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Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Weekly General Audience October
his general audience on Oct. 14, Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Peter the
Venerable, a prominent Churchman from the early 12th century who served as
abbot of the Abbey of Cluny. His life was characterized by a contemplative
spirit, inner tranquility and rigorous asceticism, combined with a capacity for
Peter nourished a deep love for
God and for his neighbor, including those outside the Church, especially Jews
and Muslims. He also fostered devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed
Virgin Mary. His theology was rooted in prayer, which he passed on to his
Dear brothers and sisters,
Peter the Venerable, whom I would
like to speak about in today’s catechesis, takes us back to the famous Abbey of
Cluny in all its decorum (decor) and splendor (nitor)
— to use some terms that recur in texts referring to Cluny itself.
This decorum and splendor was
admired, above all, in the beauty of its liturgies and in the extraordinary way
its monks reached out to God. However, above and beyond these aspects, Peter
the Venerable is a reminder to us of the holiness that was characteristic of
the abbots of Cluny.
At Cluny, “there was not a single
abbot who was not a saint,” Pope Gregory VII affirmed in 1080. Among them is
Peter the Venerable, who embodied some aspect of all the virtues of his
predecessors, even though under his direction Cluny was beginning to experience
symptoms of a crisis as new religious orders like the one at Citeaux arose.
Peter is an admirable example of a
man who was rigorously ascetic with himself yet understanding toward others.
Born in 1094 in the Auvergne region
of France, Peter entered the monastery of Sauxillanges as a child, where he
became a professed monk and eventually prior. In 1122, he was elected abbot of
Cluny, a position he held until his death on Christmas Day in 1156, the day on
which he always hoped to die.
“A lover of peace,” his biographer
Rudolph wrote, “he attained peace in the glory of God on the day of peace”
(Vita, I, 17; PL 189, 28).
Everyone who knew him praised his
dignified meekness, peaceful equilibrium, self-control, righteousness, loyalty,
lucidity and his special aptitude for mediation.
“It is in my particular nature,” he
wrote, “to be somewhat lenient, which comes from my habit of forgiving. It is
my custom to tolerate and forgive” (Ep. 192, in: The
Letters of Peter the Venerable, Harvard University Press, 1967, p.
He went on to say: “With those who
hate peace, we wish, as much as possible, to be always peaceful” (Ep. 100,
l.c., p. 261). “I am not among those who are not happy with their lot …” he
wrote about himself, “whose spirit is always anxious or doubtful and who lament
because others rest while they are the only ones at work” (Ep. 182, p. 425).
With his sensitive and affectionate
disposition, he was able to combine his love for the Lord with tenderness
towards his family members, especially his mother, and towards his friends. He
cultivated friendships, especially with his monks, who regularly confided in
him because they were certain of being heard and understood.
According to the testimony of his
biographer, “he despised and rejected no one” (Vita, I,3: PL 189,19), and “he
appeared amiable to everyone. In his innate goodness, he was open to everyone”
(ibid., I,1: PL, 189,17).
This saintly abbot serves as an
example for monks and for other Christians even today, with its frenetic pace
of life in which episodes of intolerance and a lack of communication, as well
as division and conflict, occur so frequently.
His witness is an invitation to
unite our love of God with love for our neighbor and to never cease renewing
bonds of brotherhood and solidarity.
This is what Peter the Venerable did
when he was responsible for guiding the monastery at Cluny during a period that
was far from peaceful due to a variety of reasons both within and outside the
abbey. He managed to be strict yet endowed with deep kindness.
“One can get more from a man by
tolerating him than by irritating him with complaints,” he would say (Ep. 172,
l.c., p. 409).
Because of his position, he had to
make frequent trips to Italy, England, Germany and Spain. Being forced to
abandon his quiet contemplative life was a burden for him.
“I go from one place to another. It
leaves me breathless, makes me uneasy, and torments me to travel here and
there,” he confessed. “My mind wanders, beginning with my own problems before
wandering off to those of others, causing great agitation within my soul” (Ep.
91, l.c., p. 233).
Even though he had to navigate the
powers and the potentates that surrounded Cluny, he succeeded in preserving his
habitual sense of peace thanks to his moderation, magnanimity and realism.
Bernard of Clairvaux, with whom he
maintained an ever-growing friendship despite their differences in temperament
and perspective, was among those to whom he related.
