St. Peter the martyr was born at Verona, in 1205, of parents infected with the heresy of the Cathari, a sort of Manichees, who had insensibly made their way into the northern parts of Italy during the quarrel between the emperor Frederick Barbarossa and the holy see. God preserved him from the danger which attended his birth, of being infected with heretical sentiments.
His father being desirous of giving him an early tincture of learning, sent him, while very young, to a Catholic schoolmaster, not questioning but by his own instruction afterwards, and by the child”s conversing with his heretical relations, he should be able to efface whatever impressions he might receive at school to the contrary.
One of the first things he learned there was the apostle”s creed, which the Manichees held in abhorrence. His uncle one day, out of curiosity, asked him his lesson. The boy recited to him the creed, and explained it in the Catholic sense, especially in those words: Creator of heaven and earth. In vain did his uncle long endeavor to persuade him it was false, and that it was not God, but the evil principle that made all things that are visible; pretending many things in the world to be ugly and bad, which he thought inconsistent with the idea we ought to entertain of an infinitely perfect being. The resolute steadiness which the boy showed on the occasion, his uncle looked upon as a bad omen for their sect; but the father laughed at his fears and sent Peter to the university of Bologna, in which city there then reigned a licentious corruption of manners among the youth. God, however, who had before protected him from heresy, preserved the purity of his heart and the innocence of his manners amidst these dangers.
Nevertheless he continually deplored his melancholy situation and fortified himself every day anew in the sovereign horror of sin and in all precautions against it. To fly it more effectually, he addressed himself to St. Dominick, and though but fifteen years of age, received at his hands the habit of his order. But he soon lost that holy director, whom God called to glory.
Peter continued with no less fervor to square his life by the maxims and spirit of his holy founder, and to practice his rule with the most scrupulous exactness and fidelity. He went beyond it even in those times of its primitive fervor. He was assiduous in prayer; his watchings and fasts were such that even in his novitiate they considerably impaired his health; but a mitigation in them restored it before he made his solemn vows. When by them he had happily deprived himself of his liberty, to make the more perfect sacrifice of his life to God, he drew upon him the eyes of all his brethren by his profound humility, incessant prayer, exact silence, and general mortification of his senses and inclinations.
He was a professed enemy of idleness, which he knew to be the bane of all virtues. Every hour of the day had its employment allotted to it — he being always either studying, reading, praying, serving the sick, or occupying himself in the most mean and abject offices, such as sweeping the house, which, to entertain himself in sentiments of humility, he undertook with wonderful alacrity and satisfaction, even when he was senior in religion.
But prayer was, as it were, the seasoning both of his sacred studies (in which he made great progress) and of all his other actions. The awakening dangers of salvation he had been exposed to, from which the divine mercy had delivered him in his childhood, served to make him always fearful, cautious, and watchful against the snares of his spiritual enemies. By this means, and by the most profound humility, he was so happy as in the judgment of his superiors and directors, to have preserved his baptismal innocence unsullied to his death by the guilt of any mortal sin.
Gratitude to his Redeemer for the graces he had received, a holy zeal for his honor and a tender compassion for sinners, moved him to apply himself with great zeal and diligence to procure the conversion of souls to God. This was the subject of his daily tears and prayers; and for this end, after he was promoted to the holy order of priesthood, he entirely devoted himself to the function of preaching, for which his superiors found him excellently qualified by the gifts both of nature and grace. He converted an incredible number of heretics and sinners in the Romagna, the marquisate of Ancona, Tuscany, the Bolognese, and the Milanese. And it was by many tribulations, which befell him during the course of his ministry, that God prepared him for the crown of martyrdom. He was accused by some of his own brethren of admitting strangers, and even women, into his cell. He did not own the calumny, because this would have been a lie, but he defended himself, without positively denying it, and with trembling in such a manner as to be believed guilty, not of any thing criminal, but of a breach of his rule; and his superiors imposed on him a claustral punishment, banished him to the remote little Dominican convent of Jesi, in the marquisate of Ancona, and removed him from the office of preaching.
