The Doctors of Ravenna

Peter Chrysologus and Peter Damien

The city of Ravenna boasts two Doctors of the Church named Peter: the fifth-century bishop of Ravenna, Peter Chrysologus, and the eleventh-century cardinal bishop from Ravenna, Peter Damian. The earlier Chrysologus is honored each year in the liturgy as “an outstanding preacher of [the] Incarnate Word,”1 while Peter Damian is venerated for “putting nothing before Christ and always [being] ardent in the service of [the] Church.”2 Both of these men enjoyed and endured fame as preachers during their own lifetimes and in succeeding generations.

Their Lives

While the exact dates regarding his life are not entirely certain, Peter Chrysologus was born around the year 380 in the city of Imola and was appointed to the see of Ravenna, which at the time was the capital of the Western Empire, around 430.3 A likely date for his death is December 3, 450.4 Although little is known about the life of Peter Chrysologus, the life of Peter Damian is well documented.

Peter Damian was born in the city of Ravenna in 1007 into rather difficult familial circumstances. It is recounted that his mother withheld food from this child so that he might die and alleviate her burden of caring for another child. Orphaned at a young age, he was eventually raised by his older brother Damian, who was the archpriest of Ravenna.5 In 1036, he entered the monastery of Fonte Avellana, a Benedictine community with a strict eremitical focus, and was appointed prior of the community in 1043.6 In 1057, Peter was appointed Cardinal Bishop of Ostia, serving in that capacity until 1067. Upon his request, he was allowed to return to Fonte Avellena and, after completing several other diverse missions on behalf of the pope, he died in Faenza in February, 1072.7

Having briefly recounted the major events of their lives, it is now important to look at the ecclesial contexts in which these men preached.

Their Times

Neither of these preachers lived in a time of peace, prosperity, and fidelity for the Church. The challenges of doctrinal confusion and heretical preaching encountered in the fifth century, as well as the inconsistency of a moral and spiritual life flowing from the clearer doctrine of the eleventh century, provide a picture of a unity of mission but a distinction of approach between these two preachers.

The fifth century, which saw the ministry of Augustine, Leo the Great, Peter Chrysologus, and many others, was a time of theological controversy. The Arian heresy, which had been condemned at Nicaea in 325, had taken root in the city of Ravenna and required the attention of the local bishop more than a century later.8 Also during the fifth century, the heresy of Eutyches, which denied that in Jesus Christ there are two natures, sprouted from the East only to receive condemnation from Constantinople and Rome. The only extant piece of writing from Peter Chrysologus that is not a homily is his letter to Eutyches.9

The eleventh century, on the other hand, was an era of great disciplinary confusion. It was an age when simony, clerical immorality, and clerical concubinage were particular problems. Peter Damian was part of the reform movements, first in his monastery and then as part of the larger reform of the Church.10 His were particularly challenging times, and, “wherever he looked he found not only pain and suffering, but also evil and corruption.”11

As will be examined later, the preaching of Peter Chrysologus follows a homiletical pattern of exploring the Scriptures in the context of the liturgy, with occasional practical and spiritual application. The preaching of Peter Damian, however, is principally concerned with the moral life that flows from the doctrine of the Faith. Both of these men constructed their preaching with a view to a particular audience in mind. Before looking at an exemplary sermon from each preacher, it is important to briefly examine the communities to which they preached.

Their Hearers

Peter Chrysologus served as a residential bishop in the same community for a generation. He preached to the wide variety of people who make up a Christian congregation in a large city. He preached regularly in the presence of Galla Placidia, the mother of the emperor.12 His sermons are filled with images and references that indicate the presence of a diverse population. Peter Chrysologus includes medicine, commerce, agriculture, battlefields, law courts, and seafaring in his sermons. There are also a number of references regarding how Christians should respond to various invasions of different tribes.13

While Peter Damian served as the residential bishop of Ostia, there are very few, if any, surviving examples of his preaching during that time. The sermons available were preached to monks. This is very different from a parochial or diocesan community like that of Peter Chrysologus. Peter Damian preached to those who had already made a definitive commitment to follow Christ the Lord in the Church, or those who were in preparation to make such a commitment. His focus is on calling his hearers to greater fidelity and his sermons are filled with references to military and athletic examples.14

If preaching can be considered in medical terms, then the sermons of Peter Chrysologus could be seen as a type of broad-spectrum antibiotic. The sermons of this fifth-century bishop provide instruction, healing, and encouragement to a wide ranging and diverse population over a long period of time. The preaching of Peter Damian, however, could be considered to be more like surgery. Presented to a very specific community with a similar spiritual profile and subject to the same wounds and diseases, these sermons are easily accessible to members of monastic communities but require a kind of transposition for the general population of the faithful.

Having briefly examined the lives, ecclesial circumstances, and audiences of these two preachers, it is now appropriate to examine the general structures of their preaching utilizing an exemplary sermon from each preacher.

