Feast Day: February 21st
Alas, it is shameful to speak of it! It is shameful to relate such a disgusting scandal to sacred ears! But if the doctor fears the virus of the plague, who will apply the cauterization? If he is nauseated by those whom he is to cure, who will lead sick souls back to the state of health?– St. Peter Damian, Liber Gomorrhianus, ~1051 AD, to Pope St. Leo IX
Sometimes it is helpful to look back and realize that a prior age was worse than our own. It pulls us out of the worries and concerns that grab at our own attention, and reminds us that “it’s been worse”, and we can probably make it through things this time around as well. Such was the case of the Church in the 11th century. One tale tells enough: in 1032, Theophylactus of Tusculum – the nephew of Pope Benedict VIII and Pope John XIX, and a grandnephew of Pope John XII – ascended to the throne of St. Peter after his dad gave a sufficient bribe to the Roman populace. He was 20 years old. Don’t get me wrong, I hold nothing against 20-somethings, I am currently one myself, but they’re usually not ready to govern the universal Church, and the newly minted, Pope Benedict IX would prove that point.
Later popes would decry his “unspeakable acts of violence and sodomy.” Historians from then till now would call his papacy a disgrace, and one vividly compares him to a demon sitting on St. Peter’s chair. He was driven out of Rome in 1036, but fought his way back into the city, only to be thrown out again in 1044, with Pope Sylvester III chosen to replace him. Benedict brings armies to bear against Sylvester, expelling him from the city, seizing the papal tiara again for himself. But the story just gets worse: he then chooses to marry his cousin – which apparently was more inimical to being pope than his many prior sins – so he sells the papacy to Fr. John Gratian (his poor godfather), who becomes Pope Gregory VI.
It is at this point in this whole sordid tale that our saint this week enters the scene. The Benedictine monk, Peter Damian, had grown up poor in Ravenna, through many twists and turns became a remarkable professor of theology only to give it up for the life of a hermit, at which point he began to take upon himself legendary penances and began to write the passionate letters calling for reform that he would be known for. The Lord was at work in this feisty monk’s heart, and he became widely known for his holiness, and was eventually pressed by his fellow monks to lead, and reform, their monastery. He writes to the new Pope Gregory VI, exhorting him to work on reforming the Church, in particular the rampant immorality within the priesthood, which had been so especially evident in his papal predecessor.
Gregory, as it would happen, did not have the chance. Benedict IX changed his mind, wanted the papacy back, and fights his way onto the throne again, leaving Gregory VI ousted along with Sylvester III. Notice we now have three men claiming to be pope. Archdeacon Peter calls for a council, and beseeches the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry III, to intervene. The German emperor crosses the alps, takes control of the city (which, to summarize, now had 3 men claiming to be pope, holding positions at St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major, and sending whatever gang of nobles/armies had sided with them, to fight each other in the streets of Rome…), and convenes a council at Sutri. Gregory humbly admits he only got the papacy because he told Benedict that he would pay him (though he didn’t), and agrees to resign. Sylvester also came to the council, and is strong-armed into forgoing his claim to be pope. Benedict, as we might expect, didn’t come, and didn’t resign, but was dismissed from the papacy as well and Emperor Henry asked the Archbishop of Bamberg to become pope, taking the title Clement II.
Clement, though, died a few months later – poisoned, whether purposefully or unintentionally – and, don’t you know, Benedict IX shows up, and claims to be pope again. Henry decides a certain Bp. Poppo should become pope, forcibly places him on the papal throne as Pope Damasus II, but this latest Pope dies even more quickly, just 23 days later. Thankfully, nobody was about to back Benedict again, so Damasus was followed by a legitimate, capable, and holy man, Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg, the Pope Saint Leo IX who received Peter Damian’s letter where we began this article. Leo would agree with the fiery monk, and work to reinforce clerical celibacy, outlaw simony as means to Church offices, dispel heresies, and reform monastic life. Leo wasn’t perfect, but he was a saint in the middle of a sinful time.
St. Peter Damian was the same: a saint living in a world of sin. As much as we wish such sins would never happen, he wouldn’t have been the saint he was without fighting to stay true to the Lord through it all, and miraculously, Jesus could bring great saints out of such horrible times.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin prays that he would have only a bit of the courage and fidelity of St. Peter Damian (though he also prays that he would never have to face such despicable days.)