Kevin Di Camillo writes regularly for The National Catholic Register and is a Lecturer in English Literature at Niagara University. His latest book is Now Chiefly Poetical, and with Rev. Lawrence Boadt he edited John Paul II in the Holy Land: In His Own Words. His work has been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and he was awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends Yale University’s School of Management Publishing Course.
By any count there is no lack of kings (and queens) who are saints. From King David to Blessed Charles of Hungary and Austria, our altars and history books are replete with holy men and women who wielded temporal power and lived exemplary Christian lives.
However, aside from the well-known St. Louis (King of France), the Emperor St. Henry, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, and St. Eric (King of Sweden), today we recall Saint Peter Orseolo who was the Doge of Venice—an office he abdicated to become a monk, and, later, saint.
Peter was born of distinguished Venetian parents around 928. While the history is hazy on this point, he seems to have been appointed the master and commander of the navy of Venice when he was only 20 to repel the onslaught of pirates of Dalmatia. In this regard he seems to have been wildly successful.
However, no less a personage than St. Peter Damian held Peter Orseolo personally responsible for the violent outbreak of 976 in “The Serene Republic” which wound up with the overthrow (and assassination) of Doge Peter Candiani IV, a man who was planning on making a monarchy out of the democratic way of life the Venetians had fashioned—followed by a massive conflagration that enveloped large parts of the City of the Lagoon. While St. Peter Damian’s accusation is fraught with historical problems, there is no doubt that, once the fires were put out, the pirates put away, and Doge Candiani buried, it was Peter Orseolo who was “elected” doge of Venice.
His reign as Doge lasted only two brief years (976-978), but historical sources independent of hagiography give him high marks for his “energy and tact” during his short administration, which included the building and restoration of the legendary St. Mark’s Basilica. He also built hospitals and orphanages for the sick and poor of Venice, erected hospices for pilgrims, and supported widows.
Then, on the night of Sept. 1, 978, Peter Orseolo disappeared: without warning to his wife of 28 years, or his only son, Otto (who, ironically, was destined to become one of the greatest doges in the history of Venice) he left Venice for the Benedictine Abbey of Cuxa on the border of Spain and France, near Languedoc. Indeed, it seems that he was completely out of touch with his friends and relations—and the citizens of Venice of whom he was still the titular head—for months.
But before we start berating St. Peter Orseolo for deserting his family and his subjects, a little more background is in order. It seems that, after the birth of their only son, St. Peter and his wife, Felicia, had agreed to live “as brother and sister”—something that we find not totally uncommon among married saints, even if it is difficult for the modern mind to imagine.
Further, an extant letter to Ratherius (ca. 968) expressed St. Peter’s idea that he might have the vocation of a monk.
Regardless, once St. Peter was gone, there was no going back: what was once the life of one of the greatest kings in Christendom—the Doge of Venice—had now become a monastic existence sparing none of the austerities attributed to the monks of the 10th century. At first St. Peter had placed himself under the guidance of the Abbot Guarinus but, after 10 years as his disciple, and desirous of an even greater asceticism and austerity, St. Peter built himself a hermitage—perhaps at the prompting of St. Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictines, who was busy restoring the Benedictine Rule to its original severity—and emphasizing the hermitical way of monasticism (as opposed to the cenobites, or the monks who live in common in an abbey).
Since he became a hermit and lived in such a remote and isolated location, next to nothing—indeed, nothing—is known of St. Peter Orseolo’s later years, except that he died on Jan. 10, 987.
Although St. Peter was beatified only 40 years after his death, it wasn’t until 1731 when Pope Clement XII confirmed his canonization. His feast day has waffled from Jan. 11 (the day of his death, and as listed in the official Roman Martyrology) to Jan. 14, to Jan. 19, the last date being the day the Camaldolese Order itself observes his feast.
Last week at the Mass of the Epiphany (which was celebrated in our local church according to the Extraordinary Rite), the priest’s homily noted how few politicians have led saintly lives, though for centuries the Church had raised to the altars kings, queens, emperors—and even the Doge of Venice. He ended by imploring us to pray for holy public servants in all areas of government. May St. Peter Orseolo pray for them—and us!