Bernard called him “an important man
occupied with doing important things” and held him in great esteem (Ep. 147,
ed. Scriptorium Claravallense, Milano 1986,
VI/1, pp. 658-660).
He described Bernard as a “beacon of
the Church” (Ep. 164, p. 396) and “a sturdy and splendid pillar of the monastic
order and of the entire Church” (Ep. 175, p. 418).
Concern for All People
With his deep ecclesial sensitivity,
Peter the Venerable affirmed that the everyday experiences of Christian people
must be experienced “in the depths of the heart” by all those who consider
themselves to be “members of the body of Christ” (Ep. 164, l.c., p. 397).
He went on to say: “Those who are
not nourished by the spirit of Christ do not feel the wounds of the body of
Christ” wherever they may occur (ibid.). Moreover, he showed a great care and
concern for people outside the Church, particularly Jews and Muslims.
In order to better understand
Muslims, he arranged for a translation of the Quran.
“Amid the intransigence of men of
the Middle Ages, even the greatest of them,” a modern-day historian has noted
in this regard, “we admire here a sublime example of the meekness to which
Christian charity leads” (J. Leclercq, Pietro il Venerabile,
Jaca Book, 1991, p. 189).
A love for the Eucharist and a
devotion to the Virgin Mary were other aspects of Christian life that the saint
loved dearly. He has left us some writing on the Blessed Sacrament that is “one
of the masterpieces of Eucharistic literature of all time” (ibid., p. 267).
He wrote some enlightening
reflections on the Mother of God, in which he contemplates her in close
relation with Jesus the Redeemer and his work of salvation. We need only
consider the following inspired prayer that he wrote: “Hail, Blessed Virgin,
who has made the curse flee away. Hail, Mother of the Most High, Spouse of the
Gentle Lamb. You conquered the serpent, and you crushed his head when the God
to whom you gave birth annihilated him. ... Shining Star of the east that puts
the darkness from the west in flight, Dawn that precedes the sun, Day that does
not know night. ... Pray to God whom you bore that he may absolve us of our
sins and, after forgiving us, grant us grace and glory” (Carmina, PL 189,
Peter the Venerable also had a
passion for literature, for which he also had a talent. He used to write down
all his reflections, convinced that it was important to use the pen somewhat
like a plow in order to “sow on paper the seed of the Gospel” (Ep. 20, p. 38).
Rooted in Prayer
Although he was not a systematic
theologian, he had, nonetheless, a great curiosity regarding the mystery of
His theology has its roots in
prayer, especially liturgical prayer. Among the mysteries of Christ, he had a
preference for the mystery of the Transfiguration, which prefigures the
In fact, it was he who introduced
this feast to Cluny, composing a special office for it, which reflects the
theological piety that is characteristic of Peter and the monastic order at
Cluny and which is focused on contemplating the glorious face (gloriosa
of Christ, finding therein a reason for the ardent joy that was characteristic
of his spirit and that was reflected in the liturgy at the monastery.
Dear brothers and sisters, this holy
monk is certainly a great example of monastic holiness, nourished at the fount
of the Benedictine tradition.
For Peter the Venerable, the ideal
for monks to follow consists in “tenacious adherence to Christ” (Ep. 53, l.c.,
p. 161) through a cloistered life characterized by “monastic humility” (ibid.),
hard work (Ep. 77, l.c., p. 211), as well as an atmosphere of silent
contemplation and constant praise of God.
The primary and most important
activity of a monk, according to Peter of Cluny, was the solemn celebration of
the Divine Office, “the heavenly work which is most useful of all” (Statuta,
I, 1026), which was to be accompanied by reading, meditation, personal prayer
and the practice of penance that was observed with discretion (see Ep. 20,
l.c., p. 40).
In this way, all of life is pervaded
by a deep love for God and by a love for others, a love that is expressed in a
sincere openness to one’s neighbor, in forgiveness, and in the quest for peace.
In conclusion, we can say that this
lifestyle, associated with daily work, represents the ideal for monks,
according to St. Benedict. Yet it can, to a large extent, also represent a
lifestyle for all Christians who wish to become true disciples of Christ,
characterized by their own tenacious adherence to him through humility, hard
work and a capacity for forgiveness and peace.