Blessed Peter the Venerable

Author: John Coulson


Feast: December 30

Bd. Peter was faced with the fruits of Abbot Pons' (a secular minded abbot who nearly destroyed Cluny) factious abbacy from the first, but much worse followed in 1125, when Pons, repenting of his resignation, returned to Cluny, which he seized by force and misused terribly. The pope succeeded in ejecting Pons, however, who died in prison in 1126. By this time the order was on the verge of collapse, and the finances of Cluny itself in chaos. It was Peter's achievement to restore the order, to return Cluny to an economically sound basis, and, above all, to repair the abbey's shattered reputation; all of which he did with conspicuous success. In addition he played a part in the church life of his time second only to that of his contemporary St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a man whose virtues are easier to admire than they can have been to live with. Bernard was the spokesman of the new Cistercian order, and he occasionally transgressed the limits of justice in dealing with what he could not help considering the rival order of Cluny. Immensely provoked, Abbot Peter never lost his temper with the great Cistercian, nor ever regarded the Cistercians as anything but fellow-Christians and fellow-monks. His moderating role in the dispute between Bernard and Abelard shows him as orthodox as Bernard and a good deal more charitable; his letter to Heloise announcing Abelard's death clearly reveals his saintly character. He would take no part in preaching the second Crusade, and Cluny was the home of the first doubts as to the efficacy of Christianity imposed by the sword.

The great days of Cluny, however, were over. Its reputation under Peter the Venerable was not equal to that of its abbot, and it is natural to compare it unfavourably with Citeaux. But if Citeaux was magnificent under SS Stephen Harding and Bernard, it declined into respectability soon after their deaths; whereas the grandeur of Cluny had lasted for at least two centuries, moreover, which began in the dark ages when monasticism was virtually extinct, and ended in the twelfth century renaissance, with the Rule of St. Benedict triumphant. At the beginning the church had been almost indistinguishable from the feudal society in which it lived, but it became a great spiritual corporation firmly led by the pope; and because of its contribution to this renaissance, Cluny must stand with the Society of Jesus as one of the most influential religious orders the church has so far seen.

Taken from "The Saints: A concise Biographical Dictionary", edited by John Coulson, published by Hawthorn Books, Inc. 1960.