Peter received this humiliation with great interior joy, on seeing himself suffer something in imitation of Him, who, being infinite sanctity, bore with patience and silence the most grievous slanders, afflictions, and torments for our sake. But after some months his innocence was cleared, and he was commanded to return and resume his former functions with honor. He appeared everywhere in the pulpits with greater zeal and success than ever, and his humility drew on his labors an increase of graces and benedictions. The fame of his public miracles attested in his life, and of the numberless wonderful conversions wrought by him, procured him universal respect; as often as he appeared in public, he was almost pressed to death by the crowds that flocked to him; some to ask his blessing, others to offer the sick to him to be cured, others to receive his holy instructions.
He declared war in all places against vice. In the Milanese he was met in every place with a cross, banner, trumpets and drums; and [he] was often carried on a litter on men”s shoulders, to pass the crowd. He was made superior of several houses of his order, and in the year 1232 was constituted by the pope inquisitor-general of the faith.
He had ever been the terror of the new Manichee heretics, a sect whose principles and practice tended to the destruction of civil society and Christian morals. Now they saw him invested with this dignity, they conceived a greater hatred than ever against him. They bore it however under the popedom of Gregory IX, but seeing him continued in his office and discharging it with still greater zeal under pope Innocent IV, they conspired his death and hired two assassins to murder him in his return from Come to Milan. The ruffians lay in ambush for him on his road and one of them Carinus by name, gave him two cuts on the head with an ax, and then stabbed his companion, called Dominic.
Seeing Peter rise on his knees and hearing him recommend himself to God by those words, Into thy hands O Lord, I commend my soul, and recite the creed, he dispatched him by a wound in the side with his battle-axe, on the 6th of April, in 1252, the saint being forty-six years and some days old.
His body was pompously buried in the Dominicans” church dedicated to St. Eustorgius, in Milan, where it still rests; his head is kept apart in a case of crystal and gold. The heretics were confounded at his heroic death and at the wonderful miracles God wrought at his shrine; and in great numbers desired to be admitted into the bosom of the Catholic church. Carinus, the murderer of the martyr, fled out of the territory of Milan to the city of Forli, where, being struck with remorse, he renounced his heresy, put on the habit of a lay-brother among the Dominicans, and persevered in penance to the edification of many.
St. Peter was canonized the year after his death by Innocent IV, who appointed his festival to be kept on the 29th of April. The history of miracles, performed by his relics and intercession, fills twenty-two pages in folio in the Acta Sanctorum, by the Bollandists, Apr. t. 3, p. 697 to 719.
Our divine Redeemer was pleased to represent himself to us, both for a model to all who should exercise the pastoral charge in his church, and for the encouragement of sinners, under the figure of the good shepherd, who having sought and found his lost sheep, with joy carried it back to the fold on his shoulders. The primitive Christians were so delighted with this emblem of his tender love and mercy, that they engraved the figure of the good shepherd, loaded with the lost sheep on his shoulders, on the sacred chalices which they used for the holy mysteries or at mass, as we learn from Tertullian. This figure is found frequently represented in the tombs of the primitive Christians in the ancient Christian cemeteries at Rome. All pastors of souls ought to have continually before their eyes this example of the good shepherd and prince of pastors. The furs, which most canons, both secular and regular, wear, are a remnant of the skins or furs worn by many primitive pastors for their garments. They wore them not only as badges of a penitential life, in imitation of those saints in the Old Law who wandered about in poverty, clad with skins, as St. Paul describes them, and of St. Antony and many other primitive Christian anchorets, but chiefly to put them in mind of their obligation of imitating the great pastor of souls in seeking the lost sheep, and carrying it back on his shoulders — also of putting on his meekness, humility, and obedience, represented under his adorable title of Lamb of God, and that of sheep devoted to be immolated by death. Every Christian in conforming himself spiritually to this divine model, must study daily to die more and more to himself and to the world. In the disposition of his soul, he must also be ready to make the sacrifice of his life.
(Source: Butler’s Lives of the Saints)