In a world like our own, where factionalism and deep religious and political divisions poison our relationships, a saint like Peter Thomas is like a breath of fresh air. His life as a devout Carmelite and a diplomatic healer and trouble-shooter reminds us that reconciliation and common ground are always possible with God’s help.
Peter Thomas was born in the southern Périgord region of France, to a very poor peasant family. His piety and skill as a teacher attracted the attention of the Carmelite prior of Bergérac, who invited him to join that community. He continued his teaching in various houses of study until he was sent to Paris for advanced scholarship at the University there. While his studies were still in progress, the Carmelites elected him Procurator General in 1345, which meant that he was the primary liaison with the papal curia. This was during the 70-year period when a series of popes lived at Avignon, in southern France, so his travels to the pontifical court were somewhat easier.
He proved to be a brilliant diplomat, but never ceased to be a good religious as well. He continued to live an austere, simple life amid regal splendor, and never missed his prayers or meditation, even when he was intensely busy. His disarming humility meant that he could chat with peasants, soldiers and sailors just as easily as high government officials. A cardinal friend secured an appointment for him as apostolic preacher at the court of Clement VI and his successors. Then he began to be entrusted with a series of crucial diplomatic missions, largely concerned with mediating disputes between princes and reconciling members of the Eastern Orthodox churches. In 1353, Pope Innocent VI sent him on a special mission of restoring peace between the powerful maritime republics Venice and Genoa, as well as settling a dispute between the Pope himself and the Kingdom of Naples. Although these quarrels were not perfectly settled, Peter Thomas proved to be such a skillful and earnest envoy that he was given bigger trials to confront.
The following year, he was sent to Stefan Dushan, King of Serbia, who had shown interest in reuniting the Serbian Church with Rome. Peter Thomas made great progress in reconciling the Serbian bishops, and a final understanding was only frustrated by Dushan’s own death. Most of his remaining years were dedicated to working out a similar reconciliation with the Greek Orthodox Church, and forging an alliance which would defend Constantinople against the advances of the Ottoman Turks. Some Greek nobles, including the Byzantine Emperor, John V Paleologus, actually submitted to papal authority, but the Patriarch and most of the Greek bishops hesitated to finalize a reconciliation of the churches. Even so, Peter Thomas was able to put together a credible alliance of Christian states who helped defend Smyrna and other threatened cities against Turkish inroads. His own reputation for personal sincerity and holiness was never in dispute.
In 1360, he crowned his personal friend Peter I of Lusignan King of Cyprus and Jerusalem (in exile), who in turn became an enthusiastic participant in the alliance. All the while, Peter Thomas worked to persuade the Orthodox bishops of Cyprus to reestablish their own unity with the Roman church. In 1364, the new Pope, Urban V, named him Latin Patriarch of Constantinople in order to increase his standing in his negotiations with the Byzantine leaders. That same year, Peter Thomas succeeded in getting his alliance to capture Alexandria in Egypt, but the military leaders hesitated to move on to Cairo. When they withdrew to their ships, the expedition collapsed, and Peter Thomas concealed his own discouragement by trying once again to forge unity.
Death prevented him from final success, however. He died of a fever on Cyprus, and was buried in the Carmelite church at Famagusta. He left behind a reputation for personal simplicity, devotion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and a love of peace and unity. Power, wealth, and luxury held no attraction for him, even as he circulated among the most powerful people of his age. The triumph of Christ and his Kingdom of Love was his single, inflexible goal.