Thought for the Day – 21 February – the Memorial of St Peter Damian OSB (1007-1072) Doctor of the Church
Excerpt from Pope Benedict’s Catechesis on St Peter Damian
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
One detail should be immediately emphasised – the Hermitage at Fonte Avellana was dedicated to the Holy Cross and the Cross was the Christian mystery that was to fascinate Peter Damian more than all the others. “Those who do not love the Cross of Christ do not love Christ”, he said (Sermo XVIII, 11, p. 117) and he described himself as “Petrus crucis Christi servorum famulus Peter, servant of the servants of the Cross of Christ” (Ep, 9, 1).
Peter Damian addressed the most beautiful prayers to the Cross in which he reveals a vision of this mystery which has cosmic dimensions for it embraces the entire history of salvation: “O Blessed Cross”, he exclaimed, “You are venerated, preached and honoured by the faith of the Patriarchs, the predictions of the Prophets, the senate that judges the Apostles, the victorious army of Martyrs and the throngs of all the Saints” (Sermo XLVII, 14, p. 304).
Dear Brothers and Sisters, may the example of St Peter Damian spur us too always to look to the Cross as to the supreme act God’s love for humankind of God, who has given us salvation.
St Peter Damian, who was essentially a man of prayer, meditation and contemplation, was also a fine theologian – his reflection on various doctrinal themes led him to important conclusions for life. Thus, for example, he expresses with clarity and liveliness the Trinitarian doctrine, already using, under the guidance of biblical and patristic texts, the three fundamental terms which were subsequently to become crucial also for the philosophy of the West – processio, relatio and persona (cf. Opusc. XXXVIII: PL CXLV, 633-642; and Opusc. II and III: ibid., 41 ff. and 58 ff).
However, because theological analysis of the mystery led him to contemplate the intimate life of God and the dialogue of ineffable love, between the three divine Persons, he drew ascetic conclusions from them for community life and even for relations between Latin and Greek Christians, divided on this topic. His meditation on the figure of Christ, is significantly reflected, in practical life, since the whole of Scripture is centred on Him.
The “Jews”, St Peter Damian notes, “through the pages of Sacred Scripture, bore Christ on their shoulders as it were” (Sermo XLVI, 15). Therefore Christ, he adds, must be the centre of the monk’s life: “May Christ be heard in our language, may Christ be seen in our life, may he be perceived in our hearts” (Sermo VIII, 5). Intimate union with Christ engages not only monks but all the baptised. Here we find a strong appeal for us too not to let ourselves be totally absorbed by the activities, problems and preoccupations of every day, forgetting that Jesus must truly be the centre of our life.
Communion with Christ creates among Christians a unity of love. In Letter 28, which is a brilliant ecclesiological treatise, Peter Damian develops a profound theology of the Church as communion. “Christ’s Church”, he writes, is united by the bond of charity to the point that just as she has many members so is she, mystically, entirely contained in a single member – in such a way that the whole universal Church is rightly called the one Bride of Christ in the singular, and each chosen soul, through the sacramental mystery, is considered fully Church”. This is important – not only that the whole universal Church should be united but that the Church should be present in her totality in each one of us. Thus the service of the individual becomes “an expression of universality” (Ep 28, 9-23).
However, the ideal image of “Holy Church” illustrated by Peter Damian does not correspond as he knew well to the reality of his time. For this reason he did not fear to denounce the state of corruption that existed in the monasteries and among the clergy, because, above all, of the practice of the conferral by the lay authorities of ecclesiastical offices; -various Bishops and Abbots were behaving as the rulers of their subjects rather than as pastors of souls. Their moral life frequently left much to be desired. For this reason, in 1057 Peter Damian left his monastery with great reluctance and sorrow and accepted, if unwillingly, his appointment as Cardinal Bishop of Ostia. So it was that he entered fully into collaboration with the Popes in the difficult task of Church reform. He saw that to make his own contribution of helping in the work of the Church’s renewal contemplation did not suffice. He thus relinquished the beauty of the hermitage and courageously undertook numerous journeys and missions.
Dear brothers and sisters, it is a great grace that the Lord should have raised up in the life of the Church a figure as exuberant, rich and complex as St Peter Damian. Moreover, it is rare to find theological works and spirituality as keen and vibrant as those of the Hermitage at Fonte Avellana.
St Peter Damian was a monk through and through, with forms of austerity which to us today might even seem excessive. Yet, in that way he made monastic life an eloquent testimony of God’s primacy and an appeal to all to walk towards holiness, free from any compromise with evil. He spent himself, with lucid consistency and great severity, for the reform of the Church of his time. He gave all his spiritual and physical energies to Christ and to the Church but always remained, as he liked to describe himself, Petrus ultimus monachorum servus, Peter, the lowliest servant of the monks.