July 3, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: Pope Damasus took the papacy by force

John F. Fink(Thirteenth in a series of columns)

Violence among Christians was not unknown in the early Church. One of the worst examples concerned Pope Damasus, who was pope from 366 through 384.

Last week, I wrote about Pope Liberius being taken by force from Rome to Milan by Roman Emperor Constantius II, and then exiled to Thrace in Greece. In his absence, the archdeacon Felix was elected pope. After Constantius died, Pope Liberius was able to return to Rome. For a while, it appeared that there were two popes, but the people followed Liberius, and Felix became recognized as an antipope.

Damasus was the son of a priest of the basilica of San Lorenzo in Rome, and became deacon of that church. When Pope Liberius was exiled in 355, Damasus accompanied him to Thrace. But not for long. He soon deserted Liberius, returned to Rome and served Felix.

When Liberius died in 366, his supporters met in the Julian basilica, elected the deacon Ursinus to succeed Liberius, and had him consecrated bishop. Felix’s supporters, though, elected Damasus, who immediately hired a gang of thugs to storm the Julian basilica. They carried out a three-day massacre.

Damasus and his partisans then seized the Lateran basilica, and Damasus was consecrated pope. Damasus then called upon the prefect of Rome (the first time a pope sought help from civil authorities), and the Ursinians were expelled from Rome. However, some of them sought refuge in the Liberian basilica, and Damasus’ men attacked them there. According to the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus, 137 people were killed in the battles.

Therefore, this was a case of the throne of Peter being taken by force by the followers of a man recognized as an antipope (Felix) after the followers of the previous pope (Liberius) had elected a new pope (Ursinus). In this case, might made right.

Despite how he became pope, Damasus not only went on to become a strong one, but he is also recognized as a saint. His feast day is on Dec. 11.

Damasus was particularly forceful in promoting the primacy of the See of Rome, referring to Rome as “the apostolic see.” He was the first pope to declare that the pope, as the direct successor of St. Peter, had the power to bind and loose and that, therefore, the test of a creed’s orthodoxy was its endorsement by the pope.

Pope Damasus was a builder of churches. He restored the catacombs and promoted devotion to the early martyrs of the Church. He persuaded Emperor Theodosius I in 380 to declare Christianity the official religion of the Roman state. He also proclaimed Latin to be the Church’s principal liturgical language.

He was also a friend of St. Jerome, who served as his secretary for several years. Pope Damasus commissioned Jerome to translate the Gospels into Latin from the original Greek. After Damasus died, Jerome moved to Bethlehem where he translated the rest of the Bible.

During Damasus’ papacy, the First Council of Constantinople (the second ecumenical council) refined the Nicene Creed that we recite at Mass on weekends. †

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