Thursday, December 09, 2010

Saint Damasus I

St Jerome handing over his work to Pope Saint Damasus
In The Initial "H" of a Letter of Jerome to Damasus
From an Illuminated Bible
About 1109 - 1111
Dijon - BM - ms. 0015 f. 003v
From The Abbaye Notre-Dame, Cîteaux

St Jerome handing over his work to Pope Saint Damasus
Miniature at the beginning of the Gospels
From an Illuminated Bible
Valenciennes - BM - ms. 0007 f. 223
About the second quarter of the 16th century
Originally from Hainaut, Valenciennes

Attributed to Niccolo di Giacomo ca. (1325–1403),
Portrait of Saint Damasus
From an illuminated Roman Missal
About 1370
Avignon - BM - ms. 0136 f. 222
Originally made in Bologna, Italy and thence to the Convent of the Célestins, Avignon

Nowadays the saint Pope Damasus (b.305, Pope from 366 - 384) is primarily known for his commissioning of Saint Jerome as his personal secretary and encouraging his Vulgate translation of the Bible

But there was more.

He was a poet Pope and he had a great devotion to the Roman martyrs. He did much to retore and preserve the ancient catacombs as well as the Bsilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls and according to tradition the building of the Church of San Lorenzo in Damaso in his own house.

The Catacombs which benefitted most from his attentions were the Catacombs of St Callixtus and in particular the Crypt of the Popes where at least six of the earliest Popes were buried.

St. Jerome recounted how as a student he would go on Sundays to visit the tombs of the apostles and the martyrs together with his study companions:

“We would enter the galleries dug into the bowels of the earth…Rare lights coming from above land attenuated the darkness a little…We would proceed slowly, one step at a time, completely enveloped in darkness”.

At the tomb of Sixtus II, Damasus had inscribed a poem which he had composed himself:

"If you are looking for, know that here lies a host of the Blessed.
The venerable sepulchres enclose the bodies of the Saints,
but the royal palace of heaven carried off to itself their sublime souls.

Here lie the companions of Sixtus who bear the trophies won from the enemy.
Here the group of the elders who keep guard of the altars of Christ.
Here the bishop who lived through the long peace.
Here the holy Confessors sent to us from Greece.
Here the young men and children, the old men and their chaste nephews
who preferred to keep their virgineal purity.

Here too,I, Damasus, confess I would have liked to have been buried
were it not for fear of vexing the holy ashes of the Blessed".

His epigraph about St Saturninus the Martyr is applicable to many who have given their life for the faith even today:

"Citizen now of Christ, formerly of Carthage,
The moment the sword pierced the Mother's holy breast,
through her blood he changed country, name and lineage,
the birth to the life of the saints made him a Roman citizen.
His faith was wonderful: as his heroic death would later show.

His enemy Gratianus trembled while he tore his holy members;
but though all his venomous rage exploded,
he could not induce you, O Saint, to deny Christ;
indeed through your prayers he even deserved to die a Christian.

This is the will of the suppliant Damasus: venerate this tomb!
[Here it is given to fulfil vows and to pour out chaste prayers,
because it is the tomb of the martyr St Saturninus]
To you, O Martyr Saturninus, I pay my prayerful homage."

(Epigrammata Damasiana, edited by A. Ferrua, Rome 1942, p. 188-189).

The devotion to the Martyrs in the Roman Liturgy is discussed on the Vatican website in an article by Mario Lessi Ariosto

Finally it should also be noted that it was under Pope Damasus I that the change of the official language from Greek to Latin was completed. The primacy of the Latin language in the Roman liturgy has not been replaced since then even though the Church recognizes that the vernacular can also be used for the faithful.