Post-classical history



For the next twenty years, Peter Morrone, now also known as Peter Maiella, slowly and deliberately built his brotherhood from a handful of hermits into dozens of communities with oratories all over central Italy. Beginning in 1244 or 1245, when he was thirty-four or thirty-five years old, until 1264 he blended a life of retreat from civilization with enough entrées into the world of influence to garner favors of land, stone, supplies, and protection for his growing order. We know almost nothing about Peter’s day-to-day existence when he was in his thirties and forties, except that the Hermits of Saint Damian continued to grow.

By 1264, when Peter was fifty-five, the bishop of Chieti was approached to approve the first rule of life for the hermits. Northeast of Rome, Chieti is a capital city as well as a province, which is part of Abruzzo. The city lies only one mile from the shores of the Adriatic, the Maiella mountains standing proudly on the other side. This bishop of Chieti, Niccolò of Fossa, was a cousin of Pope Innocent III and a nephew of Pope Gregory IX. He has gone down in history as a prime example of nepotism run amok in the medieval Italian Church. Nevertheless, he clearly knew Peter Maiella and admired his way of life.1 Once Niccolò put his stamp of approval on the Rule it was then sent to Pope Urban IV in Rome, who added his own approval as one of his last acts. Urban would die in Perugia on October 2, 1264.

Peter’s ambition was fully evident during this time. Had it not been, we would know almost nothing of him from history. There were hundreds of anonymous hermits living in the Apennines during the two generations that Peter’s life spanned. There had been hundreds before them dating back all the way to late antiquity. Few of these men founded new religious orders. Fewer still lobbied popes and cardinals for favors so that those orders might grow.

By the end of the 1260s, Peter was feeling the need for formal, papal approval for his order. Despite their early successes and support, the Hermits of Saint Damian were, like many fledgling monastic orders, operating outside of the jurisdiction of the Church. They were unprotected. Their privilege to exist, their approved status as an organ of the Church, and most tangibly their houses, churches, and other property could be revoked without notice unless they came under the oversight and protection of a cardinal or another ruler approved by Rome. Peter knew that he needed final, definitive protection and he began to ponder how to accomplish this.

On August 25, 1270, Charles I’s older brother, Louis IX, King of France, died (soon after he would be made a saint). The Eighth Crusade had been launched by Louis just months earlier, and Louis himself had led the crusaders toward Syria, attempting to free Christian outposts in Syria that had fallen into Muslim hands. They made it only as far as Tunis and there the elderly Louis, the most renowned and respected man in the world at the time, died. By October 30 of that year, the crusader positions in Tunis were abandoned as part of a truce with the sultan of Egypt. The crusading era seemed to be finally over, and the focus of both secular and religious leaders turned toward strengthening rule and relationships at home.

From almost the moment that he took office in 1271, Pope Gregory X (1271–76) announced his intention to convene the fourteenth ecumenical council of the Roman Catholic Church in Lyon, in east-central France. All of the world’s key leaders would gather at what came to be known as the Second Council of Lyon. Peter knew that there a man might gain access to every powerful person of ecclesiastical importance alive.

It was on a midwinter day of 1273–74 that the sixty-four-year-old Peter gathered a few of his friends and a handful of belongings for the walk to Lyon, located midway between Paris and Marseilles. They strapped on their sandals, picked up their staffs, slipped their breviaries into their tunic pockets, and began their slow descent. They were hoping to reach their destination during the summer when the holy father, his cardinals, representatives of the kingdoms of Germany, France, England, Sicily, Norway, Hungary, Bohemia, and hundreds of bishops and prelates from all over Europe would be assembled. A journey of approximately seven hundred miles, or eleven or twelve hours by automobile today, in Peter’s day would have taken three or four months. Their route would have taken them through Bologna and Turin, from monastery to monastery, oratory to oratory, many of them among the dozens in their own order, and they would stop each night at another house along the way.

Pope Gregory X had selected Lyon as the location for this fourteenth ecumenical council because it had been the site of the thirteenth, but also because it was clearly outside the territory of Charles I of Anjou, whose motivations he never trusted.2

The pope’s intention was nothing less than to reunite the two branches of the Christian Church: East and West. To that end, Gregory X invited emissaries of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII in an effort to repair rifts that had occurred between the two branches of Christendom two centuries earlier, during what was known as the Great Schism. Emperor Michael had just retaken Constantinople from the hands of Western princes, whom he then kindly asked to maintain their own kingdoms and leave the Eastern Church alone. Gregory reached out to him for reasons of his own, and Michael agreed to send his ambassadors to Lyon.

