Pope Saint Damasus (b. 305), who oversaw the universal Church from 366 to his death in good old age in 384, is perhaps best known for commissioning the great Saint Jerome, his secretary, in 382 to compile the first true ‘official’ Bible, the Latin Vulgate. Jerome dedicated his own long life to sifting and translating the vast array of original sources. Damasus had already promulgated the official canon of Scripture at the Council of Rome in the same year, in his De libris recipiendis et non recipiendis, a list that is identical with that of the much later decree of the Council of Trent in 1546, which set this canon for all time, contrary to Luther and the Protestants, who wanted to remove some ‘inconvenient’ sections. The Bible as we know it really is a Catholic book, whose origins are divine, but whose versions and translations require careful scholarship, research and Magisterial authority. Pope Damasus, as a colleague mentioned, is also the Pope who oversaw the transition of the Roman liturgy from Greek to Latin, still its official language, if all too rarely heard.
As a young boy, Damasus saw the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in February of 313, and, as an old man, the Faith being made the official religion of the Empire under Emperor Theodosius in the promulgation De Fide Catholica in the same month, February (the 27th to be precise), 380.
There were numerous scurrilous rumours of Damasus, the violent nature of his election, his conduct as Pope – perhaps most of it now what we would call fake news, as he was constantly hounded by the anti-Pope, Ursinus, who apparently drifted over to Arianism.
But behind all this, Damasus comes across as a pious and holy man, devoted to his religion, a great foe of the au courant heresies, the aforementioned Arianiasm, denying Christ’s divinity; Apollinarianism, which denied that Christ had a true human soul; and Macedonianism, which denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Damasus sent legates to the Council of Constantinople in 381, which put paid to these deviations from the Faith.
Damasus also fostered devotion to the martyrs and their relics, opening up access to the catacombs – still a hugely popular attraction in Rome – signifying our incarnational as well as spiritual link not only to Christ, but to our ancestors in the Faith.
Ironic, that Damasus’ own tomb is lost to history; but today, we honour in this season of expectation the great Pope, and the faith he helped solidify and hand on, for whose labours we should offer gratitude and praise.