In Washington, we are accustomed to the language and tactics of the world of politics: “political posturing”, “smear campaigns”, and catering to “special interest groups”. We know that the election of governmental officials can involve fierce rivalry and elections can be both rigged and contested. We may naively expect that these conditions have never existed in the Church, but the life of St. Damasus of Rome can attest to the opposite.
The son of a priest attached to the Church of St. Lawrence (the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le Mura) in Rome, Damasus may have been born, around the year 305, in what is now Portugal where his family originated. St. Constantine became Emperor when Damasus was just a year old, so in his childhood and youth, Christianity was made first legal and then the preferred religion of the Empire. It is perhaps for this reason that the Church experienced some of the same turmoil that existed in the political realm.
Like his father, Damasus entered the service of the church and served in the same church as his father. He was apparently the archdeacon when Pope Liberius was exiled by the Emperor Constantius II. Damasus accompanied him, but returned to Rome soon and had a major part in maintaining some stability in the church there during the reign of an “anti-pope”. Pope Liberius was reinstated and upon his death in 366, the 61-year-old Damasus was elected as his successor.
However, the turmoil of earlier years had not completely died down and rival factions of Christians pressed for their favorite candidates for office. Ursinus had a political following and managed to convince the Bishop of Tibur to consecrate him as the pope, contrary to the proper procedure. The outcry of both camps was great and eventually erupted into violence. Clubs and swords were used and it is said that 137 people were killed in the riot.
The Emperor Valentinian had to intervene to restore order (eventually by banning Ursinus and his closest followers to Gaul), but the undercurrent of discontent and revenge was present for the remainder of Pope Damasus’ life. His detractors accused him of murder and adultery (although he never married) and added to this, the friction with those Arians, Appolinarians, and other heretical groups who would have swayed the people of Rome away from Orthodox Christianity, made for a very turbulent pontificate.
One of the far-reaching acts of Pope Damasus was to appoint Jerome as his personal secretary and to encourage him to make a new, more accurate, translation of the Bible into Latin. St. Jerome’s Vulgate Bible was the primary Bible used by the Church in the West for hundreds of years. The second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople was held during Pope Damasus’ papacy, and he presided over the Council of Rome in 382 which established the canon of Scripture for Rome in agreement with that of North Africa established by St. Augustine.
St. Damasus was devoted to the veneration of the early martyrs of the Church and worked to keep their memory alive with the Christians of this new age. He worked to maintain and beautify the tombs of the martyrs. He (along with St. Ambrose of Milan) encouraged the appeals of the Christian Senators of Rome in urging the Emperor Gratian to remove the Altar of Victory from the Senate in Rome and other regulations to end the practice of pagan worship.
When we stand before God in the great Judgement at the end of time, we will not have to answer for the circumstances of our lives, but for how we lived in those circumstances and whether we followed Christ faithfully. St. Damasus will surely then be placed with the sheep at Christ’s right hand. In the midst of political rivalry and sectarian violence, he was a faithful shepherd of his flock; he rose above the turmoil and led his people in the way of Truth. St. Damasus passed to his eternal reward on December 11 in the year 384.
May St. Damasus remind those of us who live in the midst of political rivalries and turmoil that living our lives as faithful Christians is more important than any political belief, party, or office. Holy Damasus, pray for us.
We live in tumultuous times. The constant threat of terrorism, fear of the spread of nuclear weapons, worldwide economic instability, and frequent natural disasters often keep us on edge and prevent us from feeling the peace and security we all desire.
But there have been worse times for many. St. Melchiades (or Miltiades) lived in another tumultuous time, from the late third to the early fourth centuries. The details of his birth and youth are unknown, but it is certain that Melchiades was of African heritage. He was living in Rome during the violent persecution of Christians in the time of the Emperor Diocletian. He suffered through – and managed to survive – the times when Christians were forced to pay worship to the Emperor and to turn over copies of the Holy Scriptures and other objects used in Christian worship. Christians were deprived of voting privileges, they had no recourse to the law courts and they were not allowed to hold office. Buildings used as churches were confiscated or burned. For those who resisted any of this or refused to follow the orders of the emperors, torture and death (by burning or crucifixion) awaited.
