The Papal Schism between Liberius and Felix

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CSEL 35: 1-4 (O. Guenther, ed.)


1. In the time of emperor Constantius, the son of Constantine, there arose a very difficult persecution of Christians, arising from those impious heretics, the Arians, whom Constantius supported. He also persecuted Athanasius who had resisted the heretics, by commanding that he be condemned by all bishops. Because they feared the prince, all the priests everywhere were tempted to do this, to condemn an innocent man without a trial. But Liberius, bishop of Rome, and Eusebius of Vercelli, Lucifer of Cagliari, and Hilary of Poitiers were unwilling to pronounce the guilty verdict. Therefore, these four were sent into exile for their obedience to the faith.

2. Damasus, a deacon under Liberius, pretended that he was going to go along with his bishop. But fleeing from that course, he returned to Rome, corrupted by ambition. But on the day when Liberius went off into exile, the entire clergy, that is, the priests, and the archdeacon Felix, and Damasus, himself a deacon, and all the church officials, in the presence of the people of Rome, swore assuredly that they would have no other bishop as long as Liberius was alive. But, contrary to sacred duty, the clergy did something that was in no way proper. They perjured themselves most wickedly and supported Felix, who had been ordained as an archdeacon, as bishop in the place of Liberius. What was done displeased the entire population of the city and they boycotted his inaugural procession.

3. After two years, the emperor Constantius came to Rome. The people asked for Liberius’s return. He soon agreed, saying, “You may have Liberius, who will return to you better than he was when he departed.”  But this revealed that by his agreement he was extending the hand of treachery. In the third year, Liberius returned, and the Roman people went out to meet him with great joy. Felix, censured either by the Senate or by the people themselves, was forced out of the city. But after a little time, at the instigation of the clergy, who broke their oaths, he broke into the city again and dared to set himself up in the Basilica of Julius across the Tiber. The entire population of the city, along with the nobility, again threw him out of the city with great shame.

4. After 8 years, in the consulship of Valentinian and Valens, on the 10th day before the Kalends of December, Felix died. Liberius had mercy on the clergy who had broken their oaths, and received them into their former positions. Likewise on the 8th day before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Gratian and Dagalais, Liberius was removed from worldly cares.

5. Then the priests and the deacons Ursinus, Amantius, Lupus, and the Christian populace, who had been obedient to the faith while Liberius was off in exile, proceeded into the Basilica of Julius and demanded that Ursinus the deacon be made their bishop in the place of Liberius. Meanwhile the perjurers had gathered at the Church in Lucinis and insisted that Damasus be their bishop in the place of Felix. Paul, Bishop of Tibur, consecrated Ursinus as bishop. But when Damasus, who had always sought to be bishop, learned about this, he used bribes to rile up all the charioteers and ignorant rabble, and armed with weapons he broke into the Basilica of Julius, and a great slaughter of the faithful raged for three days.

6. Seven days later, in the company of all the perjurers and gladiators whom he had corrupted by paying huge sums of money, he took possession of the Lateran Basilica and was there ordained bishop. By paying off a city judge named Viventius and the Praefectus Annonae Julianus [official in charge of maintaining the city’s grain supply], he arranged for the respectable Ursinus, who had previously been ordained as bishop, to be sent off into exile along with the deacons Amantius and Lupus. Once that had been accomplished, Damasus began to oppress the Romans who were not willing to go along with him, using various types of beatings and bloodshed. He also tried to expel from the city seven priests who he had detained in the course of duty. But the faithful populace rushed to rescue them, and escorted them to the Basilica of Liberius without delay.

7. Then Damasus and his unfaithful following summoned the gladiators, charioteers, gravediggers, and all the clergy, and with hatchets, swords, and clubs they besieged the basilica, inciting a great battle, beginning at the second hour of the day, on the seventh day before the Kalends of November in the consulship of Gratian and Dagalais. They broke down the doors and set fire underneath, then rushed it and ransacked the building. Some members of his household, when they were destroying the roof of the basilica, were killing the faithful congregation with the tiles. Then all of Damasus’ supporters rushed in and killed a hundred and sixty of the people inside, both men and women. They wounded many more, many of whom later died from their wounds. But no one from Damasus’ party was killed.

8. Three days later, the pious Christians gathered together and began to recite the commandments of the Lord against him, saying,  “Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul” [Matt. 10.28] They sang psalms of praise and said, “they have given the bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the sky, the bodies of your saints for the beasts of the earth; they poured out their blood as water all around Jerusalem, and there were no one to bury them” [Ps. 79 (78).2-3].

9. Therefore, when these same people had often gathered in the Basilica of Liberius, they cried out, “Christian Emperor, nothing escapes your notice. May all bishops come to Rome! Let the case be heard! Damasus has waged his fifth war. Get the murderers out of the Chair of Peter!” The people of God kept sending requests, pleading for the bishops to convene, so that by a just sentence they could get rid of the blemished memory of this great impiety. The matrons desired this so much that the matrons were said to be ear-prickers

10. So finally the cry of the people reached Valentinian the emperor, whose piety moved him to allow for the return of the exiles. Then Ursinus, along with the deacons Amantius and Lupus, returned to the city, on the 17th day before the Kalends of October in the consulship of Lupicinus and Jovinus [A.D. 367]. The holy people gratefully ran to meet them.

11. But Damasus, realizing his own wickedness in these affairs was struck by great fear, and bribed the entire palace to make sure his conduct would not be made known to the emperor. The emperor, unaware of what Damasus had perpetrated, affirmed the edict, so that Ursinus would be again kept in exile, unable to cause disturbances among the populace by some other wicked contentious action. Then Bishop Ursinus, a holy man and having committed no crime, out of regard for the people gave himself into the hands of wicked men, and on the 16th day before the Kalends of December, by order of the emperor, hurried into exile of his own accord.

12. But those who feared God, though they were harassed by many persecutions, did not fear the emperor, or judges, nor even that wicked and homicidal leader himself, Damasus. No, they stood firm, conducting services throughout the cemeteries of the martyrs without clergy. It was at such a gathering, when many of the faithful had come together at the tomb of St. Agnes, that Damasus rushed in with his followers and killed many in a devastating massacre.

13. That immeasurably cruel action displeased all the bishops of Italy. After some of them gathered when invited to the solemn celebration of his accession, he used both entreaties and bribes, to try to gain their condemnation against the holy Ursinus. They responded, “We are convening for your accession celebration, we are not here to condemn a man in absentia.”

14. And so he failed to accomplish the depraved intention for which he had hoped.

Translation by AJW

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