The Catholic Defender: Saint Damasus I
Pope St. Damasus I was born into a Christian family in Rome. He became a deacon and served at the Basilica of St. Lawrence in Rome where his father served as priest. After the death of Pope Liberius,
The son of a Roman priest, possibly of Spanish extraction, Damasus started as a deacon in his father’s church, and served as a priest in what later became the basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome. He served Pope Liberius (352-366) and followed him into exile.
Damasus was a sixty-year-old deacon when he was elected bishop of Rome in 366. His reign was marked by violence from the start when another group decided to elect a different pope. Both sides tried to enforce their selections through violence. Though the physical fighting stopped, Damasus had to struggle with these opponents throughout his years as pope.
When Liberius died, Damasus was elected bishop of Rome; but a minority elected and consecrated another deacon, Ursinus, as pope. The controversy between Damasus and the antipope resulted in violent battles in two basilicas, scandalizing the bishops of Italy. At the synod that Damasus called on the occasion of his birthday, he asked them to approve his actions. The bishops’ reply was curt: “We assembled for a birthday, not to condemn a man unheard.”
to gain support, Ursinus made the false accusation that St. Damasus had committed adultery. Supporters of the antipope even managed to get Damasus because of this accusation as late as A.D. 378. He had to clear himself before both a civil court and a Church synod.
To his secretary Saint Jerome, Damasus was “an incomparable person, learned in the Scriptures, a virgin doctor of the virgin Church, who loved chastity and heard its praises with pleasure.”
Damasus was the pope who commissioned Saint Jerome to translate the Scriptures into Latin, the Vulgate version of the Bible.
Damasus seldom heard such unrestrained praise. Internal political struggles, doctrinal heresies, uneasy relations with his fellow bishops and those of the Eastern Church marred the peace of his pontificate.
After Damasus' election, a deacon named Ursinus attempted to set himself up as a rival pope – resulting in riots in which more than 130 people died, and a schism that persisted for some time during his papacy. The Pope prayed for the reconciliation of these separated clergy, and lived to see some of them return.
St. Damasus was a Spaniard of great eminence and learned in the Sacred Scriptures. He called the first Council of Constantinople, The heresy of Eunomius:
Eunomius heresy carried his views to a practical issue by altering the baptismal formula. Instead of baptizing in the name of the Trinity by immersing the person in water thrice, he baptized in the death of Christ with only one immersion. This alteration was regarded by the orthodox as so serious that Eunomians on returning to the church were rebaptized,
the heresy of Macedonius: a 4th-century Christian heresy that denied the full personhood and divinity of the Holy Spirit. According to this heresy, the Holy Spirit was created by the Son and was thus subordinate to the Father and the Son.
Damasus may not have won this battle directly, but he won the war by initiating works that outlasted all his opponents. Not only did he commission the Vulgate translation but he also changed the liturgical language of the Church from Greek to Latin. He worked hard to preserve and restore the catacombs, the graves of the martyrs, and relics.
As pope, his lifestyle was simple in contrast to other ecclesiastics of Rome, and he was fierce in his denunciation of Arianism and other heresies. A misunderstanding of the Trinitarian terminology used by Rome threatened amicable relations with the Eastern Church, and Damasus was only moderately successful in dealing with that challenge.
Damasus I wrote in 382, “not by the conciliar decisions of other churches, but has received the primacy by the evangelic voice of our Lord and Savior, who says: ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church' … The first see, therefore, is that of Peter the apostle, that of the Roman Church,”
During his pontificate, Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman state, and Latin became the principal liturgical language as part of the pope’s reforms. His encouragement of Saint Jerome’s biblical studies led to the Vulgate, the Latin translation of Scripture which 12 centuries later the Council of Trent declared to be “authentic in public readings, disputations, preaching.”
In a Roman cemetery is the papal crypt he built. All that is left of him there, however, is this: " I, Damasus, wished to be buried here, but I feared to offend the ashes of these holy ones." Instead, when he died in 384, he was buried with his mother and sister.
A saint in his own right, Pope Damasus I is also one of history's great devotees of the saints. Chroniclers of his life record not only his commitment to the intercession of the martyrs, but also his care for the tombs of the saints buried in Rome, which he renovated into shrines. Damasus composed Latin poetry in honor of these saints, some of which has survived.
It was during Damasus’ reign that Christianity was declared the religion of the Roman state. Pope Damasus also called the Council of Rome in 382 A.D. to clarify the canon of Sacred Scripture. He opposed heresy, worked to preserve the catacombs, and advocated for devotion to the Christians martyred under the Roman persecutions. His feast day is December 11.
Pope St. Damasus I died on Dec. 11, 384. Since the eighth century, his relics have been venerated both in Rome's Church of St. Lawrence in Damaso (first built by St. Damasus himself, though rebuilt in later centuries), and in St. Peter's Basilica.