Damasus spent 20 years as pope during the last years of the Roman Empire’s greatness. Born in 305AD in what is now Portugal, he grew up during the reign of Constantine, who introduced tolerance for Christianity but also divided the empire and moved the capital east.
As a young man he moved to Rome and worked under Liberius. When that pope was exiled in 354 Damasus as archdeacon followed him. He eventually succeeded Liberius in an atmosphere of violence.
Some of Damasus’s supporters attacked and killed followers of the rival Ursinus, the violence escalating to such an extent that the emperor was forced to intervene. At one point 137 men were killed at what is now the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
It wasn’t until 378 that Damasus was confirmed as pope and Ursinus condemned. His enemies accused Damasus of extracting funds from wealthy widows, calling him auriscalpius matronarum, “the ladies’ ear-scratcher”.
As well as factional fighting, there was also doctrinal violence over the Arian heresy. Damasus presided over the Council of Rome in 382, which helped to settle doctrine disputes. He also encouraged veneration of Rome’s martyrs and opened the Catacombs for the faithful.
For all the shady political manoeuvring, Damasus helped to unite the Church and prevent a schism. He died peacefully after almost two decades in charge. He was buried beside his mother and sister.