Saint of the Day – 11 December – St Pope Damasus I (c 305-384) Priest and Pope – ( c 305 in Rome, Italy – 11 December 384 in Rome, Italy of natural causes). Patronage – archeologists. He was buried in the Mark and Marcellianus catacombs in Rome
and his bones re-buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso.
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.
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, scandalising 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.” Supporters of the antipope even managed to get Damasus accused of a grave crime—probably sexual—as late as 378. He had to clear himself before both a civil court and a Church synod.
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.
He appointed St Jerome as his confidential secretary. Invited to Rome originally to a synod of 382 convened to end the schism of Antioch, Jerome made himself indispensable to the pope and took a prominent place in his councils. Jerome spent three years (382–385) in Rome in close intercourse with Pope Damasus and the leading Christians. Writing in 409, Jerome remarked, “A great many years ago when I was helping Damasus, bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, I was also helping to write his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of the east and west…”
In order to put an end to the marked divergences in the western texts of that period, Damasus encouraged the highly respected scholar Jerome to revise the available Old Latin versions of the Bible into a more accurate Latin on the basis of the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint, resulting in the Vulgate. Jerome devoted a very brief notice to Damasus in his De Viris Illustribus, written after Damasus’ death: “he had a fine talent for making verses and published many brief works in heroic metre. He died in the reign of the emperor Theodosius at the age of almost eighty”.
The letters from Jerome to Damasus are examples of the primacy of the See of Peter:
Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilised waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist!”
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.”