Pope St. Damasus I was born around 305, around or inside the city of Rome. His life coincided with the rise of Emperor Constantine I and the reunion and re-division of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, which is associated with the legitimization of Christianity and its later adoption as the official religion of the Roman state in 380.
Following the death of Pope Liberius, he succeeded to the Papacy amidst factional violence. A group of Damasus' supporters, previously loyal to his opponent Felix, attacked and killed rivals loyal to Liberius' deacon Ursinus in a riot that required the intervention of Emperor Valentinian I to quell.
Damasus faced accusations of murder and adultery with a married woman in his early years as Pope. The neutrality of these claims has come into question with some suggesting that the accusations were motivated by the schismatic conflict with the supporters of Arianism. His personal problems were contrasted with his religious accomplishments, which included restoring Saint Lawrence outside the Walls, encouraging his personal secretary Saint Jerome in his Vulgate translation of the Bible, and presiding over the Council of Rome in 382, which may have set down the canon of Scripture (based upon the Decretum Gelasianum, which some consider a sixth-century work). He also did much to encourage the veneration of the Christian martyrs, restoring and creating access to their tombs in the Catacombs of Rome and elsewhere, and setting up tablets with verse inscriptions composed by himself, several of which survive or are recorded in his Epigrammata.
As well as various prose letters and other pieces Damasus was the author of Latin verse which modern scholars find "lame and frigid". Alan Cameron describes his epitaph for a young girl called Projecta (of great interest to scholars as the Projecta Casket in the British Museum may have been made for her) as "a tissue of tags and clichés shakily strung together and barely squeezed into the meter". Damasus has been described as "the first society Pope", and was apparently a member of a group of Iberian Christians, largely related to each other, who were close to the Iberian Theodosius I.
Damasus' parents were Antonius, who became a priest at the Church of St. Lawrence (San Lorenzo) in Rome, and Laurentia. Both parents originally come from the region of Lusitania. Damasus began his ecclesiastical career as a deacon in his father’s church, where he went on to serve as a priest. This later became the basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls in Rome.
During Damasus' early years, Constantine I rose to rule the Western Roman Empire. As emperor, he issued the Edict of Milan (313), which granted religious freedom to Christians in all parts of the Roman Empire. A crisis precipitated by the rejection of religious freedom by Licinius, Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, in favor of paganism resulted in a civil war in 324 that placed Constantine firmly in control of a reunited Empire. This led to the establishment of Christian religious supremacy in Constantinople and gradually led to a See in that city which sought to rival the authority of the Roman See. Damasus was most likely in his twenties at the time.
When Pope Liberius was banished by Emperor Constantius II to Berea in 354, Damasus was archdeacon of the Roman church and followed Liberius into exile, though he immediately returned to Rome. During the period before Liberius' return, Damasus had a great share in the government of the church.
In the early Church, new Bishops of Rome were elected or chosen by the clergy and the people of the diocese in the presence of the other bishops in the province, which was the manner customarily used in other dioceses. While this simple method worked well in a small community of Christians unified by persecution, as the congregation grew in size, the acclamation of a new bishop was fraught with division, and rival claimants and a certain class hostility between patrician and plebeian candidates unsettled some episcopal elections. At the same time, 4th-century emperors expected each new pope-elect to be presented to them for approval, which sometimes led to state domination of the Church's internal affairs.
On the death of Liberius on 24 September 366, one faction supported Ursinus (or Ursicinus), who had served as deacon to Liberius, while another faction, previously loyal to the Antipope Felix II, supported Damasus. The upper-class partisans of Felix supported the election of Damasus, but the opposing supporters of Liberius, the deacons and laity, supported Ursinus. The two were elected simultaneously (Damasus' election was held in San Lorenzo in Lucina) in an atmosphere of rioting. J. N. D. Kelly states that Damasus hired a gang of thugs that stormed the Julian Basilica, carrying out a three-day massacre of the Ursinians. Supporters already clashed at the beginning of October. Such was the violence and bloodshed that the two prefects of the city were called in to restore order, and after a first setback, when they were driven to the suburbs and a massacre of 137 was perpetrated in the basilica of Sicininus (the modern Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore), the prefects banished Ursinus to Gaul. There was further violence when he returned, which continued after Ursinus was exiled again.
Church historians such as St. Jerome and Rufinus, championed Damasus. At a synod in 378, Ursinus was condemned and Damasus exonerated and declared the true pope. The former antipope continued to intrigue against Damasus for the next few years and unsuccessfully attempted to revive his claim on Damasus's death. Ursinus was among the Arian party in Milan, according to Ambrose.
Edward Gibbon writes, "The enemies of Damasus styled him Auriscalpius Matronarum, the ladies' ear-scratcher."
Damasus I was active in defending the Catholic Church against the threat of schisms. In two Roman synods (368 and 369) he condemned Apollinarianism and Macedonianism, and sent legates to the First Council of Constantinople that was convoked in 381 to address these heresies.
Pope Damasus appointed St Jerome as his confidential secretary. Writing in 409, Jerome remarked, "A great many years ago when I was helping Damasus, bishop of Rome with his ecclesiastical correspondence, and writing his answers to the questions referred to him by the councils of the east and west..." If "east and west" do not betray the passage as an interpolation, Jerome spent three years (382–385) in Rome in close intercourse with Pope Damasus and the leading Christians. Invited there originally to a synod of 382 convened to end the schism of Antioch, he made himself indispensable to the pope, and took a prominent place in his councils.
