“Glory of the Preachers”: St. Peter of Verona

At the heart of every religion worth its salt lies the problem of evil. The intractable issue of pain, disorder, suffering, and moral turpitude manifests itself infallibly in every genuine human spiritual longing. This problem is compounded in the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. How can an omnipotent and omniscient God—creator of both immaterial and material things—coexist with such deficiency? Of course these religions have elaborated convincing and systematic metaphysical systems to explain the reality of evil or, to speak properly, the privation of a due good. Yet such explanations are exceptionally complicated, and sometimes their deeply philosophical theodicies seem to do injury to our common sense. Yet these three religions have stubbornly held to this seeming paradox.

Other attempts to answer the question have opted for a far simpler path. Some contemporary currents of facile theology valorize evil by attacking either God’s omnipotence, omniscience, or both. Heretics in the past had greater piety. One of the most common errors of human religious history has been dualism. Seeking to protect the honor of the good god, this variety appealed to a secondary creator: another Principle responsible for disorder, chaos, and sin. Most often this took the form of anti-materialism, proposing an evil god who was the creator of the tangible world. It had a simple equation. Good things like spirits and souls came from the good god. Evil things came from the evil god, like bodies and matter. In a pre-Disney, pre-antibiotic, and pre-air conditioning world, this was not an entirely implausible conclusion. Nature was no sweet innocent being abused by the terrible humans. It was a malevolent force that wanted to give you horrible diseases, kill all your children, and deprive you of your livelihood.

Such was the religious answer of the Gnostics, who could not take a god who could be born, die, and be bodily raised. This was the explanation that so entranced St. Augustine for 9 years. It was also the solution arrived at (probably independently of the above movements) in Europe in the 1100s. A series of disparate groups variously called Cathars, Albigensians, or a host of other names arose to put forth this deceptively simple and resilient idea yet again. It was into such a sect that a boy named Peter was born around 1203, in the city of Verona, then known as an epicenter of the most rigorous forms of dualism.

Cathars in the Middle Ages felt great pressures to conform to the dominant Church, so young Peter was sent to the communal school. There he received a Catholic education, to the grave irritation of his uncle—a committed dualist. Like all medieval schoolchildren he learned his basic prayers. The one that affected him the most was the Apostles’ Creed. The young boy of seven was struck with its majestic opening, hitting him like a powerful chord that dissolved the dissonance of his upbringing. “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth….” His uncle, taking him home, began to upbraid the boy, but the pious lad stuck to the creed like a mantra. Christian doctrine had caused the dualist facade to crumble.

For it was the Incarnation, that unexpected and marvelous Christian riposte to dualism, that underlined that ancient Jewish teaching of God the creator of all things. The world was good, but it went further than that. Indeed, it was hallowed and sanctified by the coming of the Son of God in the flesh. The Incarnation was the marriage between God and Man. In his earthly life, Christ had used material things to establish the channels of His grace. Salvation would not come by means of the esoteric doctrines passed from ear to ear that were so valued by the Gnostics. Christ came in the body to save bodies. In the gospels, particularly that of John (considered to be of the “highest” Christology), one sees the intimate relation Christ has with the material world. He uses water, wine, bread, fish, and oil. He touches and is touched, controls the weather, weeps, eats and sleeps. He is physically born, physically dies, and physically is resurrected. Christianity is immersed in the world of things. Without materiality and bodies there is no salvation.

The young boy mused on such thoughts as he matured both in spiritual depth and in intelligence. An exceptionally bright student, his father sent him for higher studies at the University of Bologna around 1218. It was that year that the Order of Preachers, especially in the person of St. Dominic himself, which descended on the school, creating an atmosphere of spiritual expectation and revival. Peter was swept up by the words and example of Dominic, making his religious profession around 1220. (It is satisfying to note that then, as today, much good still takes place at universities). He was that rarest of birds in the Middle Ages, a religious convert.

Peter quickly became recognized for his wisdom, maturity, and charity. He became renowned for his skill at preaching—that hallmark characteristic of the Dominican order. It is difficult for us today, in a world of brief, contentless homilies and sound bites, how profoundly influential preaching was in the Middle Ages. Often held apart from Mass, sometimes in fields, fiery preachers would command the attention of rapt audiences for hours. They would travel from town to town, bringing with them news and teaching, with words of comfort and conviction. Sermons were the mass media of the medieval world. Imagine TV, the Internet, phones, newspapers, and public entertainment all wrapped up into one event, and one begins to understand the import of good preachers at that time. Furthermore, up to that time preaching had an uneven history. This was for two reasons. The first was juridical. The office of preacher was often identified with that of the bishop, limiting the purview of possible candidates. Second, priests were often ill-trained, knowing by rote how to perform the Christian mysteries, but lacking the theological sophistication necessary for proper proclamation of the Christian faith. The coming of medieval heresy changed all that.

