Today is the feast day of Saint Damasus. Ora pro nobis.
Saint Damasus was born in Rome at the beginning of the fourth century. His father, Antonius, was probably a Spaniard; the name of his mother, Laurentia. His father, a widower, had received Holy Orders there and served as parish priest in the church of St. Laurence. Damasus was archdeacon of the Roman Church in 355, when the Pope, Saint Liberius, was banished to Berda; he followed him into exile, but afterwards returned to Rome.
On the death of Saint Liberius in 366, our Saint was chosen to succeed him, at the age of sixty-two. A certain Ursinus, jealous of his election and desiring for himself that high office, had himself proclaimed pope by his followers, inciting a revolt against Damasus in Rome, in which 137 persons died. The holy Pope did not choose to resort to armed defense, but the Emperor Valentinian, to defend him, drove the usurper from Rome for a time. Later he returned, and finding accomplices for his evil intentions, accused the holy Pontiff of adultery. Saint Damasus took only such action as was becoming to the common father of the faithful; he assembled a synod of forty-four bishops, in which he justified himself so well that the calumniators were excommunicated and banished.
Damasus defended with vigor the Catholic Faith in a time of dire and varied perils. In two Roman synods (368 and 369) he condemned Apollinarianism and Macedonianism; he also sent his legates to the Council of Constantinople (381), convoked against the aforesaid heresies. In the Roman synod of 369 (or 370) Auxentius, the Arian Bishop of Milan, was excommunicated; he held the see, however, until his death, in 374, made way for St. Ambrose. The heretic Priscillian, condemned by the Council of Saragossa (380) appealed to Damasus, but in vain. It was Damasus who induced Saint Jerome to undertake his famous revision of the earlier Latin versions of the Bible. St. Jerome was also his confidential secretary for some time (Ep. cxxiii, n. 10).
An important canon of the New Testament was proclaimed by him in the Roman synod of 374. The Eastern Church, in the person of St. Basil of Cæsarea, besought earnestly the aid and encouragement of Damasus against triumphant Arianism; the pope, however, cherished some degree of suspicion against the great Cappadocian Doctor. In the matter of the Meletian Schism at Antioch, Damasus, with Athanasius and Peter of Alexandria, sympathized with the party of Paulinus as more sincerely representative of Nicene orthodoxy; on the death of Meletius he sought to secure the succession for Paulinus and to exclude Flavian (Socrates, Hist. Eccl., V, xv). He sustained the appeal of the Christian senators to Emperor Gratian for the removal of the altar of Victory from the Senate House (Ambrose, Ep. xvii, n. 10), and lived to welcome the famous edict of Theodosius I, “De fide Catholica” (27 Feb., 380), which proclaimed as the religion of the Roman State that doctrine which St. Peter had preached to the Romans and of which Damasus was supreme head (Cod. Theod., XVI, 1, 2).
When, in 379, Illyricum was detached from the Western Empire, Damasus hastened to safeguard the authority of the Roman Church by the appointment of a vicar Apostolic in the person of Ascholius, Bishop of Thessalonica; this was the origin of the important papal vicariate long attached to that see. The primacy of the Apostolic See, variously favoured in the time of Damasus by imperial acts and edicts, was strenuously maintained by this pope; among his notable utterances on this subject is the assertion (Mansi, Coll. Conc., VIII, 158) that the ecclesiastical supremacy of the Roman Church was based, not on the decrees of councils, but on the very words of Jesus Christ (Matt., xvi, 18).
The increased prestige of the early papal decretals, habitually attributed to the reign of Siricius (384-99), not improbably belongs to the reign of Damasus (“Canones Romanorum ad Gallos”; Babut, “La plus ancienne décrétale” Paris, 1904). This development of the papal office, especially in the West, brought with it a great increase of external grandeur. This secular splendour, however, affected disadvantageously many members of the Roman clergy, whose worldly aims and life, bitterly reproved by St. Jerome, provoked (29 July, 370) and edict of Emperor Valentinian addressed to the pope, forbidding ecclesiastics and monks (later also bishops and nuns) to pursue widows and orphans in the hope of obtaining from them gifts and legacies. The pope caused the law to be observed strictly.
He rebuilt and adorned the Church of Saint Laurence, still called Saint Laurence in Damaso. He caused to be drained all the springs of the Vatican, which were inundating the tombs of the holy persons buried there, and he decorated the sepulchres of a great number of martyrs in the cemeteries, adorning them with epitaphs in verse. Before his death, he consecrated sixty-two bishops.
Saint Damasus is praised by Theodoret as head of the famous doctors of divine grace of the Latin church; the General Council of Chalcedon calls him the honor and glory of Rome. Having reigned for eighteen years and two months, he died on the 10th of December in 384, when he was nearly eighty years old. In the eighth century, his relics were definitively placed in the church of Saint Laurence in Damaso, except for his head, conserved in the Basilica of Saint Peter.
Image: Bleiglasfenster (Ausschnitt) in der katholischen Pfarrkirche Saint-Vincent-de-Paul in Clichy, Darstellung: Papst Damasus I.(7)
Research by REGINA Staff