In order to put an end to the marked divergences in the western texts of that period, Damasus encouraged the highly respected scholar Jerome to revise the available Old Latin versions of the Bible into a more accurate Latin on the basis of the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint, resulting in the Vulgate. Jerome devoted a very brief notice to Damasus in his De Viris Illustribus, written after Damasus' death: "he had a fine talent for making verses and published many brief works in heroic metre. He died in the reign of the emperor Theodosius at the age of almost eighty".
One of the important works of Pope Damasus was to preside in the Council of Rome of 382 that determined the canon or official list of Sacred Scripture. The Decree of the Council of Rome starts thus: "Now indeed we must treat of the divine Scriptures, what the universal Catholic Church accepts and what she ought to shun." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, states: A council probably held at Rome in 382 under St. Damasus gave a complete list of the canonical books of both the Old Testament and the New Testament (also known as the 'Gelasian Decree' because it was reproduced by Gelasius in 495), which is identical with the list given at Trent. And historian William Jurgens stated: "The first part of this decree has long been known as the Decree of Damasus, and concerns the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts. The second part of the decree is more familiarly known as the opening part of the Gelasian Decree, in regard to the canon of Scripture: De libris recipiendis vel non recipiendis. It is now commonly held that the part of the Gelasian Decree dealing with the accepted canon of Scripture is an authentic work of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. and that Gelasius edited it again at the end of the fifth century, adding to it the catalog of the rejected books, the apocrypha. It is now almost universally accepted that these parts one and two of the Decree of Damasus are authentic parts of the Acts of the Council of Rome of 382 A.D. (Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers)
St. Damasus sat in the Chair of St. Peter for eighteen years and two months. His feast day is 11 December. He was buried beside his mother and sister in a "funerary basilica ... somewhere between the Via Appia and Via Ardeatina", the exact location of which is lost.
The reign of Gratian, during Damasus' papacy, forms an important epoch in ecclesiastical history, since during that period (359–383), Catholic Christianity for the first time became dominant throughout the empire. Under the influence of Ambrose, Gratian prohibited pagan worship at Rome, refused to wear the insignia of the pontifex maximus as unbefitting a Christian, removed the Altar of Victory from the Senate at Rome and confiscated its revenues, despite protests from the pagan members of the Senate. Emperor Gratian also forbade legacies of real property to the Vestals and abolished other privileges belonging to them and to the pontiffs.
The Eastern Church, in the person of St. Basil of Caesarea, earnestly sought the aid and encouragement of Damasus against an apparently triumphant Arianism. Damasus, however, harbored some degree of suspicion against the great Cappadocian Doctor of the Church. In the matter of the Meletian Schism at Antioch, Damasus—together with St. Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria, and his successor, Peter II of Alexandria—sympathized with the party of Paulinus as more sincerely representative of Nicene orthodoxy. On the death of Meletius he sought to secure the succession for Paulinus and to exclude Flavian. He supported the appeal of the Christian senators to Emperor Gratian for the removal of the altar of Victory from the Senate House, and lived to welcome the famous edict of Theodosius I, "De fide Catholica" (27 February 380), which proclaimed as the religion of the Roman State that doctrine which Saint Peter had preached to the Romans and of which Damasus was head.
During his papacy, Peter II of Alexandria was obliged for a while to seek refuge in Rome from the persecuting Arians. He was received by Damasus, who sympathised with him and gave him support against the Arians. This reconciled the relations between the Church of Rome and the Church of Antioch, which both supported the Church of Alexandria.
Damasus rebuilt or repaired a church named for Saint Laurence, known as San Lorenzo fuori le Mura ("St Lawrence outside the walls"), which by the 7th century was a station on the itineraries of the graves of the Roman martyrs.
Damasus' devotion for the Roman martyr is attested also by the tradition according to which the Pope built a church devoted to Laurence in his own house, San Lorenzo in Damaso.
The letters from Jerome to Damasus are examples of the primacy of the See of Peter:
Yet, though your greatness terrifies me, your kindness attracts me. From the priest I demand the safe-keeping of the victim, from the shepherd the protection due to the sheep. Away with all that is overweening; let the state of Roman majesty withdraw. My words are spoken to the successor of the fisherman, to the disciple of the cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but your blessedness, that is with the chair of Peter. For this, I know, is the rock on which the church is built! This is the house where alone the paschal lamb can be rightly eaten. This is the ark of Noah, and he who is not found in it shall perish when the flood prevails. But since by reason of my sins I have betaken myself to this desert which lies between Syria and the uncivilized waste, I cannot, owing to the great distance between us, always ask of your sanctity the holy thing of the Lord. Consequently I here follow the Egyptian confessors who share your faith, and anchor my frail craft under the shadow of their great argosies. I know nothing of Vitalis; I reject Meletius; I have nothing to do with Paulinus. He that gathers not with you scatters; he that is not of Christ is of Antichrist.
A number of images of "DAMAS" in gold glass cups probably represent him and seem to be the first contemporary images of a pope to survive, though there is no real attempt at a likeness. "Damas" appears with other figures, including a Florus who may be Projecta's father. It has been suggested that Damasus or another of the group commissioned and distributed these to friends or supporters, as part of a programme "insistently inserting his episcopal presence in the Christian (and barely Christian!) landscape".