St. Damasus, Pope, Confessor

Author: Rev. Alban Butler


Feast: December 11

[From his works, St. Jerome, Rufin, and Anastasius in the Pontifical. See Tillemont, t. viii. p. 386 Ceillier, t. vi. p. 455. Abbate Anton. Merenda, in the new edition of this pope's works, which he published at Rome, in folio, anno. 1754, in which he gives the life of this pope in annals.]

Pope Damasus is said in the Pontifical to have been a Spaniard; which may be true of his extraction, but Tillemont and Merenda show that he seems to have been born at Rome. His father, whose name was Antony, either after the death of his wife or by her free consent, engaged himself in an ecclesiastical state, and was successively reader, deacon, and priest, of the title or parish Church of St. Laurence in Rome. Damasus served in the sacred ministry in the same church and always lived in a perfect state of continence, as St. Jerome assures us. When Liberius was banished by Constantius to Beraea, in 354, he was archdeacon of the Roman church, and attended him into exile, but immediately returned to Rome. Liberius at length was prevailed upon to sign a confession of faith in which the word consubstantial was omitted. After his return from banishment he constantly held communion with St. Athanasius, as is clear from that holy man's letter to the bishops of Egypt in 360. He condemned and annulled the decrees of the council of Rimini, by a letter which he wrote to those bishops, mentioned by Siricius.[1] Liberius, after this, lay hid some time in the vaults of the cemeteries for fear of the persecutors, as we learn from Sozomen,[2] Prosper, in his chronicle,[3] Lucifer of Cagliari,[4] and Anastasius, in the life of Pope Julius. Thus he repaired the fault which he had committed by his subscription. All this time Damasus had a great share in the government of the church, and doubtless animated the zeal of the pope.

Liberius died on the 24th of September 366, and Damasus, who was then sixty years old, was chosen Bishop of Rome and ordained in the basilica of Lucina, otherwise called St. Laurence's, which title he bore before his pontificate. Soon after Ursinus, called by some moderns Ursicinus, who could not bear that St. Damasus should be preferred before him, got together a crowd of disorderly and seditious people in the Church of Sicin, commonly called the Liberian basilica, now St. Mary Major, and persuaded Paul, Bishop of Tibur, now Tivoil, a dull, ignorant man, to ordain him Bishop of Rome, contrary to the ancient canons, which require three bishops for the ordination of a bishop, and to the ancient custom of the Roman church, whose bishop was to be consecrated by the Bishop of Ostia, as Baronius and Tillemont observe. Juventius, prefect of Rome, banished Ursinus and some others of his party. Seven priests, who adhered to him, were seized to be carried into exile, but were rescued by their partizans and carried to the Liberian basilica. The people that sided with Damasus came together with swords and clubs, besieged the basilica to deliver these men up to the prefect, and a fight ensued in which one hundred and thirty-seven persons were killed, as Ammianus Marcellinus[5] and St. Austin relate.[6] In September the following year, 367, the Emperor Valentinian allowed Ursinus to return to Rome; but, on account of new tumults, in November banished him again with seven accomplices into Gaul. The schismatics still kept possession of a church, probably that of St. Agnes without the walls, and held assemblies in the cemeteries; but Valentinian sent an order for that church to be put into the hands of Damasus; and Maximin, a magistrate of the city, a man naturally inclined to cruelty, put several schismatics to the torture. Rufin clears Damasus of any way concurring to, or approving of such barbarous proceedings, and the schismatics fell into the snare they had laid for him,[7] by which it seems they demanded an inquiry to be made by the rack, which turned to their own confusion and chastisement. It appears by certain verses of Pope Damasus that he had made a vow to God, in honour of certain martyrs, to engage their intercession for the conversion of some of the clergy who continued obstinate in the schism; and that these clergymen, being converted to the unity of the church, in gratitude adorned at their own expense the tombs of these martyrs. By the same poem we learn that the warmest abettors of the cause of Ursinus, after some time sincerely submitted to Damasus. His election was both anterior in time, and in all its circumstances regular; and was declared such by a great council held at Aquileia in 381, composed of the most holy and eminent bishops of the western church, and by a council at Rome in 378, in both which the acts of violence are imputed to the fury of Ursinus. St. Ambrose,[8] St. Jerome,[9] St. Austin, Rufin, and others, bear testimony to the demeanour and to the due election of Damasus.