Before the distinguished visitors and guests arrived to meet Gregory X, hanging like a pall over the Second Council of Lyon was the death of the Western Church’s greatest theologian, Thomas Aquinas. Summoned by the pope to attend the Council, Aquinas died en route on March 7, 1274, after sustaining a wound to his head after striking it on a tree. There were those who suspected Charles I of playing a sinister role in murdering the great theologian since one of Aquinas’s many teachings was that an illegitimate king could rightfully be overthrown by the people or the pope, even by means of regicide, if it was God’s pleasure. This was a controversial idea particularly in the era of the “divine right of kings,” and certainly Charles took note of such insolence. But he didn’t kill Aquinas. Those theories have long ago been discounted.

The other great thinker to die in connection with the Council was the Franciscan Bonaventure, who came to his end during the Council’s final week, on July 15, 1274, while he was attending the sessions. And as we mentioned in chapter two, he was poisoned.

There were other spectacles in Lyon. The gathering was the stuff of great theater. Men gathered from all over the known world, as far east as Iran and as far west as Ireland, with attendants donning various types of ceremonial dress. There were cardinals and bishops, princes and mercenaries. The Persian Il-khanate, part of the Mongol Empire, sent a delegation, because his people were hoping to enlist the aid of their Christian counterparts to fight their common enemy the Muslim Mamluks. While in Lyon, the leader of the Il-Khans, Abaqa Khan (1234–82), appears to have instructed some of his delegation to undergo Christian baptism, as a goodwill gesture, much to the shock of those present. The ceremony was conducted by none other than the bishop of Ostia, the future Pope Innocent V.

Abaqa Khan was renowned for working closely with Christians throughout his rule, usually in efforts to defeat Muslims, but also in genuine attempts to form peaceful alliances of other kinds. He had no designs upon Christian lands in the West; his only aim was to maintain his own kingdom’s footing in the East. But it remains a mystery as to why he went to the extent of having some among his party baptized. No doubt he did not understand that for Christians new life and responsibilities underlie the ritual. The assent to be baptized, interpreted as conversions by people like Gregory X and Edward I of England, must have had a more confused legacy in the Persian East, as many of the coins and emblems of the Mongol’s rule—still seen in museums around the world today—display Christian symbols, including “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Between May 7 and July 17, delegates gathered around Pope Gregory X to discuss issues of worldwide ecclesiastical importance. Hundreds of bishops listened and occasionally debated the viability of uniting the churches, securing lost outposts such as Acre, and keeping the Muslims at bay. A variety of measures were on the table, and constitutions were written on such topics as financing new Crusades through taxation, the importance of excommunicating pirates who acted outside of recognized boundaries of behavior during Crusades, and the plenary indulgence granted to any man willing to join a holy campaign. A resolution was passed saying the Church must henceforth take more seriously the decision made earlier in the century to prohibit the founding of new religious orders. Abaqa Khan left the Council with a resolution declaring that the Western Church would coordinate with the Il-Khans before launching any more campaigns against their mutual enemies upon the eastern border of their kingdoms in Syria and Egypt.3 Such cooperation would never materialize, however, because the crusading spirit had ebbed out of the papacy and the princes, including Charles I; they were more interested in securing the lands of Western European Christendom than in risking further losses in the Holy Land.

Also at the Council of Lyon, Pope Gregory X was able to secure agreement from Emperor Michael VIII for a full reunification of the Eastern Church with the West, including an acquiescence regarding Rome’s primacy. But when Michael VIII returned home to his empire, there was insufficient backing from among the clergy and bishops of the Greek churches for any further action to be taken on such an agreement. And for his part in participating in this attempt to unify the churches, even today Michael VIII Palaeologus is referred to as a traitor by many Eastern Christians.

At Lyon Gregory X also instituted his new instructions on the election of future popes in conclave. As we saw in chapter two, it was at the ecumenical council of 1274 that the rules for conclaves were laid out in detail (only to be rescinded by Gregory’s successors). All of these resolutions were made into ecclesiastical law by papal decree on November 1.

For his part, Peter ended up arriving late. He had walked to Lyon in order to plead for the continued ecclesiastical independence and protection of his still relatively new brotherhood. But by the time he arrived many of the delegates had already left and all were mourning the death of Aquinas. A solemnity hung over the streets from the weight of business being conducted.

Still, Peter found his way to representatives of Pope Gregory X and achieved his goal: his brotherhood of hermits would be formally incorporated as a branch of the Benedictine order. A new order would not be created, as the Council had just admonished themselves for permitting too many new orders to be founded over the previous century. The Hermits of Saint Damian would remain under the Benedictine umbrella. But even more important to Peter, at the suggestion of Pope Gregory, the monasteries would be protected by Charles I of Anjou, who already controlled all of the territory surrounding the order’s many oratories. Peter was jubilant. A victory had been won.

