On October 22, Franciscans in the USA celebrate the memory of Saint Peter of Alcántara, a famous reformer of Franciscan life (in most of the world, his feast is observed on October 19).
Peter was born in 1499 in the town of Alcántara in the Extremadura region of Spain. He was sent to the University of Salamanca to study law, but at age 16, he decided to join the small Discalced reform movement of the Franciscans. In 1519, most of these friars joined the Franciscans of the Regular Observance, but forming their own province of San Gabriel in Extremadura. Peter was ordained in 1524, and even as a young friar gained the reputation of being an effective preacher and spiritual leader.
Elected provincial minister of San Gabriel in 1538, Peter drew up ordinances that were viewed as too strict by many friars, so he gathered some followers to form new fraternities. These achieved a large measure of autonomy in 1554 as the Discalced or “Barefoot” Reform. Their life was extremely austere: as their name implies, the friars went about barefoot when possible; their friaries were small and the bedrooms tiny; meat and dairy products were permitted only for the sick, while scourging and other penitential observances were regular practices.
Peter was especially noted for his severe way of life: fasting, sleep deprivation, and intense prayer, but he also continued to devote himself to preaching, at which he was very effective. His treatise on prayer remains a classic.
Peter proved a strong support to St. Teresa of Avila in her reform efforts among the Carmelites; she said he “was so extremely thin that he seemed to be made of nothing more than some gnarled roots . . . but he was very kind, though he spoke little, unless asked a question. However, his responses were exquisite because of his deep understanding. . .From the beginning I saw that he understood me, which is all that I needed. That holy man shed light on everything for me.”
He died at his hermitage in Arenas in 1562 and was canonized in 1669. He is the patron saint of the Extremadura region and Brazil.
Truly, matters in this world are in a bad state. . . but the remedy is simple. You and I must first be what we ought to be; then we shall have cured what concerns ourselves. Let each one do the same and all will be well. The trouble is that we all talk of reforming others without ever reforming ourselves.
Main image: Peter of Alcantara, School of Zurbaran (The Bowes Museum)
Dominic V. Monti, OFM, is a Franciscan Friar of Holy Name Province (USA) and currently professor of Franciscan Research in the Franciscan Institute of St. Bonaventure University. He devoted the greater part of his ministry to teaching the History of Christianity, in particular the history of the Franciscan movement. He has contributed two volumes to the Works of St. Bonaventure series and is author of Francis & His Brothers, a popular history of the Friars Minor.