With the advent of the Cathars and Waldensians (a group more orthodox, but equally critical of the Church) in the 1100s the Church was faced with a terrible problem. Here were men living apparently evangelical lives of poverty and simplicity, but at the same time propounding heretical doctrines that had some resonance among the laity. Relatively immune from the threat of heresy for over half a millennium, the Church had few resources to fall back on. This changed when Bishop Diego and his subprior Dominic left their revenues and retinues to travel the back roads of Provence. They matched the heretics in their manner of life, and bested them in doctrinal debate. After approval by the pope of this novel form of life, the Order of Friars Preachers was born. In Dominic’s vision, his brothers would be unparalleled in both education and holiness: the key recipe for the defeat of heresy and the salvation of souls.

Peter fully partook of this new movement of evangelization, and dedicated his life to turning his former coreligionists back to the path of salvation. Everything in his life was focused on this zeal for souls. His preaching reached hundreds of thousands, and he became one of the most renowned homilists in an age known for powerful sermons. He was faithful in his sacramental ministrations, he did not disdain either positions of service or of responsibility. He fulfilled the intellectual side of his faith by authoring a Summa contra Hereticos. Peter was known for his tenderness as a confessor, as an influential friend of both male and female religious, and as a tireless peacemaker, reconciling families and cities. His Marian devotion led to the establishment of many confraternities, some of which still exist. And yet today he is primarily known by one salient fact: that he was one of the first Papal Inquisitors.

It is certain that Peter was tireless in his struggle against heretics. This was for one simple reason, self evident to medievals, but difficult to follow for most today. Willful heretics were going to hell. This was bad enough for the Church charged with their salvation but, in addition, they sowed their errors among the faithful, endangering the souls of others in the process. In addition, the Church had a lively faith in God’s action at Baptism. In that sacrament a person was joined to God and became a son of the Church. It was no mere voluntary human wish to become part of an earthly community. It was the action of grace on a soul, conforming the person to Christ and making him an adopted Son of God. With that act a person’s soul became the responsibility of the Church, to tend, to mature, to sanctify and, like any good parent, to chastise if one went down the wrong path.

It is the fashion today to claim that the Church established inquisitions—for there was no monolithic “Inquisition” in the Middle Ages—in order to gain power and dominion. While the existence of sin certainly permitted abuses of those institutions, the Church primarily instituted them for reconciliation, penance, and salvation. It was with this attitude that Dominic disputed with heretics, and that his spiritual son Peter continued his work “armed with doctrine and a zealous will, with apostolic sanction, he burst forth—a mighty torrent gushing from on high; sending its crushing force against the barren thickets of heresy” (Dante, Paradiso XII).

Peter’s weapons in this war were fundamentally spiritual: preaching, disputation, Marian devotion, and peacemaking. In addition he used the legal apparatus then coming into being, coupled with the sensitivity of a confessor. His success was astonishing. Thousands were turned from the heresy by his preaching, and many of the leaders of the sects were converted. Within ten years of his death Catharism in Italy was a spent force. Such success bred resentment.

In 1252 a conspiracy was hatched to kill Peter, who had only formally been a papal inquisitor for nine months. The Cathars hired assassins who fell upon the Dominican in the forests north of Milan. He was killed with repeated machete strikes (leading to his traditional depiction as a Friar Preacher with an axe in his head). He is consistently depicted in art, during the act of his martyrdom, writing the word “credo” with his own blood. It is clear from the testimony of two eyewitnesses that he began to say the creed as his last words. Just as his uncle had not let him finish when he was seven, so did the assassin’s sword cut him off again. His life was then bracketed by that most significant doctrine “I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth….”

Peter’s death was sensational. The whole town of Milan turned out to receive his body and nearly all European chronicles recorded his death. Miracles by the dozens began to abound at his bier and later at his tomb. It was the people of Milan who petitioned the pope to canonize their beloved preacher. Within eleven months—but after a full investigation—Peter was enrolled in the number of the saints. It was the fastest canonization in papal history. All recognized his holiness, and the particularity of his situation impressed the medieval world. He had attained an honor borne by only a handful of saints in Christian history: the “Triple Crown.” For he was a virgin, a martyr for Christ, and a doctor of the Christian faith, the three acts which merited one a special distinction in heaven. In the entirety of the Christian past only a few could even be considered to warrant such a title, a group which included St. John the Baptist, St. Paul, and St. Catherine of Alexandria. It was to be a hallmark of his cult.

For 700 years Peter’s name was on the universal calendar. He was the protomartyr of the Friars Preachers and, indeed, the prototypical Dominican: “Dominic’s perfect follower” as early homilists called him. Peter recalls to us today the cardinal rule that holiness and wisdom should be united, for the fruits they produce together are astonishing. When bound together with a zeal for souls, the two change hearts as no other force in the world. Peter reminds us that sanctity and intelligence are complementary, not inimical forces. The “Martyred Inquisitor” today evokes not outdated institutions or methods, but rather the burning heart of charity lodged in an evangelist’s breast, who bent all his efforts towards contemplation and action with an untiring and unwavering thirst for souls. Saint Peter, who has won the triple crown of virginity, scholarship, and martyrdom, pray for us. (From a litany of St. Peter of Verona, 1923).

Donald S. Prudlo

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Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Assistant Professor of Theology and Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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