Saint Damasus (305 – 384), the Pope who oversaw the universal Church during the Arian crisis from 366 to his death in good old age in 384 – approving the Council at Constantinople which condemned the pernicious heresy for the second time – 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 in Hebrew and Greek, in which, through hard labour, he had made himself fluent.
Damasus had already promulgated the official canon of Scripture at the Council of Rome in the same year: His De libris recipiendis et non recipiendis, a list of the Sacred Books, 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 that were ‘inconvenient’ to their new-fangled – and new fanged – doctrine. The Bible as we know it really is a Catholic book – that is, universal and timeless – 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 – that is, the Mass and sacraments – from Greek to Latin, still its official language, if all too rarely heard.
As a young boy, Damasus witnessed the legalization of Christianity under Constantine in February of 313 after that battle on Milvian bridge, 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. Quite a life, one might think.
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 lost his faith, drifting 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, against all those who denied Christ’s divinity, often with ambiguous and misleading language; 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.
One of the greatest of Popes and ’tis ironic that Damasus’ own tomb is lost to history; but today, we honour him, an all-too-unknown and under-appreciated Pope in this season of watching and waiting, nurturing in our hearts and minds the Faith he helped solidify and hand on, for whose labours we should offer eternal gratitude and praise.
Have hope, dear reader, for God’s holy Catholic Church is far greater and more solid than any given era or regime, a fact lost in our age almost completely naive to historical perspective. What is, is what has been, but what will be, exceeds our imagination or expectation.