Ammianus Marcellinus, the famous pagan historian of those times, says that the chariots, rich clothes, and splendid feasting of the bishops of Rome, whose tables surpassed those of kings, were a tempting object to ambition; and wishes they would imitate the plainness of some prelates in the provinces. Herein, at least with regard to the table, there is doubtless a great deal of exaggeration and spleen; though sometimes extraordinary entertainments were probably given by the church. However, some appearance of pomp and state was certainly then made, since, as St. Jerome reports,[10] Praetextatus, an eminent pagan senator, who was afterwards prefect of Rome, said to Pope Damasus, "Make me Bishop of Rome, and I will be a Christian to-morrow." Damasus certainly deserved not to fall under his censure. For St. Jerome, the great admirer of this holy pope, severely inveighs against the luxury and state which some ecclesiastics at Rome affected,[11] which he would never have done if it had been a satire on his patron; at least he was too sincere to have continued his admirer. Moreover, in 370, Valentinian, to repress the scandalous conduct of ecclesiastics who persuaded persons to bequeath estates or legacies to the church in prejudice of their heirs, addressed a law to Damasus forbidding the clergy or monks to frequent the houses of orphans and widows, or to receive from them any gift, legacy, or feoffment in trust. This edict Pope Damasus caused to be read in all the churches of Rome, and he was very severe in putting the same into execution, so as to give great offence to some unworthy persons who, on that account, went over to the schismatics; but some time after returned to their duty. Baronius thinks this law was enacted at the request of the pope, because it was addressed to him. At least it was certainly approved by him, and was not less agreeable to him than just in itself. It appears by St. Damasus's fifteenth poem, that having escaped all dangers and persecutions,[12] in thanksgiving he' mace a pilgrimage to St. Felix's shrine at Nola, and there hung up this votive poem and performed his devotions.

Arianism reigned in the East under the protection of Valens, though vigorously opposed by many pillars of orthodoxy, as St.

Athanasius, St. Basil, &c. In the West, it was confined to Milan and Pannonia. Utterly to extirpate it in that part of the world, Pope Damasus, in a council at Rome in 368, condemned Ursacius and Valens, famous Arian bishops in Pannonia, and in another in 370, Auxentius of Milan. The schism of Antioch fixed the attention of the whole church. Meletius had been ordained upon the expulsion of St. Eustathius, whom the Arians had banished; Paulinus was acknowledged by the zealous Catholics, called Eustathians, because during the life of St. Eustathius they would admit no other bishop. St. Basil and other Orientals, being well informed of the orthodox faith of St.- Meletius, adhered to him; but Damasus, with the western prelates, held communion with Paulinus, suspecting the orthodoxy of Meletius on account of the doubtful principles of some of those by whom he was advanced to the see. Notwithstanding this disagreement these prelates were careful to preserve the peace of Christ with one another. The heresy of Apollinarius or Apollinaris caused a greater breach. Apollinarius, the father, taught grammar first at Berytus, afterwards at Laodicea, in Syria, where he married and had a son of the same name, who was brought up to learning, had a good genius well improved by studies, and taught rhetoric in the same town; and both embracing an ecclesiastical state, the father was priest and the son reader in that church at the same time. The younger of these was chosen Bishop of Laodicea in 362. When Julian the Apostate forbade Christians to read the classics, the two Apollinariuses composed very beautiful hymns in all sorts of verse on the sacred history and other pious subjects, which are lost except a paraphrase on the psalms in hexameter verse. In these poems they began to scatter the poison of certain errors, which were condemned by St. Athanasius in his council at Alexandria in 360; but the author was not then known. St. Athanasius wrote against these errors, without naming the author, in 362. In the council which Damasus held at Rome in 374, the same conduct was observed. But the obstinacy of the Bishop of Apollinarius appearing incurable, from that time his name was no longer spared; it was anathematized first by Pope Damasus at Rome. The heresiarch lived to a great age and died in his impiety.

When Nectarius was chosen Archbishop of Constantinople, Theodosius sent deputies to Rome, to entreat Pope Damasus to confirm his election.[13] When St. Jerome accompanied St. Epiphanius and St. Paulinus of Antioch to Rome, Damasus detained him till his death, three years after, near his person, employing him in quality of secretary to write his letters and answer consultations. This pope, who was himself a very learned man and well skilled in the Holy Scriptures, encouraged St. Jerome in his studies. That severe and holy doctor calls him "an excellent man";[14] and in another place,[15] "an incomparable person, learned in the Scriptures, a virgin doctor of the virgin church, who loved chastity and heard its eulogiums with pleasure." Theodoret calls him the celebrated Damasus,[16] and p]aces him at the head of the famous doctors of divine grace in the Latin church.[17] The Oriental bishops in 431, profess that they follow the holy example of Damasus, Basil, Athanasius, Ambrose, and others, who have been eminent for their learning. The general council of Chalcedon styles Damasus, for his piety, the honour and glory of Rome.[18] Theodoret says, "He was illustrious by his holy life, and ready to preach and to do all things in defence of the apostolic doctrine."[19]

