|Walking the path of holiness
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 9
September , in the Paul VI Audience Hall the Holy Father spoke
about St Peter Damian, an accomplished writer and Latinist in the 11th
century. The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which
was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During the Catecheses of these Wednesdays I am
commenting on several important people in the life of the Church from
her origins. Today I would like to reflect on one of the most
significant figures of the 11th century, St Peter Damian, a monk, a
lover of solitude and at the same time a fearless man of the Church,
committed personally to the task of reform, initiated by the Popes of
He was born in Ravenna in 1007, into a noble family but
in straitened circumstances. He was left an orphan and his childhood was
not exempt from hardships and suffering, although his sister Roselinda
tried to be a mother to him and his elder brother, Damian, adopted him
as his son. For this very reason he was to be called Piero di Damiano,
Pier Damiani [Peter of Damian, Peter Damian].
He was educated first at Faenza and then at Parma where,
already at the age of 25, we find him involved in teaching. As well as a
good grounding in the field of law, he acquired a refined expertise in
the art of writing
the ars scribendi
and, thanks to his knowledge of the great Latin classics, became "one of
the most accomplished Latinists of his time, one of the greatest writers
of medieval Latin" (J. Leclercq, Pierre Damien, ermite et homme d'Église,
Rome, 1960, p. 172).
He distinguished himself in the widest range of literary
forms: from letters to sermons, from hagiographies to prayers, from
poems to epigrams. His sensitivity to beauty led him to poetic
contemplation of the world. Peter Damian conceived of the universe as a
never-ending "parable" and a sequence of symbols on which to base the
interpretation of inner life and divine and supra-natural reality.
In this perspective, in about the year 1034,
contemplation of the absolute of God impelled him gradually to detach
himself from the world and from its transient realties and to withdraw
to the Monastery of Fonte Avellana. It had been founded only a few
decades earlier but was already celebrated for its austerity. For the
monks' edification he wrote the Life of the Founder, St Romuald
of Ravenna, and at the same time strove to deepen their spirituality,
expounding on his ideal of eremitic monasticism.
One detail should be immediately emphasized: 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,
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.
This great monk compiled a Rule for eremitical life in
which he heavily stressed the "rigour of the hermit": in the silence of
the cloister the monk is called to spend a life of prayer, by day and by
night, with prolonged and strict fasting; he must put into practice
generous brotherly charity in ever prompt and willing obedience to the
In study and in the daily meditation of Sacred
Scripture, Peter Damian discovered the mystical meaning of the word of
God, finding in it nourishment for his spiritual life. In this regard he
described the hermit's cell as the "parlour in which God converses with
men". For him, living as a hermit was the peak of Christian existence,
"the loftiest of the states of life" because the monk, now free from the
bonds of worldly life and of his own self, receives "a dowry from the
Holy Spirit and his happy soul is united with its heavenly Spouse" (Ep
18, 17; cf. Ep 28, 43 ff.).
This is important for us today too, even though we are
not monks: to know how to make silence within us to listen to God's
voice, to seek, as it were, a "parlour" in which God speaks with us:
learning the word of God in prayer and in meditation is the path to
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 baptized. 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
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.
Because of his love for monastic life, 10 years later,
in 1067, he obtained permission to return to Fonte Avellana and resigned
from the Diocese of Ostia. However, the tranquillity he had longed for
did not last long: two years later, he was sent to Frankfurt in an
endeavour to prevent the divorce of Henry IV from his wife Bertha. And
again, two years later, in 1071, he went to Monte Cassino for the
consecration of the abbey church and at the beginning of 1072, to
Ravenna, to re-establish peace with the local Archbishop who had
supported the antipope bringing interdiction upon the city.
On the journey home to his hermitage, an unexpected
illness obliged him to stop at the Benedictine Monastery of Santa Maria
Vecchia Fuori Porta in Faenza, where he died in the night between 22 and
23 February 1072.
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.