Pope St. Damasus I composed two epitaphs to Peter, the first pope, one to him individually and the other together with Paul. An epitaph that Damasus composed for the construction of a baptistery honors St. Peter, alluding to his role as keeper of the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Praestante Petro, cui tradita ianua caeli “Excelling Peter, to whom the door of heaven is confided.” The allusion is to Matthew 16:19. Where Christ tells Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
In an epitaph that marked where the bodies of the two saints had once been laid, Damasus wrote “The East sent the disciples, which we willingly admit. On account of the merit of their blood…Rome deserves to call them her own citizens.” Maura Lafferty explains that “although Damasus allows that both Peter and Paul were born elsewhere, he nevertheless asserts that their new birth in martyrdom turned them into citizens of Rome herself.” There are of echoes of the idea of Peter and Paul as the twin founders of a new Rome in this epitaph. More explicitly, the text of the epitaph evokes the image of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Zeus, especially in the last stanza, which refers to Peter and Paul as “new stars.”
Peter in Rome
Marianne Sághy finds it to be significant that Damasus, who aimed to exalt the Roman see through his episcopal epitaphs, did not hail Peter as the first bishop of Rome. This is especially interesting because it is yet another deliberate departure on the part of Damasus from his source, the Deposito Episcoporum. Despite this omission, the epitaph nevertheless became a support for papal primacy because it was seen as evidence that Peter had in fact been in Rome.
Sts. Peter and Paul, twin founders of new (Christian) Rome
Damasus, who faced a schism that erupted into violent conflict at the start of his pontificate, knew all too well the calamitous effects of disunity. This was another reason that he celebrated Peter together with Paul as twin founders of the church at Rome. Together, Peter and Paul represented the concordia apostolorum, a harmony that Damasus undoubtedly hoped that feuding factions within the Church would look to and emulate. “Charles Pietri has argued that the increased pairing of Peter and Paul that occurred in the mid-fourth century was, in some circumstances, funded by Roman bishops (especially Damasus) who wished to smooth over factional infighting.”
The Primacy of Peter
Theodosius issued the famous edict Cunctos Populos from Thessalonica, for which reason it is also known as the edict of Thessalonica. The Edict established orthodox Christianity, defined as “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter…and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, bishop of Alexandria” as the state religion of the empire. It is likely that this definition on the part of Theodosius was a result of the influence of Acholius, who was in regular communication with Damasus.
It is no surprise that Theodosius mentions Peter of Alexandria alongside Damasus of Rome. Rome and Alexandria had long enjoyed a close relationship and alliance. Tradition held that St. Mark the Evangelist, who had founded the church at Alexandria and served at its first bishop, had been a close companion of Peter. In A.D. 382, Damasus called a synod of Western bishops, none of whom had been present at Constantinople, in Rome as a follow up to the Council of Constantinople the year before.
The Council of Constantinople and Synod of Rome
The most troubling result of the Council of Constantinople was its Third canon. It stated, “The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome, because Constantinople is New Rome.” This canon was problematic for Damasus on a number of levels. It demoted Alexandria and Antioch, which had long enjoyed status just behind Rome. Moreover, despite maintaining the primacy of Rome, Damasus worried that it ultimately threatened the foundation of that primacy.
“The authority of bishops had been said to derive ultimately from the mission of the apostles….In contrast, by elevating to a position above Alexandria and Antioch a city that was only recently founded and did not claim for its church an apostolic origin in the same way that those cities did, I Constantinople’s third canon seemed to base primatial authority upon the mere secular circumstance that Constantinople happened to be the new capital of the Roman Empire.” -William Henn, The Honor of My Brothers: A Brief History of the Relationship Between the Pope and the Bishops, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 200), 59-60.
The response of the Roman synod, under the leadership of Damasus, indicates that he well knew the possible implications of the canon. Damasus made the argument that the rank of each should be based on the founding of those churches by apostles rather than the founding of the cities by emperors.
Therefore first is the seat at the Roman church of the apostle Peter ‘having no spot or wrinkle or any other [defect]’. However the second place was given in the name of blessed Peter to Mark his disciple and gospel-writer at Alexandria, and who himself wrote down the word of truth directed by Peter the apostle in Egypt and gloriously consummated [his life] in martyrdom. Indeed, the third place is held at Antioch of the most blessed and honourable apostle Peter, who lived there before he came to Roma and where first the name of the new race of the Christians was heard
Thus, Pope St. Damasus appealed to the authority and primacy of St. Peter, first Bishop of Rome, in order to assert the primacy of Rome, followed by the Sees of Antioch and Alexandria, which both had connections to St. Peter.
Sts. Peter and Paul, orate pro nobis!