Sometimes, the lives of Christian leaders were spared but they were removed from their flocks. Bishop Eusebius of Rome was sent into exile in 309 but soon died, and Rome was without a bishop until the election of Melchiades in 311. In the following year, the military leader Constantine defeated Maxentius, gaining control of Rome, and things began to look up for the Christian community. Constantine, along with Galerius and Licinius who shared imperial power, issued an edict allowing for religious toleration. As a result, Christians were once again allowed to worship freely and to restore their church buildings. (Unfortunately during this time, Maximinus Daia, who ruled in the East, did not extend toleration to Christians so persecutions continued there.)
In October of 312, the fate of Christians throughout the world became even more secure, when Constantine won the battle of the Milvian Bridge after his dramatic vision of victory through the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Christianity soon became the favored religion of the empire. Constantine even donated the Lateran Palace to the Christian community for use as a center for the administration of church affairs. Bishop Melchiades could rejoice in the freedom and protection which the Church now enjoyed.
But the devil wasted no time in stepping in to disrupt this freedom. Controversy arose – primarily in Africa – over the validity of the sacraments by those bishops and priests who had weakened during the persecutions. The African bishops considered those who had relinquished the Scriptures or made other concessions in order to remain alive as traitors. They said that Bishop Caecilian of Carthage had been consecrated by such traitors and should, therefore, be removed from office and they appealed to Emperor Constantine to settle their dispute. He wisely referred it back to the bishops, asking Pope Melchiades to preside at a council for judgement on the issue. With several bishops from Gaul (where there had been fewer persecutions so those bishops were thought to be more objective) and others from Italy, the council decreed that Caecilian was a legitimate bishop and should remain in office. This resulted in a schism by those who followed the leading dissident, Donatus. The Donatists set up a rival sect and even wrongly accused Pope Melchiades of having been a traitor during the persecutions.
After a pontificate of only three years, Pope Melchiades fell asleep in the Lord in January of 314. His relics were buried in the catacombs of Callistus and he was immediately declared a saint by the people. His life had been full of tumult, but he had bravely served our Lord in his Church and could be assured of hearing His words, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” Holy Melchiades, pray for us.
One of the four great Western “doctors” of the Church (along with St. Gregory the Great, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome), St. Ambrose of Milan has blessed the Church with a holy example of praise to God (through his hymns and chants), of defense of the Truth against heresy (in his opposition to the Arians), and of fearlessness against the cruelty of rulers (in his order to the Emperor Theodosius to do public penance for the massacre of innocent people).
The son of the Roman governor of Gaul, Ambrose was born around the year 339. His family sent the boy to Rome to study poetry, rhetoric, Greek, and law and his intelligence helped him to become successful at an early age. In 370, Ambrose was made a regional governor, residing in Milan. Ambrose was still only a catechumen in the Church, but he strongly opposed the Arian heresy (which was very strong and constantly competing with Orthodoxy for the allegiance of the people). When the Arian bishop of the diocese died in 374, it was Ambrose’s duty as governor to preside over the election of a successor, so he called an assembly of the people for that purpose. During the governor’s opening speech, a child cried out “Ambrose for bishop” and there was a general outcry of all the people in agreement. After many attempts to refuse the election, Ambrose finally recognized God’s will in this event, and he was baptized and then ordained on December 7 (which is celebrated as his feast day in both the East and the West).
Ambrose’s continuing education now centered on the study of the works of the fathers, particularly St. Basil the Great. He used his great administrative skills in his new role, often acting as mediator in disputes. Having given his wealth to the poor, he founded charities, encouraged monastics in the ascetic life, and wrote numerous theological works. Loved by the people, he was a true father and guide for them, especially in difficult times, as when he and fellow Christians protected a church from being taken over by the Arians at the order of the emperor. As the emperor’s soldiers surrounded the church, Ambrose and the people remained inside, singing hymns and psalms until the soldiers retreated. His counsel to St. Monica gave her comfort and perseverance and also eventually led her son, St. Augustine, to accept the Orthodox faith. After a severe illness in the winter of 397, St. Ambrose fell asleep in the Lord on Good Friday, April 4.
We do not know if St. Ambrose composed music, but the style of chant which developed in the diocese of Milan became known as “Ambrosian chant” [the setting of the Creed, which we sing is an ancient Ambrosian melody]. We do have a number of hymn texts which he wrote and, through these words, St. Ambrose strengthens our faith. May we, with him, sing this hymn as we anticipate the coming of our Lord at Christmas:
Come, thou Redeemer of the earth, and manifest thy virgin-birth: let every age adoring fall, such birth befits the God of all.
Begotten of no human will, but of the Spirit, thou art still the Word of God, in flesh arrayed, the Savior, now to man displayed.