St. Peter Orseolo

(928-987)

An offbeat saint was Peter Orseolo, first the ruler of Venice, then a Benedictine monk in the French Pyrenees.

Peter was born into a distinguished family of the republic of Venice. He married at 18. When he was 20, he commanded the Venetian fleet in a successful effort to conquer the pirates that infested the Adriatic Sea.

In 976, there was a popular rising during which the ruler of Venice, Doge Peter IV Candiano, was murdered. (The head of the Venetian Republic had borne the title Doge, that is duke, since 697 AD.) Orseolo probably played some role in this revolution, owing to his prominence. He was elected to succeed Peter Candiano in the office and he held the post for two years.

Doge Peter Orseolo’s term was brief but marked by good rule. He promoted peace, solved a burning issue involving the claims of the widow of his predecessor, built hospitals and took care of widows, orphans, and pilgrims. St. Mark’s Cathedral at the Doge’s palace had been destroyed during the uprising. Doge Orseolo began the reconstruction with his own funds.

One day at Mass Doge Peter heard read the gospel passage from Luke, “He who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” This experience served to bring into focus a desire the Doge had long thought about — to become a monk. He had always been a devout man at heart. After the birth of his son, he and his wife agreed to live henceforth as brother and sister.

Suddenly on the night of September 1, 978, the Doge left Venice for France with two other Venetian men and Abbot Guarin to become a monk of the latter’s reformed abbey on the mountainous French-Spanish border. Although his wife and son did not yet know where he was, there was apparently a mutual consent between the pair. Nor did he neglect his son in taking flight to a nobler form of life. Although he was happy to be relieved of the chaotic political concerns of Venetian public life, he carefully instructed his son in the virtues of a Christian ruler. When that son became Doge (992-1009), he ruled well and the prestige of Venice was restored.

Once clothed in the habit at Cuxa Abbey, the ex-Doge set out seriously to become a model monk. He was strong in self-denial and chose to undertake the most menial tasks of the monastery. Eventually he asked to embrace the still stricter life of a hermit. This was quite likely on the recommendation of his friend St. Romuald, another Italian monk at Cuxa, who would subsequently found in Italy the order of Camaldolite hermits.

Peter Orseolo died with the reputation for holiness and soon became venerated as a saint. Many miracles were reported through his intercession. His relics were brought back to Venice in 1027. In 1731 the Holy See confirmed his veneration at Cuxa and Venice and later permitted his feast to be celebrated by all Benedictine and Camaldolite monks.

St. Peter Orseolo’s career was unusual but admirable. As a civil ruler he served his community conscientiously. But as a wise man he chose the cross in place of the crown.

St. Paul told the Colossians, “Be intent on things above rather than on things of earth.” It’s a question of ultimate values, isn’t it? Must not time bow to eternity?

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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