St. Peter of Tarentalse


Peter of Tarentaise, one of the glories of the early Cistercian order of monks (best known to us through the Trappist Cistercians), was born near Vienne In west central France. Of peasant stock, he was nevertheless highly interested in studies, and to fulfill that interest as well as his own religious inclinations, at age 20 he entered the Cistercian Abbey of Bonnevaux. There he quickly won a large following because of his holiness of life. Indeed, his father and other two brothers eventually decided to become monks at the same nearby Cistercian convent; and many other men of high rank took their vows as monks of Bonnevaux. “So shines a good deed in a naughty world!” as Shakespeare would say.

Peter was not quite 30 when he was named superior of a new monastery at Tamie, in the rugged Alps of Savoy, southeast France, (not far from Albertville, where the Winter Olympics were held in 1992). Built alongside an Alpine pass, the monastery soon became a way station for travelers, for whom Abbot Peter hastened to provide food, shelter and medical care.

So noted did Peter become, that in 1141 he was named archbishop of Tarentaise. Now, he did not want to become a bishop, but his Cistercian superiors, St. Bernard of Clairvaux among them, insisted. Of course Archbishop Peter, once installed, proved to be an ideal choice. The archdiocese was terribly run-down. Its funds had been mismanaged, the morale of its clergy was low, and for want of proper attention, the faithful had fallen into lax ways. St. Peter toured his archdiocese diligently, improved its personnel, provided schools and care for the poor. The monks who accompanied him on his pastoral visits recorded that he had the gift of miracles, and that it helped him much in his campaign of reform.

All the time, however, Peter, still a monk at heart, grieved at being exiled from his dear, quiet cloister. Therefore, after 13 years as archbishop, he decided he had done enough at Tarentaise. Suddenly he disappeared without warning anybody.

Upset to lose him, his archdiocesans instituted a search of all the religious houses in southeastern France, but did not find him. Actually, Peter had fled to a remote Cistercian monastery in Switzerland. Unknown by its monks, he had applied for admission as a simple lay brother. Eventually, however, the Swiss monks learned who Brother Peter was, and of course they reported him to his archdiocese, so he had to return there. Well, at least, he had had 12 months of monastic peace! No doubt he was pleased to be welcomed back home enthusiastically. That, he now realized, was where God wanted him.

Once returned, the archbishop set about his duties with renewed vigor. The poor received special attention. He also rebuilt the hospice of the Little St. Bernard at the mountain pass, and erected similar hospices along other Alpine-pass routes. He likewise instituted the practice of the “May Bread”, which continued to flourish until the French Revolution: a bread-and-soup line in the summer months before the scanty mountain harvest was ready.

Always a peacemaker. Archbishop Peter was able to reconcile several prominent enemies and thus prevent bloodshed. His major peacemaking activity was his preaching In France, Alsace-Lorraine, and even Italy, in defense of the true pope, Alexander III. In this case his adversary was none other than the powerful Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, who had named an antipope, “Victor IV”, to replace Pope Alexander. To Frederick’s credit, he let Peter speak against him, even in his presence. Frederick would eventually be reconciled with Alexander III in 1177.

Pope Alexander next sent St. Peter to western France in 1174 to conciliate King Louis VII of France and King Henry II of England. Both monarchs treated the aged and holy archbishop with due respect, but still agreed to disagree. Peter, disappointed, left for Tarentaise, and died on the way back. But after his death, the two rival rulers came to terms.

Pope Celestine III canonized Archbishop Peter II of Tarentaise in 1191. That was only 17 years after the death of this “runaway archbishop”!

--Father Robert F. McNamara