Rivals Battled in a Sanctuary to Be Pope

Dan Graves, MSL

Rivals Battled in a Sanctuary to Be Pope

On October, 366, Rome was in an uproar. When Bishop Liberius of Rome died in September, 366, there was no system, such as a College of Cardinals, to elect a new pope (although they were not yet known as popes). By a large majority, the people and clergy of Rome chose Damasus, a sixty-year-old deacon, to be their next bishop. He was consecrated by three other bishops, including the Bishop of Ostia, which was all according to tradition. There is no doubt that Damasus was the properly chosen successor to Liberius.

To understand what happened next we must go back in time. Years before, Liberius had spent time in exile for resisting Arianism, a theology that denied the divinity of Christ. He was very popular for taking this stand. Commoners and high ranking Romans alike agitated for his return. During his exile, Felix II (an anti-pope) ruled as Bishop of Rome. Damasus served Felix. Later, Liberius was restored to his old position by Emperor Constantinius--after he agreed to show favor to the Arian heresy. (This caused Bishop Hilary of Poiters to declare "A curse on you, Liberius.") Then he died and Damasus was elected in his stead.

Some followers of Liberius were unhappy to see a man who once supported Liberius' rival Felix sitting in Liberius' place. They chose Ursinus to be the bishop. An old Bishop from Tibur consecrated Ursinus.

Followers of Ursinus resorted to violence in their effort to oust Damasus. Damasus appealed to Juventius, Prefect of Rome (a high ranking magistrate). The Prefect ordered Ursinus out of town. Ursinus left, but his followers did not lay down their arms. Damasus gathered men, armed them and attacked his rival's forces, who took refuge in the Liberian Basilica (a Roman church later called St. Mary Major). A three-day battle followed. The supporters of Damasus assaulted the building from the street and also climbed onto the roof, which they tore open, flinging heavy tiles onto the men trapped below.

On this day, October 26, 366, Damasus won. His followers captured the church, leaving one hundred and thirty seven followers of Ursinus dead on its floor.

Damasus still faced opposition. To protect himself, he hired gladiators as bodyguards. His opponents not only attempted to overthrow him by violence, but also by accusations of serious sin. Unfortunately, this compelled the emperor to intervene and clear Damasus of the charges, whatever they were (the record is not clear), bringing the secular government into church affairs. A council at Rome in 378 and another in Aquileia in 381 both declared that Damasus was the true bishop.

When the trouble simmered down, Damasus became a great promoter of martyrs. He restored tombs, rebuilt churches and wrote poems about saints who had died because of their testimony for Christ.

He was an enemy of the Arian heresy and put some Arian bishops out of the church. He issued twenty-four anathemas (curses) against false teachings about the Trinity and Christ. However, Damasus is best remembered because he issued an official list of the books which belong in the Bible. He persuaded his friend and secretary, Jerome, to make a new Latin translation of the Bible, which Jerome did. This was the Vulgate, the Bible of the Middle Ages.

Despite the rough circumstances surrounding his election, Damasus was highly regarded by other Christian leaders of his day, many of whom spoke of him in terms of lofty praise.

Bibliography:

  1. Aland, Kurt. Saints and Sinners; men and ideas in the early church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970.
  2. Brusher, Joseph Stanislaus. Popes through the Ages. Princeton, N. J.: Van Nostrand, 1959.
  3. Butler, Alban. The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints. [From the Eternal Word Network web site]
  4. De Rosa, Peter. Vicars of Christ; the dark side of the papacy. Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 2000, pp. 38-39.
  5. Frend, W. H. C. The Early Church. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1965.
  6. Gibbon, Edward. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Britannica Great Books. [The date is confirmed on page 170]
  7. Keck, Karen Rae. "Damasus I." The Ecole Glossary.
  8. Lea, Henry C. Studies in Church History. Philadelphia: Henry C. Lea; London: Samson, Low, Son, & Marston, 1869, p.16.
  9. Montor, Chevalier Artaud de. Lives and Times of the Popes. New York: Catholic Publication Society of America, 1909.
  10. Shahan, Thomas J. "Pope St. Damasus I" The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton, 1914.

Last updated June, 2007.

  • Editors' Picks

    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
    Why the Church Must Start Talking about Domestic Violence
  • Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
    Don't Think of Church as Your Own Spiritual Power Bar
  • So You Think Theology Is Impractical?
    So You Think Theology Is Impractical?