranquility of his monastery, he was finally granted permission to return to the simple life of a hermit. He died on Feb. 22, 1073. Although never formally canonized, he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1828. His feast is Feb. 21.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana.