Pope Damasus I

From Academic Kids

Damasus I (ca. 305-383) was pope from 366 to 383. His father was Antonius; the name of his mother, Laurentia, was not discovered until the beginning of the 21st century. Damasus seems to have been born at Guimară¥³, in today what is Portuguese territory. It is certain that he grew up there in the service of the church of the martyr St. Laurence in Rome.

In 366, the death of Liberius led to a division in the church at Rome. One faction supported Ursinus, who had served as deacon to Liberius, while the other faction, previously loyal to the Antipope Felix II, supported Damasus. This dissension climaxed with a riot which led to a three-day massacre and to the rare intervention of Emperor Valentinian I to uphold public order. Damasus prevailed, but only with the support of the city prefect. Once he was securely consecrated bishop of Rome, his men attacked Ursinus and his remaining supporters who were seeking refuge in the Liberian basilica, resulting in a massacre of one hundred and thirty seven supporters of Ursinus. Damasus was also accused of murder before a later prefect, but his rich friends secured the personal intervention of the emperor to rescue him from this humiliation. The reputations of both Damasus and the Roman church in general suffered greatly due to these two unseemly incidents.

Many in both pagan and Christian society saw in Damasus a man whose worldly ambitions outweighed his pastoral concerns. His entertainments were infamous for their lavishness. A wealthy aristocrat called Praetextatus, who was a priest in the cults of numerous gods, is reputed to have said jokingly to Damasus, "Make me bishop of Rome and I will become a Christian". Some of his critics used to call him "The ladies' ear-tickler". An accusation of adultery was laid against him in 378 in the imperial court, but he was exonerated by Emperor Gratianus himself.

Damasus is notable for his association with Jerome whom he appointed his confidential secretary: "A great many years ago when I was helping Damasus, bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of the east and west," Jerome remarks (if "east and west" do not betray the passage as an interpolation) in his letter of 409 (letter cxx.10 [1] (http://www.ccel.org/fathers/NPNF2-06/letters/lette123.htm)). Jerome's apparent surviving letters of fulsome praise emphasizing the primacy of the see of Peter, however, are actually part of the 9th century Pseudo-Isidorian forgeries, however they are still often quoted as if genuine.

Damasus encouraged the highly respected scholar to revise the available Old Latin versions of the Bible into a more accurate Latin, resulting in the Vulgate. Jerome devotes a very brief notice to Damasus in 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" (ch. 103).

Damasus also contributed greatly to the liturgical and aesthetic enrichment of the city churches. He employed a calligrapher, one Dionysius Philocalus, to adorn the shrines of martyrs and Roman bishops with epigrams.

These ceremonial embellishments and the emphasis on the Roman legacy of Peter and Paul amounted to a general claim to the Roman upper classes that the real glory of Rome was Christian and not pagan. All this made it more socially acceptable for the upper classes to convert to Christianity. Often, the women of the family were the first to abandon pagan ways, while the men tended to hold on to them longer, being generally more conservative in their idealised views on the greatness of the Empire. This was often more for aesthetic and antiquarian reasons, rather than strictly religious ones. To these elegant, austere citizens, the pagan zeal of the previous Emperor, Julian was an embarrassment nearly as grating as that of any Christian evangelist.

Damasus was the first bishop of Rome to invoke the "Petrine text" (Matthew 16:18) in terms that sought to establish a serious theological and scriptural foundation on which the primacy of the Roman church could be based. From Damasus onwards, there is a marked increase in the volume and importance of claims of authority and primacy from the Roman bishops, claims reinforced by the forged correspondence with Jerome (see below).

Damasus spoke of Rome in terms of the "Apostolic See", as his predecessor Liberius had also done. This is one of the most noteworthy qualities of his reign, as it allowed him to emphasise his powerful apostolic inheritance. His reign is also one of the more important landmarks in the progression towards the development of the Papacy proper.

Letters of Pseudo-Jerome to Pseudo-Damasus

The letters purportedly from Jerome to Damasus have sometimes been adduced as examples of the primacy of the seat 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 uncivilized 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."

Letter of Jerome to Pope Damasus, 376 A.D., 2

Preceded by:
Saint Liberius
Succeeded by:
Saint Siricius

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"The Pelican History of the Church - 1: The Early Church" by Henry Chadwick
"A History of the Christian Church" by Williston Walker

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