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Poet and Pontiff

Today’s the memorial of Pope St. Damasus I, whose pontificate was certainly memorable. It got off to a difficult start, as a rival faction in Rome announced their own candidate as the true successor to Peter. Riots followed, and even the civil authorities gave up on quelling the violence. The prefect of the city fled to the suburbs to wait it out. After a three-day massacre, the Emperor Valentinian I intervened to establish Damasus and end the contention. Damasus literally left his mark on Church history, as he was the author of many poems in Latin) about the early martyrs as well as his predecessors in the papacy. These remain as inscriptions throughout the city of Rome. They’ve come up on this blog in my discussion of several of their subjects, especially St. Tarcisius, who suffered at the hands of a mob rather than give up the Eucharist. Damasus wrote of the boy’s death:

When a wicked group of fanatics,
wanting to profane the Sacrament,
flung themselves on Tarcisius,
who was carrying the Eucharist,
the boy preferred to give up his life
rather than yield up the Body of Christ
to those rabid dogs.

Pope Damasus was the great patron of St. Jerome. The latter, antiquity’s great curmudgeon, was secretary to the pope, who commissioned him to translate the Bible into a common Latin edition (the Vulgate). In the year 376, addressing Damasus, Jerome witnesses to the ancient Christian doctrine of the papacy: “I speak with the successor of the fisherman and disciple of the cross. Following none but Christ as my primate, I am united in communion with Your Beatitude — that is, with the chair of Peter. Upon that Rock I know the Church is built. Whosoever eats a lamb outside this house is profane. Whoever is not in Noah’s ark will perish when the flood prevails.”

In 382, Damasus presided over the Council of Rome, at which the canon of Scripture was first set down.

One thought on “Poet and Pontiff

  1. The letters from Jerome to Damasus are well worth a read. Often surprisingly humble!

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