This pope rebuilt, or at least repaired the Church of St. Laurence near Pompey's theatre, where he had officiated after his father, and which to this day is called from St. Laurence, <in Damaso>. He beautified it with paintings of sacred history, which were remaining four hundred years afterwards.[20] He presented it with a paten of silver weighing fifteen pounds, a wrought vessel of ten pounds weight, five silver chalices weighing three pounds each, five silver sconces, to hold wax lights, of eight pounds each, and candlesticks of brass of sixteen pounds weight. He also settled upon it several houses that were near the church, and a piece of land.[21] St. Damasus likewise drained all the springs of the Vatican which ran over the bodies that were buried there, and he decorated the sepulchres of a great number of martyrs in the cemeteries, and adorned them with epitaphs in verse, of which a collection of almost forty is extant. Some of these belong not to him; those which are his work, are distinguished by a peculiar elegance and elevation, and justify the commendation which St. Jerome gives to his poetical genius. In the few letters of this pope which we have in the editions of the councils, out of the great number which he wrote, it appears that he was a man of genius and taste, and wrote with elegance. The ancients particularly commend his constancy in maintaining the purity of our holy faith, the innocence of his manners, his Christian humility, his compassion for the poor, his piety in adorning holy places, especially the tombs of the martyrs, and his singular learning. Having sat eighteen years and two months, he died on the 10th of December 384, being near fourscore years of age. A pontifical kept in the Vatican library, quoted by Merenda, says that the saint burning with an ardent desire to be dissolved and be with Christ, he was seized with a fever, and having received the body and blood of the Lord, lifting up his eyes and hands to heaven, he expired in devout prayer. His intercession is particularly implored in Italy by persons that are sick of fevers.[22] He was buried near his mother and sister, in an oratory which he had built and adorned at the catacombs near the Ardeatin Way, between that road and the cemetery of Calixtus or Praetextatus. Marangonus describes his sepulchre and those of his mother and sister, as they were discovered in the year 1736.

Learning, the great accomplishment and improvement of the human mind, is often made its bane. This sometimes happens by the choice which a man makes of his studies, and much oftener by the manner in which he pursues them. As to the choice, there is no sloth more trifling or vain than the studies of some learned men; to whom we may apply what Plato said to the charioteer, whose dexterity in the circus struck the spectators with astonishment. But the philosopher declared he deserved to be publicly chastised for the loss of so much time as was necessary for him to have attained that dexterity in so trifling and useless an exercise. A perfect knowledge of our own, and some foreign and learned languages, is a necessary instrument, and a key to much useful knowledge, but of little use if it be not directed to higher purposes. Holy David, St. Ambrose, St. Damasus, Prudentius, St. Paulinus, and many others consecrated poetry to the divine praises; but if made an employment of life, especially when the proper studies or occupations of a state ought to have banished them, they become a pernicious idleness, and so much entertain the heart as to ruin devotion and the taste of duties, and to occupy our reason in trifles. They are particularly condemned by the fathers and councils, in clergymen, as trespassing upon their obligations and destructive of the spirit of their profession. Logic gives a justness and clearness to our thoughts, teaches accurate reasoning, and exceedingly improves the judgment and other faculties of the mind. Yet, if its rules are made too prolix or spun into refined subtleties, they puzzle and confound the understanding. The same is to be said of metaphysics, which ought properly to be called the generals of science; a just acquaintance with which is, above all other studies and accomplishments, the means of improving the mind to the highest perfection, especially its ruling faculty, the judgment, and fitting it for success and accuracy in all other sciences and arts. The principles of Aristotle in logic and metaphysics are solid, exact, complete, and far preferable to all others; but the exposition must be concise, methodical, profound, infinitely accurate, clear, elegant, or free from a Gothic dress, which disfigures the best attainments, and is the characteristic of barbarism. If fondness for any science degenerates into passion, it becomes a dangerous and vicious branch of curiosity, drains the heart, hinders holy meditation and prayer, captivates the soul, and produces all the disorders of inordinate passions.


1 Siricius, Ep. ad Himer. Terrac.

2 Soz. lib. iv. c. 11 et 19.

3 See this chronicle, published entire by Canisius, ed. Basnac. t. i.

4 Lucifer adv. Constantium.

5 Ammian. lib. xxvii. c. 3.

6 St. Aug. Brevic. Collat. c. 16. St Hier. in Chron. an. 367.

7 Ruf. lib. ii. Hist. c. 10.

8 Ambr. Ep. 11.

9 In Chron. &c.

10 St Hier. Ep. 61, ad Pammach. c. 3.

11 St. Hier. Ep. 61, ad Pammach. c. 3.

12 Carm. 15, p. 230. See Muratori, Not. In Carm. Paulini xi, v, 11, et diss, 18, Ferrarius, De Nol. Coemet. c. 10 Merenda, an. 368, p. 15.

13 Bon. Ep. ad Episc. Macedon. Conc. t. iv. p. 1708.

14 St Hier. Ep. ad Eust.

15 Id. Ep. 30, p. 240.

16 Theodoret; Ep. 144.

17 Id. Ep. 145.

18 Conc. t. v. p. 825.

19 Theod. Hist. lib. v. c. 2.

20 Adrian. I, Ep. Conc. t. vii.

21 Anast. in. Pontif.

22 Fonseca. lib. i. c. 16; Merenda, ad an. 384, p. 133.

(Taken from Vol. III of "The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints" by the Rev. Alban Butler.)