When Constantine became Roman emperor in 312 A.D. and authorized the toleration of the hitherto proscribed Christians, these followers of Christ, no longer kept austere in faith by the threat of death, all too often began to swagger about. Even some of the bishops of Rome were not immune to the temptation to relax and live pompously. In fact, one pagan senator observed sarcastically, “Make me bishop of Rome and I will be a Christian tomorrow!”
Pope Damasus I held fast to the ideal for which the martyrs had died. He was a Roman deacon in the service of Pope Liberius. When Liberius passed away in 366 A.D., the choice of his successor occasioned an embarrassing dispute. Most of the clergy and laity chose Deacon Damasus, now a man of 60. But a small yet influential faction picked the Deacon Ursinus. The opposing factions even came to blows. The election of Damasus was finally upheld, but he still had to exonerate himself before state and church regarding a malicious charge brought against him by the stubborn partisans of Ursinus.
Even when he had been enthroned, Damasus was faced with 18 years of political and theological turbulence. He enforced with vigor various reform measures, but he was not always completely successful in his dealings with the emperors and the Eastern churches. All this ferment sounds rather familiar in our own day. However, Damasus defended the primacy of the bishops of Rome over the Church. He also became the first pope to apply to the bishopric of Rome the title “apostolic see” because it was founded by Saints Peter and Paul.
Pope Damasus was well versed in the sacred scriptures. The great scripture scholar St. Jerome, who was for a time the pope’s secretary, bears witness to this. It was St. Damasus who commissioned Jerome to revise the then-current Latin text of the Bible. Before the pope died, St. Jerome was able to put into his hands the corrected New Testament. This became part of the “Vulgate” Bible that remained the official Latin Catholic version of the Church until recently.
In spite of the worldliness of many contemporary Christians, Pope Damasus retained, as we have said, a reverent devotion to the Christians of the days of persecution. The Church in Rome would continue for several centuries to use the underground cemeteries (“catacombs”) in which many of the local martyrs had been buried. Damasus was careful to maintain and adorn these sanctified places. In them he set up a large number of marble tablets bearing inscriptions that he himself had devised. His friend Furius Dionysius Filocalus carved them in one of the most beautiful typefaces ever designed.
Damasus dearly wanted to be buried in the little chapel of St. Calixtus’ catacomb where a number of his predecessors were interred. His wish was not fulfilled, but he was able to record on a tablet in that chapel: “I, Damasus, wished to be buried here, but I feared to offend the ashes of these holy ones.”
For his actual burial place, he composed the following inscription that testified to his faith in the Child born in Bethlehem:
“He who walking in the sea could calm the bitter waves, who gives life to the dying seeds of the earth; He who was able to loose the mortal chains of death, and after three days’ darkness could bring again to the upper world the brother for his sister Martha; He, I believe, will make Damasus rise from the dust.”
We, too, express that faith in the power of our Savior whenever we profess the Nicene Creed, as St. Damasus did: “Et exspecto resurrectionern mortuorum et vitam venturi saeculi”; “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
–Father Robert F. McNamara