PETER OF REIMS, BISHOP
This distinguished early disciple of Saint Dominic gets his surname from the city of his birth -- Reims, on the Vesle, in what was then known as Upper Champagne, but is now the Department of Marne. Since the late World War, it has become one of the most historic spots in Continental Europe. Any attempt to give the date of his birth, further than to say it was in the last quarter of the twelfth century, would be mere guesswork. The Friars Preacher set up their standard in Paris in the f all of 1217. Peter of Reims was then a man of more or less mature age; for he had already received priest's orders, and gained an enviable reputation as a teacher of Sacred Scripture in the great French capital. Moreover, he ranked high among the city's best ecclesiastical orators, and was a preacher at the royal court.(1)
Possibly this gift of eloquence combined with the earnest clergyman's zeal and the profession of the sons of Saint Dominic to bring him into the Order. Be that as it may, he was one of the first to receive the habit in Paris. The writers, not without reason, place this event indefinitely either late in 1217 or in 1218. From the start, because of his character and previous education, he was able creditably to execute whatever work and fill any office his superiors entrusted to him. Humble, mortified, and given to prayer before he became a Friar Preacher, he now completely died to himself, as well as soon grew to be a model of the religious life.
Peter's spirit of retirement disposed him to the quiet of the cloister, where he could meditate on the truths of salvation for himself. But his zeal for the souls of others made him sacrifice this inclination for the apostolic career to which God had called him. Throughout the Province of France, especially in Paris, he electrified the faithful for years by his burning eloquence. The clergy also showed great enthusiasm to hear him. His very appearance is said to have been an excellent sermon in itself; while his rare prudence and learning gave added weight to his discourses.
All historians of the Order agree that the subject of this narrative was provincial of the Province of France. Nor can there be any doubt about this fact. But there is not the same unanimity of opinion as regards the place he should be given in the line of those who have held this position. Touron and others, evidently influenced by Echard, claim that he was the first head of the province. However, the reasons which the erudite and critical Echard gives for his belief are not convincing to us. As far as we can see, the authority of the reliable Bernard Gui, the arguments of Mamachi, and circumstances vindicate this lionor f or Matthew of France, who no doubt relinquished the office that he might give more time and care to the great studium of Saint James', Paris.(2)
Peter of Reims became Matthew's successor as provincial, for it was he who sent the Friars Preacher to Lille, then in French Flanders, in 1224. On the death of Matthew, in December, 1227, Peter's eminent ability also led to his succession as prior of Saint James'. Here, as stated in the sketch of Blessed Jordan of Saxony, was held the most general chapter of 1228. The writer of the article on Jordan for the Année Dominicaine tells us that it was at this meeting that the historic call was made for volunteers for the new Province of the Holy Land established by it; and it seems the logical time to expect such an appeal. De Frachet says Peter of Reims was provincial of the Province of France at the time Jordan issued this call, a circumstance which has caused some writers to think that it was made at another chapter than that of 1228.(3) Yet the fact that Peter bad so lately ceased to be provincial might explain de Frachet's statement. Or again, the zealous man may not, at the time of the chapter, have yet relinquished the provincialship to take up the priorship of Saint James'.
At whatever general chapter of Paris Jordan thus tested the zeal of his brethren, and whether' Peter of Reims was prior or provincial at the time, the incident deserves a place in this story. It is not only of interest; it also serves to show the spiritual temperament of the subject of our sketch and the men trained by him and Matthew of France. No sooner had the words of the brief appeal fallen from the lips of Jordan than every man in the large audience of confrères prostrated himself on the floor in token of his readiness to become a missionary among the infidels, Jews, and schismatics in the Province of the Holy Land. It must have been a, beautiful and edifying spectacle that brought no little joy to Peter of Reims, as well as to Jordan of Saxony.(4)
Peter was not behind the others in either zeal or fraternal aff ection. He also prostrated himself. To Blessed Jordan he said, when he saw the entire community prone on the floor: "Father General, I beg you to either leave my beloved confrères with me here, or send me with them. If you so ordain, we will continue to labor together in this part of the Lord's vineyard. If you order them to Palestine, I am ready to follow them unto death." Surely words could hardly show more zeal, greater mutual attachment, or a readier spirit of obedience and self-sacrifice. They are a proof of the truth of the tradition which tells us that he was deeply loved in his province. Another demonstration of this fact is had in his being kept in positions of honor, trust, and authority all his life.
