The Saints of Advent - The Pope Who Gave Us the Bible
December 17, 2017
This year, the Advent season is very short. So before it’s too late I wanted to write about one of the great – and often overlooked – Advent saints of the Church. His name was Pope Damasus and he reigned in the 300s. He is not exactly a household name, but perhaps he should be.
He lived in very tumultuous times. For starters, there was a false claimant to the papal throne who tried to insist that he was Pope when Damasus was in fact the legitimate one. Supporters of both men gave in to violence to try to enforce their “candidate.” Throughout most of his papacy, these enemies never gave up, although the violence did stop. On top of that, the Church was divided by a great schism over false teaching that Jesus was not truly divine. (This was the rampant heresy called Arianism). Though many refused to accept it, Damasus held firmly to the truth that Jesus was – at one and the same time -- true God and true man.
Perhaps his most important accomplishment was to give the Church the Bible. Most Catholics don’t give this much thought. We tend to think of the Bible as just “always there” – as if it had been dropped down by God from the Heavens. But in fact, the bishops of the Church had to sort through the various sacred writings that were extant in the first centuries and pray to the Holy Spirit to reveal to them which books were truly inspired by God and necessary for our salvation. Under Damasus’ leadership, they did exactly that and also declared that there could be no further books later to be discovered that were part of God’s living and revealed Word.
As a side note, knowing this history makes the Protestant claim that it is the Bible alone (not the pope and bishops) that is authoritative somewhat non-sensical. The Church’s pope and bishops were the ones who gave us the Bible in the first place, and so the Church can declare that the Bible and tradition together contain the authority of Jesus’ teachings.
The Pope wanted the Bible to be accessible to as many Catholics as possible, and so he commissioned the great biblical scholar – and another saint –Jerome, to translate it into the common language of the day, which was Latin. (The books of the Bible were written in Greek and Hebrew, which many of the citizens of the Roman Empire did not know). This translation, called “the Vulgate” is still used to this day.
As another side note, you will still hear some anti-Catholic Protestants trot out the false claim that the Church tried to stop people from reading the Bible – and it was only Luther and the Reformers who made it accessible. They cited as evidence the claim that the Bible was chained to churches. If and when that was true, it was because books were extraordinarily expensive back then, and the pastors wanted to preserve them for common use and protect them from theft.
Damasus reigned during the time when the Christian faith was just legalized in the Empire, and persecution was finally coming to an end. So yet another accomplishment of this great pope was to preserve the catacombs and tombs of the Christians who had given their lives as witnesses to the faith, in defiance of the Roman authorities trying to make them worship the emperor instead. These cemeteries were already falling into disrepair, which Damasus reversed. As a result, those special holy places have been preserved for Christian pilgrims to this day. He helped develop devotion to the martyrs, and even wanted to be buried among the tombs of the martyrs, but humbly left this inscription instead: “I , Damasus, wished to be buried here, but I feared to offend the ashes of these holy ones.” So he was buried with his family instead.
Damasus was the son of a priest (priestly celibacy did not become the norm until later that century) and a deacon who did not even become a priest until age 60. He lived and reigned to age 78, a ripe old age for that time period. Pope St. Damasus, pray for us!