st.Peter of Alcantara-Penitent and mystic

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st.Peter of Alcantara

Feast Day : October 19




Patronage: watchmen; Brazil; Estremadura, Spain




Name meaning: Rock



Peter was born in 1499 in Alcántara, Estremadura, Spain. His father, who was a lawyer and governor of the province of Estremadura, died in 1513. Two years later, having studied law at the university in Salamanca, Peter joined the Observant Franciscans at Manjaretes. In 1521 he was sent to Badajoz to found a friary. He was ordained in 1524, when he was 25. Peter served as superior of missions in Spain and Portugal, and for a while was chaplain to the court of King John III of Portugal. In 1538, he was elected provincial for Saint Gabriel in Estremadura, and tried to put into play ideas he had for the reform of the Franciscan order. When his ideas were not well received by the provincial chapter at Placensia in 1540, he resigned. For the next two years he lived as a hermit with Friar Martin of Saint Mary on Arabida Mountain near Lisbon, and was named superior of the Palhaes community for novices when they found numerous other friars attracted to their ascetic way of life. Peter became convinced of the need for an extensive Catholic reform, a Counter-Reformation to oppose the Protestant Reformation then well underway. His plan was accepted by the bishop of Coria and finally by Pope Julius III, and in about 1556 he founded the Reformed Friars Minor of Spain (usually called the Alcatrine Franciscans). Alcatrine friars lived in small groups, in great poverty, going barefoot, abstaining from meat and wine, and spending much time in solitude and contemplation. However, the Alcatrines were never really accepted by the other Franciscan orders (called the Conventuals and the Observants), and by the time Peter died in 1562, they had been placed under the Conventuals. Peter’s ideas were picked up by St. Teresa of Ávila, whom he met in 1560, and to whom he became adviser and confessor. At the time, many in the Church were suspicious of the source of Teresa’s visions, but Peter had had his own, and he argued persuasively that they were sent by God rather than Satan. Peter helped Teresa gain papal approval for the Discalced Carmelites, the order she had founded on principles similar to his own. Peter wrote several works of mysticism, including a Treatise on Prayer and Meditation, said by Pope Gregory XV (r. 1621–23) to be “a shining light to lead souls to heaven and a doctrine prompted by the Holy Spirit.” This work was later drawn upon by St. Francis de Sales, among others. Peter was also reputed to have some unusual powers, such as levitation and the ability to walk on water as though it were dry land. Perhaps the chief reason Peter’s proposals met so much resistance was their extreme austerity, which harked back to the earliest days of Christian asceticism. Peter himself did as he preached. From the time he entered the novitiate at 16, he mortified himself so much in the little food and drink he allowed himself that he lost the sense of taste. He would regularly go three days—and at times as much as a week—without sleep, spending the time in prayer and meditation. He remained on his knees for hours, when he was tired, leaning his head against a nail in the wall. He went about barefoot and even in winter never wore a hat or hood, but only his hairshirt. For three years he never raised his eyes from the ground. For 40 years he slept only an hour and a half per night. Teresa described his penances as “incomprehensible to the human mind” and his body as so ravished that it appeared as if “he had been made of the roots of trees.” He experienced “great raptures and violent impulses of love toward God,” she said. Over the years Peter became less stringent in his penitence, as he realized the toll it was taking on his health. He died at Arenas, Estremadura, in 1562, while on his knees, reciting a psalm. He was 63 years old. After his death, he appeared as an apparition to Teresa, who wrote that she “witnessed the greatness of his glory. Far from causing me the least fear, the sight of him filled me with joy. He always showed himself to me in the state of a body which was glorious and radiant with happiness; and I, seeing him, was filled with the same happiness. I remember that when he first appeared to me he said, to show me the extent of his felicity, ‘Blessed be the penitence which has brought me such a reward.” In 1862, Peter was declared the patron of Brazil. In art he is depicted as a Franciscan in radiance levitated before the Cross, as angels carry a girdle of nails, chain and scourge. He is also shown walking on water with a companion, a star over his head; praying before a crucifix, scourge and hair shirt; and with a dove at his ear, near a cross and scourge.

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