According to Echard, Peter of Reims and Hugh of Saint Cher, the great Scriptural scholar and the first cardinal taken from the Order of Saint Dominic, seem to have alternated in the provincialship of the Province of France until Peter was promoted to the miter. Under their lead a number of new houses were added to the province, but it is not always easy to tell which of them obtained some of these places. Both certainly governed their province faithfully and with much fruit.
Horace aptly expresses the liability of the ablest and most careful to mistakes, when he writes: "Even the great Romer nods sometimes" (Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus).(5) The editors of the Gallia Christiana do not mention Peter of Reims among the bishops of Agen. Yet the early Friar-Preacher writers place this fact beyond question. Eehard is of the opinion that he received the appointment about 1236, which is too early; while Gams places it in 1245, which seems too late. The year 1242 is the date ordinarily given for his consecration.
The fact that Peter was raised to so responsible a position at such an advanced age speaks well for the esteem in which he was held. Indeed, it indicates that he had declined the honor at an earlier date, and that it was now forced on him by obedience. Chapotin seems to think that he was the Friar Preacher who some friends told Blessed Jordan would make a fine bishop, at the time the General signified his objection to such promotions for those of his Order by saying: "I should rather see him lying in a coffin than seated on an episcopal throne."(6)
Our venerable ambassador of Christ was provincial at the time of his nomination to the miter of Agen. Evidently he was then too old for much strenuous labor. Possibly, while he is said to have been a model prelate, this fact explains why we find few records of what he did for his diocese. Naturally his administration was brief. Dominican writers, as a rule, state that he died in 1245. Gams places his death on January 29, 1247, which is apparently correct, for the See of Agen was filled by another man before the close of that year.(7)
Tradition, supported by the references which the writers make to him, shows that the early disciple was considered a very saintly and worthy religious. Of his splendid judgment, rare prudence, practical ability, and paternal government we need no stronger proof than the frequent choice of him for the office of provincial and the many years he held that position to the satisfaction of all. The fact of his advancement to the bierarchy is perhaps the least important in his public life.
Peter of Reims was also one of the intellectual lights of his country and age. Echard informs us that Henry van Goethals (commonly known by the name of Henry of Ghent), or whoever was the author of Noted Ecclesiastical Writers (De Scriptoribus Illustribus), gives him a very honorable mention for his manuscript sermons. They were extensively used -- and written for practically all the Sundays and feast days of the year. Other topics were also included. He was a splendid Scriptural scholar, as well as a theologian. A few have erroneously attributed to him a rendition of the Bible in verse, which came from the pen of Peter de Riga, a canon of Reims. However, it is certain that our early Friar Preacher left several learned manuscripts on the sacred text.(8) All in all, he was a worthy contemporary disciple of whom Saint Dominic might well be proud. In France especially the memory of Peter of Reims is held in great veneration.
1.ALBERTI, fol. 114, 144; Année Dominicaine, I (January), 381 ff, and II, 529; BOURBON, Stephen de, De Septem Donis, Part I, Title 5; ,CHAPOTIN, M. D., O. P., Histoire de la Province de France, p. 43 and passim to 300; FONTANA, V. M., O. P., Sacrum Theatrum Dominicanum, pp. 115, 620; FRACHET, de (Reichert ed.), pp. 151, 212, 333, 335; GUI, Bernard, O. P.; HENRY of Ghent (van Goethals), De Scriptoribus Illustribus, Chap. XLI; LOUIS of Valladolid, Tabula Scriptorum, No. 68; MALVENDA, pp. 411-412,650; MAMACHL pp. 641 ff; MORTIER, I, 159, 391, 671; PIGNON, Lawrence, O. P., Catalogus Provincialium Franciae; QUETIF-ECHARD, I, 115-117.
2. MAMACHI, p. 461; QUETIF-ECHARD, I, 92,115-116.
3. QUETIF-ECHARD, as in note 1; Année Dominicaine, II, 529; DE FRACHET (Reichert ed.), p. 151.
4. DE FRACHET, as in the preceding note.
5. Ars Poetica, line 359.
6. Histoire de la Province de France, p. 299.
7. Année Dominicaine, as in note 1; GAMS, Series Episcoporum, p. 479.
8. QUETIF-ECHARD, I, 117.