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Catholic Heroes… Pope St. Damasus I

December 5, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Our Lord gave us a very comforting promise in Matt. 16:18 when He said, “And I say to thee: ‘Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’.” The Catholic Church has survived the intrigues of numerous antipopes. An antipope is a “false claimant to the Holy See in opposition to the Pope canonically elected” (Modern Catholic Dictionary, Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, p. 31).
Pope St. Damasus was the fourth Pope who had to persevere against an antipope: Ursinus (366-367).
Damasus’ parents originally came from Lusitania, an ancient Iberian Roman province. His father, Antonius, and his mother, Laureatia, lived in Rome when he was born, around the year 304. The exact year of Laurentia’s death is not known; but Antonius, after serving as a reader and lector, became a priest. Antonius then served in the Church of St. Lawrence in Rome where Damasus later served as a deacon and then as a priest.
In 313, the Western Roman Emperor Constantine I, and Emperor Licinius, who controlled the Balkans, issued the Edict of Milan, effectively giving Christians in the Roman Empire religious freedom.
With the ascendancy of Constantine II as Emperor, Pope Liberius was exiled in 354. Damasus, who was archdeacon at the time, followed the Pope. Soon Damasus returned to Rome and helped to lead the Church until Pope Liberius returned to Rome.
In that era, papal succession, as well as the succession of bishops, was fraught with infighting and political maneuvering. With the increasing number of Christians in local churches — from all walks of life and levels of society — rival claimants made for hostile episcopal elections.
The papacy also had its troubles since the emperors thought that they should have the final say in who should be Pope. In the midst of this time of ecclesiastical upheaval, Damasus became Pope when Pope Liberius died on September 24, 366. The laity supported Deacon Ursinus who had served the Pope, but others supported Damasus, who had ruled during the exile of Pope Liberius.
Damasus was elected in San Lorenzo in Lucina, thus leading Ursinus — incensed by such a defeat — to hold his own “election.” He gathered some bishops and priests together to name him bishop of Rome. This action was contrary to the canons of the Roman Church and thus invalid.
This development led Juventius, the prefect of Rome, to banish Ursinus from Rome. When he and his priests were gathered up and sent into exile, Ursinus’ supporters revolted, with the conflict leaving 137 persons dead.
After one year in exile, Ursinus was allowed to return to Rome. However, the ensuing trouble caused by his presence resulted in Emperor Valentinian banishing him again. Ursinus’ supporters took control of St. Agnes Church, but Valentinian ordered them to relinquish it to Damasus.
Sadly, the city magistrate, Maximin, an overzealous supporter of Damasus, captured and tortured some of the malcontents.
Historians such as St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, and Rufinus recognized Damasus as Pope and also recorded that Ursinus was connected to the Arian heresy.
Of course those schismatics accused Pope Damasus of being an accessory to such proceedings, but he was cleared of the charges. Rather he prayed to those who died in the conflict as one would pray to martyrs, imploring their intercession for the conversion of the errant clerics. Upon their conversion, these same people adorned the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs.
As the struggle for the papacy continued, the installation of Damasus proved successful. Twelve years after his election, Damasus’ papacy was confirmed and Ursinus’ election condemned at the synod held in 378. Although Damasus was exonerated, Ursinus continued his efforts to undermine the rightful Pope, and he later even tried to claim the papacy again when Damasus died.
Finally those who supported Ursinus recognized the papacy of Damasus. Then in the Council of Aquileia in 381, Damasus was formally declared Pope of the Church after a similar council in Rome in 378 had also confirmed his election.
During this era of ecclesiastical indulgence, priests and bishops living in luxury reached new heights — or depths. St. Jerome’s admiration of the Pope indicated that Damasus was not one of those greedy clerics.
A number of heresies continued to prevail. Arianism still remained in the East, raising its head during Damasus’ reign since Emperor Valens supported it. With the orthodox assistance of St. Athanasius and St. Basil, truth triumphed and the Arian bishops as well as Valens were condemned by the Church.
In addition, Apollinarianism — which held that Jesus had no human intellect — was condemned by at the Council of Alexandria in 360. In 374 at the Council in Rome, Pope Damasus again soundly condemned the heresy. Sadly, Bishop Apollinarius died in his error.
Another achievement during the reign of Pope St. Damasus was the completion of the Vulgate, the only version of Sacred Scripture to have received the formal approval of the Church. The great doctor of the Church St. Jerome served as secretary to Damasus from 382 to 384. Pope Damasus instructed Jerome to revise all the Old Latin versions of the Bible into a more accurate rendering based on the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint.
In 382 the Council of Rome approved a list of the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments. This list of the books of both Testaments is generally the same as the one ratified by the Council of Trent.
Damasus also lived long enough to witness the 380 Edict of Thessalonica, proclaiming Nicene Christianity to be the religion of the Roman State.
Because of his support of Patriarch Peter II of Alexandria, who was being persecuted by the Arians, Damasus facilitated the reconciliation between the Church of Rome and the Church of Antioch.
In addition, he encouraged the veneration of the Christian martyrs by restoring the catacombs of Rome and improving access to them. He also had a great devotion to the martyr St. Lawrence and reputedly built a church in his honor in his own house.
On December 11 the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. Damasus — the day he died in 384.
Dear Lord, by the intercession of your faithful servant Damasus, grant us the grace to persevere in the midst of the many heresies and errors that are besieging your Church on Earth. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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