This great Pontiff comes before us in the Liturgical Year, not to bring us tidings of peace as St. Melchiades did (the Pope at the beginning of the reign of Constantine; Feast—December 10), but as one of the most illustrious defenders of the great mystery of the Incarnation. He grew up in Rome in the service of the church dedicated to the Martyr St. Lawrence. He was elected Pope in October, 366, by a large majority, but a number of over-zealous adherents of the deceased Pope Liberius rejected him, chose the deacon Ursinus, had the latter irregularly consecrated, and resorted to much violence and bloodshed in order to seat him on the Chair of Peter. In 367 the Emperor Valentinian recognized St. Damasus as the true Pope and banished Ursinus to Cologne, whence he was later allowed to return to Milan, but was forbidden to come to Rome or its vicinity. Partisans of the antipope (who at Milan sided with the Arians, and continued to the end to be a contentious pretender) did not cease to persecute St. Damasus. Years later, in 378, an accusation of adultery was laid against him in the imperial court, but he was exonerated by the Emperor Gratian himself and soon after by a Roman synod of 44 Bishops, which also excommunicated his accusers.
St. 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 (which taught that Jesus Christ had assumed only the flesh and not the soul of man) and Macedonianism (which denied the divinity of the Holy Ghost). In the Roman synod of 369 Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan, was excommunicated; he held onto the See, however, until his death in 374 made way for the great St. Ambrose. The heretic Priscillian (the chief proponent of a Gnostic-Manichaean Dualist system, which held that Christ had only a heavenly, but not a real, body), condemned by the Council of Zaragoza (380), appealed to St. Damasus, but in vain.
He commissioned St. Jerome to make a new translation of the New Testament from the Greek, for the use of the Church of Rome; here again, giving a further proof of the faith and love which he bore to the Incarnate Word. St. Damasus strenuously upheld the laws aimed at curbing the corruption of the Roman clergy. He also built or restored several churches and was responsible for having made many epitaphs or memorials, which have served archeologists and historians with ample proofs of the unchanging Christian Faith.
The Council of Chalcedon called him "the ornament and support of Rome by his piety." St. Jerome, too, who looked upon St. Damasus as his friend and patron, called him "a man of the greatest worth; a man whose equal could not be found, well versed in the Holy Scriptures, and a virgin Doctor of the virgin Church." The lessons of the Breviary give us a brief account of his life:
St. Damasus was a Spaniard, a man of highest worth, and learned in the Scriptures. He called the First Council of Constantinople, in which he condemend the impious heresy of Eunomius and Macedonius. He also condemned the Council of Rimini, which had already been rejected by Pope Liberius, inasmuch as it was in this assembly of Rimini, as St. Jerome tells us, that, mainly by the craft of Valens and Ursacius, there was published a condemnation of the Faith which had been taught by the Nicene Council, and thus the whole world grieved to find itself Arian.
He built two basilicas: one dedicated to St. Lawrence, near Pompey's theater, and this he endowed with magnificent gifts, with houses and lands; the other, on the Ardeatine Way, at the Catacombs. The bodies of Ss. Peter and Paul lay for some time in a place richly adorned with marble; this place he dedicated, and composed for it several inscriptions in beautiful verses. He also wrote on virginity, both in prose and verse, and several other poems.
He established the law of retaliation for cases of false accusation. He decreed that, as was the custom in many places, the psalms should be sung in all churches in alternate choirs, day and night; and that at the end of each psalm, there should be added: "Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost." It was by his order that St. Jerome translated the New Testament from the Greek text. He governed the Church seventeen years, two months, and twenty-six days; and five times during this period, he gave ordinations in the month of December, to thirty-one priests, eleven deacons, and sixty-two bishops, for divers places. Conspicuous for his virtue, learning, and prudence, and having lived a little short of eighty years, he slept in the Lord during the reign of Emperor Theodosius the Great. He was buried in the basilica which he had built on the Ardeatine Way, where also lay his mother and sister. His relics were afterwards translated to the church of St. Lawrence, called after him "in Damaso."
Holy Pontiff Damasus, thou the successor of the Prince of the Apostles, obtain for all true Catholics that they be animated with those sentiments, which St. Jerome thus describes in one of his letters addressed to thee: "It is the Chair of Peter that I will consult, for from it do I derive that Faith which is the food of my soul. I will search for this precious pearl, heeding not the vast expanse of sea and land which I must pass over. Where the body is, there shall the eagles be gathered together. It is now in the west that the Sun of Justice rises. I ask the Victim of Salvation from the Priest, and from the Shepherd, the protection of the sheep. On that rock, I know the Church is built. He that eats the Lamb in any house but this, is profane, He that is not in Noah's ark, shall perish in the waters of the deluge. I know not Vitalis, I reject Meletius, I pass by Paulinus. He that gathers not with thee, Damasus, scatters; for he that is not of Christ, is of Antichrist."
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