The parents of Peter Gonzales were wealthy and apparently expected their son to become a priest so that he might in time obtain some rank. It was a period in history when this sort of thing was a trial to the Church, and Peter’s worldly youth was only one of many examples. He was educated by his uncle, the bishop of Astorga, who invested him with a canonry at Palencia and deanery when he was still quite young.
Full of pride, for a special Bull had been procured so that he might obtain the deanery while he was under age, he resolved to be installed with great pomp, and for his state entry into Astorga chose Christmas Day when the streets were likely to be crowded. He wanted to impress his flock with his fine clothes and vivid personality.
He paraded through the town on horseback, magnificently equipped, but in the noise and excitement the animal reared and threw him upon a dung heap. The Spanish people, who have a fine sense of comedy, responded with loud gusts of laughter. Picking himself up in shame, he cried: “If the world mocks me, henceforth, I will mock the world.” Covered with filth and confusion, Peter withdrew to clean up and ponder his sins.
Surprisingly enough, when his wounded feelings had healed, Peter reformed his pointless life and immediately entered the Dominican monastery at Palencia. He was never to forget to weep for his sins, and his life was spent in prayer and penance to offset the wasted years of his youth.
Peter’s friends did not allow this to happen without protest. They had been amused by his accident, but not converted by it as he was, and they did their best to talk him into leaving religious life and returning to the luxurious world he had left behind. It was probably a serious temptation to the young man, for it is not easy to reform overnight. But he did not turn back. Instead, he said to his friends, “If you love me, follow me! If you cannot follow me, forget me!” He became, by close application to the rule, one of the shining exemplars of this difficult way of life.
After his studies were completed, Peter entered into his apostolate. It was to take him into places where his worldly background would be a help rather than a hindrance, for he could well understand the temptations and troubles of worldly people. He was first of all a military chaplain with the royal army. He also began to preach in the region. He did not talk about trivia, his sermons drew large crowds. The recitation of the Psalms was his most constant prayer.
The fame of his piety and zeal spread throughout Spain and reached the ears of King Saint Ferdinand of Castile, who sent for him and attached him to his court as chaplain and as his confessor. Appalled by its licentiousness, Gonzales immediately set about reforming it, which so displeased the younger courtiers that they tried to corrupt him; but he was proof against all temptations and won the confidence of the saintly king.
Peter did much to foster the crusade against the Moors. When Ferdinand finally acted, Peter accompanied him on his expedition against the Moors. Upon the capture of Cordova and Seville, Peter used his influence and authority on the side of the vanquished and was instrumental in reducing rape and bloodshed. He also took over the Moorish mosques and converted them into Christian churches.
He was showered with favors by the king, who had the utmost confidence in him. Fearing honors, however, Peter quit the king’s service upon his return to Spain. Instead, moved by compassion, he lived among the poor peasants and sought to evangelize them. Although he was met everywhere with ignorance and brutality, his work proved efficacious. He penetrated the wildest and most inaccessible areas, seeking out the peasants in villages and the shepherds in the mountains of the Asturias. His preaching brought about reconciliation between neighbors and between men and God. He gave reassurance to the dismayed and the perplexed.
Most of the anecdotes of his life come from this period, and they have to do with miracles that he worked for these people. At his prayer, storms ceased, droughts were ended, bottles were refilled with wine, bread was found in the wilderness. The bridge that he built across the swift river Minho made his name famous throughout Spain, and it existed up until recent times. During the time he was directing work on this bridge, he used to call the fish to come and be caught; it was a way of helping to feed the workers.
He visited also the seaports of Galicia–boarding ships and preaching on their open decks. He had a great liking for sailors, and is often portrayed in the habit of his Order, holding a blue candle which symbolized Saint Elmo’s fire, the blue electrical discharge which sometimes appears in thunder storms at the mast- heads of ships, and which was supposed to be a sign that the vessel was under the saint’s protection. (The name of Saint Elmo is of earlier origin. Peter Gonzales, in the popular devotion of the sailors of the Mediterranean, has replaced the name and memory of the older saints associated with the sea, particularly the 4th century Saint Erasmus.)
He retired finally to Tuy in a state of extreme exhaustion. During Lent he preached each day in the cathedral, on Palm Sunday he foretold his death, and on the Sunday after Easter, he died at Santiago de Compostella. Bishop Luke of Tuy, his great admirer and friend, attended him to his last breath and buried him honorably in his cathedral. In his last will, the bishop gave directions for his own body to be laid near Peter’s remains, which were placed in a silver shrine and honored with many miracles.
Born: 1190 at Astorga, Spain
Died: April 15,1246 at Saintiago de Compostela, Tuy; buried in the cathedral at Tuy
Beatified: 1254 by Pope Innocent IV
Canonized: December 13, 1741 by Pope Benedict XIV (cultus confirmed)
Representation: Dominican holding a blue candle or a candle with a blue flame; Dominican lying on his cloak which is spread over hot coals; Dominican holding fire in his bare hands; Dominican catching fish with his bare hands; Dominican beside the ocean, often holding or otherwise protecting a ship.