Their Sermons

While the biographical details of the life of Peter Chrysologus are limited, there is an abundance of homilies available. Current scholars consider one hundred eighty-three homilies to be authentic.15 Peter Damian, about whom we have much more reliable and detailed biographical data, leaves a more limited homiletical corpus. However, a remarkable number of letters that detail the spiritual life and the various aspects of ecclesial reform have been preserved.16 In regards to the form or structure of sermons, Peter Chrysologus did not seem to follow any particular order or structure. The homily followed the lines of the text on which he preached or his own lines of thought.17 On the other hand, Peter Damian usually maintained a consistent pattern of four parts: setting the sermon within the liturgical cycle, presenting the saint or feast or mystery, providing a moral exhortation in light of the current celebration, and concluding with a doxology.18

In Sermon 74, which was preached on Easter Sunday, Peter Chrysologus began his homily noting that his duties regarding the celebration of vigils and the weakness brought on by fasting had limited his preaching. He then immediately announces that his sermon is about the Resurrection. He takes great care to examine the few verses that he is preaching about in this particular homily. Each section of the verse is repeated so that some new facet might be noticed, providing ample room for his hearers to make their own connections. He moves from the time of day, to the women at the tomb, to the event of the earthquake, to the angel and the stone, to the guards who were terrified at the tomb. Then he says he will speak more on a future occasion.19 In its alarming brevity, this homily provides the setting for the mystery to be proclaimed and the base upon which his next several homilies would be built. Incomplete in itself, and obviously designed to begin a series, this homily was preached by a preacher who fully expected to have a tomorrow with this congregation.

In his homily for The Day of the Lord’s Supper, Peter Damian begins with the statement of the feast being celebrated. He notes that this is the day on which Christ washed the feet of his disciples and instituted the Sacrament of the Eucharist. What is of particular interest is that the remainder of the sermon is a meditation on chrism. He recounts how the chrism is consecrated on this day and then he details various aspects of the effects of the anointing with chrism. Peter Damian explains that the chrism purifies, anoints priests, consecrates vessels for worship, inspires vigilance, and is used in the preparation of spiritual food. He continues this sermon by encouraging the monks to avoid everything dishonorable or shameful and to live in accord with the royal dignity they have received through this anointing with chrism. He concludes with an exhortation to perseverance and a doxology.20 This sermon stands alone. It was given in a monastic setting, where the celebration of the Eucharist and the washing of feet would have been frequent occurrences. Unlike Peter Chrysologus, with his open structure and open ending, Peter Damian provides a liturgical sermon that is both orderly and complete. He quotes from the whole of scripture rather than examining a verse at a time and gives clear moral exhortation to his congregation.


The Doctors of Ravenna demonstrate in their preaching a profound concern for the community that hears them. Each of them is a preacher for their particular time, place, and community. However, they offer a number of gifts and counsels to contemporary preachers. The wisdom of Peter Chrysologus, expressed in his careful brevity, exemplifies the importance of a stable preacher in a community. Peter Damian, whose missions and activities were varied, shows the importance of clear moral exhortation in the life of a monastic and ecclesial community. The challenge offered by these two preachers is to bring the brevity of words, signifying a depth of relationship, and the clarity of thought and exhortation, demonstrating a deep concern for the community, to the mission of preaching the Gospel.

  1. The Roman Missal: Renewed by Decree of the Most Holy Second Ecumenical Council of the Vatican, Promulgated by Authority of Pope Paul VI and Revised at the Direction of Pope John Paul II, 3rd ed. (New Jersey: Catholic Book Pub., 2011), July 30.
  2. Roman Missal, February 21.
  3. Bernard McGinn, The Doctors of the Church: Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity (New York: Crossroad Pub., 1999), 76.
  4. William A. Jurgens, The Faith of the Early Fathers (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), 3:266.
  5. C. Colt Anderson, Christian Eloquence: Contemporary Doctrinal Preaching, Hillenbrand Books Textbook Series (Chicago: Hillenbrand Books, 2005), 103.
  6. McGinn, 101.
  7. Pope Benedict XVI, Doctors of the Church (Huntingdon, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor, 2011), 150.
  8. William B. Palardy, trans., St. Peter Chrysologus Selected Sermons, Volume 2, Fathers of the Church (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 19.
  9. Palardy, 12.
  10. Anderson, 104.
  11. McGinn, 101.
  12. McGinn, 76.
  13. Palardy, 13.
  14. Anderson, 105.
  15. Palardy, 28.
  16. Christopher D. Fletcher, “Rhetoric, Reform, and Christian Eloquence: The Letter Form and the Religious Thought of Peter Damian,” Viator 46, no. 1 (2015): 61.
  17. George E. Ganss, SJ, trans., Saint Peter Chrysologus Selected Sermons and Saint Valerian Homilies, Fathers of the Church (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2004), 17.
  18. Anderson, 105.
  19. Ganss, 123–127.
  20. Anderson, 126–131.
Fr. Benjamin Roberts About Fr. Benjamin Roberts

Fr. Benjamin A. Roberts is a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte and Pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in Monroe, NC. He holds a DMin in Preaching from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis and is the author of the recently published book The Voice of the Bridegroom: Preaching as an Expression of Spousal Love, from Wipf and Stock.


  1. Avatar JOHN GRONDELSKI says:

    Both are exceptionally rich and yet exceptionally neglected thinkers: Palardy only produced modern translations for the Fathers of the Church series about 15 years ago, and Damian has only more recently been translated (Book of Gomorrah) in 2015. What we need is somebody to write a Book of Gomorrah, vol. 2.