St. Damasus - A Merciful Pontiff

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After Julian the Apostate was cut off in full career by a Persian arrow, the Church in the West enjoyed peace. That brave and capable soldier, Valentinian, was not only a Christian but a Catholic. It was a time for growth and development, and in St. Damasus the Church had a leader suited to the time. Damasus was born in Rome of Spanish descent. He was elected pope by a large majority, but a minority refused to accept the election and set up Ursinus as antipope. Rome rang with tumult until finally Valentinian exiled Ursinus.

Damasus was a capable administrator, a writer, and a holy bishop. He repeatedly condemned heresy yet was so merciful to repentant heretics that the dour old Arian-fighter, Lucifer of Cagliari, actually left the Church in disgust to start a rigorist schism. While Arians still troubled the Church new heresies added to the difficulties of Damasus. Macedonius was teaching that the Holy Ghost was not divine. Apollinaris was holding that Christ did not have a rational human soul. Both heresies were condemned by Damasus.

In the East the Arians were enjoying a final fling. Valentinian's less capable and less orthodox brother, Valens, was under Arian influence. He made it hot for the orthodox, but in 378 Valens was ridden down by the hard-charging Goths at Adrianople. His successor, Emperor Theodosius, threw his support to the orthodox and asked that a council of the Church in the Eastern Empire be held to settle the matter. This council met at Constantinople in 381. Since it was an Eastern council, Pope Damasus does not seem to have had any direct connection with it, but the council adopted the Pope's teaching, recondemned Arianism and made a strong declaration of the divinity of the Holy Ghost against the Macedonians. Damasus approved the doctrinal decrees of the council and it became ranked as an ecumenical council.

Damasus published a canon of Holy Scripture, that is, a list of the books of the Old and New Testaments which are to be considered the inspired word of God. To spread the knowledge of Holy Scripture, the Pope urged his friend the great St. Jerome to translate the Bible. St. Jerome did so and produced that Vulgate edition which has served the Church so long and so usefully.

Damasus was noted, too, for his clear statement on the hierarchy in the Church. Quoting the words of Christ to Peter, "Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build My church," Damasus says that the Roman Church is above all others. Next in importance comes Alexandria, founded by St. Mark at St. Peter's command, and Antioch, where St. Peter ruled before going to Rome.

Now that the persecutions were over, Damasus worked hard to foster devotion to the martyrs. He encouraged pilgrimages to the catacombs. He built stairways and light wells in the sacred vaults. On the martyrs' tombs he placed inscriptions. Indeed, the Pope himself wrote many of these in excellent verse. He diligently searched the records for accounts of martyrdoms. Historians and archeologists as well as lovers of Holy Writ owe much to this intelligent and pious pope.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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