|St. Peter Damian: feast day, Feb. 23|
At first blush, it may not seem that St. Peter Damian (d. 1072) is a good match for our troubled times. He knew real suffering as a boy and then voluntarily imposed severe penances on himself throughout his life, even after being created Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church. Much of his reforming work--visitations, embassies, and the like--was carried out under a holy and reform-minded Pope (Bl. Stephen IX). But even apart from his theological works (for which Leo XII bestowed on him the title of Doctor of the Church in 1823), which are profitable reading in any age, St. Peter's great treatise on clerical corruption (eventually styled Liber Gomorrhianus, The Book of Gomorrah), actually a lengthy epistle, is both shocking and comforting for those today who love the Church.
It seems shocking--to all except the very jaded, I suppose--because it's not our first thought regarding the Church of old, especially in the "Age of Faith," i.e., that it was riddled with cynical simoniacs and plagued by the unnatural vice, even in monasteries in the heart of Italy. Nevertheless, such was the case. St. Peter's book, though, is at the same time a consolation: mainly because the Saint shines forth as a lion of courage and resolve, unflinching in his indictment of the guilty and unapologetic in reviving the ancient canons (and enforcing them) against such wayward souls. For instance, he cites St. Fructuosus (d. 665) and his sanctions for monks or clerics guilty of simply "pestering" youngsters of the same sex:
"A cleric or monk who persecutes adolescents or children--or who is caught in a kiss or other occasion of indecency--should be publicly beaten and lose his tonsure .... his face is to be smeared with spittle, and he is to be bound in iron chains, worn down with six months of imprisonment, and three days every week to fast on barley bread until sundown. After this ... separated in his room for another six months ... he should be intent upon the works of his hands and prayers, and he should always walk under the guard of two spiritual brothers ...."(This passage is taken, p. 119, from the fine translation of Matthew C. Hoffman in the recent edition of the Liber published by Ite ad Thomam Books and Media, a project of the "Ite ad Thomam" website [www.iteadthomam.com], an excellent resource, by the way, for St. Thomas and his Commentators. Very highly recommended.)
Keep in mind that the Saint is appealing to a discipline that was about 400 years old at that point. It would be the equivalent of insisting nowadays on a revival of the disciplinary canons of Trent, with the obvious difference that we no longer live in Christendom, which St. Peter most certainly did, even if it was a Christendom that seemed on the verge of expiring.
Finally, to those erstwhile critics of St. Peter Damian, who maintain that he was too harsh or too uncompromising, we have to point out that over the next fifty or so years after his death, the twin evils of simony and sodomy were all but eliminated in the heart of Christendom. Without a St. Peter Damian and the great reforming Popes of the eleventh century, it is hard to believe that there would ever have been a "Thirteenth and Greatest of Centuries." Now, in the twenty-first, his protection and prayers seem to be needed more than ever, especially by those of us who are not so selfless and courageous as he was.