Settling Down for Good

As he and his brothers made their way back to the Abruzzi, they traveled through the Mediterranean port city of Genoa, where they may have visited with Jacobus Voragine, the archbishop, who was at that moment finishing his compilation of the lives of the saints that would come to be known as The Golden Legend. From Genoa they made their way south through Florence, the capital city of Tuscany, where the Italian florin, the gold coin that became Europe’s standard currency, had originated. There they probably sought support for their efforts in the form of money or supplies, as well as the donation of Tuscan property for the foundation of a new religious community for their order. From Florence they traveled down into the scattered and more remote and familiar hill towns of Umbria and then Abruzzo, eventually stopping for a night on a hill known as Collemaggio on the outskirts of L’Aquila, not far from Peter’s childhood home.

Settling down for the night on this hillside, Peter fell asleep in his makeshift cell and began to dream. According to the story that he himself told late in life and that was repeated throughout his canonization hearings decades later, the Virgin Mary appeared to Peter surrounded by angels on stairs of gold, a vision reminiscent of the story of Jacob’s Ladder in the book of Genesis. The Blessed Virgin asked Peter to build a church in her honor. He took note of this, but then the next morning, Peter rose early and he and his companions continued on their way back to Santo Spirito, another two days away. Finally, on Maiella, Peter triumphantly convened the first general chapter of his order with all of his brethren present from the communities across Molise and Abruzzo, joyfully informing them all of Gregory X’s blessing on their efforts. It was then that the Hermits of Saint Damian formally reiterated that the Rule of Saint Benedict was to be their rule of life.

But Peter didn’t forget his dream at Collemaggio. In fact, he told others about it, and again, by the skills of fund-raising, organization, and persuasion that characterized the hermit’s adult life, by 1283 he and his brothers had purchased the Collemaggio hill near L’Aquila and broken ground for a church to be dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. Five years later they consecrated the as yet unfinished structure Santa Maria of Collemaggio, the Basilica of Saint Mary.

This was a bittersweet time for Peter. Certainly, he had done the work of the Blessed Mother, but the basilica would also increase the popularity of the St. Damian Hermits. In turn, more pilgrims and tourists would flock to the man who after intense moments of activity and creativity only seemed to desire to be alone again with his God.4

His primary work was done, but Peter’s reputation grew ever more rapidly. In 1276 the monastery at which he had entered religious life, Santa Maria of Faifula, convinced him to return as their part-time abbot. And three years later, he also took on the abbot’s responsibilities of San Giovanni monastery in the diocese of Lucera, part of the Foggia province in southern Italy.

In the fifteen years after the Second Council of Lyon, from 1275 to 1290, his name was often heard in the corridors of power. The papal curia and the royal courts of Naples, Sicily, Paris, Avignon, and beyond knew of his fame as a mystic and leader of men. He was said to possess miraculous powers of healing. In 1280, at the age of seventy-one, Peter took a journey to Rome. There he was met with plaudits, came to know more men of influence, and was granted two more monasteries for his work of turning common men into angels. Throughout his sixties and seventies, this hermit who longed for intense periods of seclusion was one of the most peripatetic of holy men, visiting his growing collection of religious houses. By the time he was seventy-six, in 1285, he had acquired another already established monastery, San Pietro, in the Abruzzi near Manoppello.5

All during this time, Peter’s renown hindered him from living the solitary religious life that he envisioned for himself and his brothers. He didn’t seem to grasp how his desires for stability and security and his need for recognition and adulation from his religious colleagues conflicted with his otherwise spiritual, sometimes very personal, religious intentions. It seemed that whenever he accomplished something great before the eyes of others, he soon felt the need to retreat from sight. Perhaps he wanted to model his life on the life of Jesus, who spent his public life healing and teaching, only to retreat into the desert, push out into the sea, or settle himself in a secluded garden or a mountaintop, to pray for a while.

After serving as abbot for several abbeys for decades, by 1293, when he was eighty-three, Peter was weary of the attention and the responsibility of governing communities of monks, and he moved away from sight once more. The essentially restless eremite returned to his previous home, to the now more quiet environs of Mount Morrone. Grateful to be back where he’d spent the first years of his solitary vocation, he settled into a regular life of solitude, begging to simply be left alone.

On Mount Morrone Peter found a small grotto where he could pursue his faith in quietude. It became a treasured place to him. Into the rocky face of the mountain he built a special oratory he named Eremo di Sant’Onofrio (the Hermitage of St. Onofrio).

Onofrio is Italian for the Latin name Onuphrius, a fifth-century hermit in Upper Egypt. He’s a mythical figure, revered as a monk who left the monastery for the eremitic life and exemplified the solitary life with valor, courage, and tenacity. In iconography, Onofrio is usually depicted with long, wild hair and a loincloth made entirely of leaves. He looks like the original “wild man,” and he was even called such in his own day, only to become the favorite saint of hermits a few centuries later.

Although Peter would ultimately spend only one year at Onofrio before the world again came calling, in the space of that year the place became recognized around the world for its piety. Like Moses on Sinai, Peter communed with the Almighty upon Morrone. For Peter, that year, 1293, was one of intense dedication to private, mental prayer. Begging to be left alone, once again a cave became Peter’s room, and a rock, his pillow.

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