Rarely have popes had pontificates as momentous as that of Pope Damasus I who was pope from 366 -384. St. Ambrose said Damasus was "elected by the judgment of God," but his pontificate began in strife and violence. Although he was elected by a clear majority at the age of 62, some Romans attempted to supplant him with an anti-pope, a deacon named Ursinus. They went so far as to resort to violence to place Ursinus on the Chair of Peter. In the fierce fighting that followed, 137 people were said by the pagan historian Ammianus Marcellinus to have been killed in just one battle inside a church. Damasus' pontificate became so renowned, however, that the Council of Chalcedon (451) called it the "ornament and glory of Rome," and the historian Theodoret (393 – 457) wrote that Damasus lived a holy life, was zealous in catechesis and never neglected to defend apostolic doctrine.
Ursinus was banished by the Roman Emperor Valentian to Gaul - from where he had just returned from a previous banishment only in 367. Damasus moved quickly to heal the schism created by Ursinus and his followers. Valentian also used the magistrates and power of Roman law against the schismatics. Damasus, however, treated them with kindness - especially after they failed a trial by ordeal which they themselves had demanded to prove the righteousness of their cause. Damasus' kindness did not waiver even after the schismatics falsely accused him of adultery - a charge of which he was acquitted by a jury of 44 bishops. More libels followed, but they amounted to nothing. Damasus' response was to make a vow to God, through the intercession of the great Roman martyrs, for the reconciliation of the schismatics. Many of those schismatics did return to full unity with the Bishop of Rome and showed their thanks by adorning the tombs of the invoked martyrs.
Damasus acted decisively against heretics and schismatics such as the Arians and Luciferians. He convened the First Council of Constantinople against the Arians, for instance. He made great use of legates and ambassadors to ensure the protection of Christians from heresies and schism. Damasus is said to have ordained 31 priests, 12 deacons, and consecrated 60 bishops. He is said to have built two churches and rebuilt or refurbished the parish he and his father had both served in as pastors. To this day that church is known as St. Lawrence in Damaso. He is often credited with regulating the psalmody and ordering the psalms of David to be chanted throughout the west, with the Gloria l'atri ending each psalm. His greatest accomplishment, however, was convincing St. Jerome to come to Rome and take up the enormous task of producing a new Latin translation of the Bible - which would become known as the Vulgate.
Pope Damasus died on December 11, 384 wracked by a fever. His tomb was discovered, along with those of his mother and sister, in the early 18th century in the catacombs near the Ardeatine Way.
Ursinus survived Pope Damasus. He again tried to become pope - until he was flatly rejected by the papal conclave which unanimously elected St. Siricius. It is a pity that so great a pope as Damasus is today little more remembered than the anti-pope who caused him so much trouble!
Dr. Tim Brennan