Today is the feast day of Saint Jerome. Ora pro nobis.
“I, follow no leader save Christ, as associated in fellowship with your Blessednes, that is with the See of Peter. On that rock I know the Church was built. Whoso eats the Lamb outside that house is profane. If anyone shall be outside the Ark of Noe, he shall perish when the flood prevails.” (P.L., xxii 355.) St. Jerome, Ep. ad Damasum, xv,21
Saint Jerome was born Eusebius Hieronymous Sophronius. He was born about the year 342 at Stridonius, a small town at the head of the Adriatic, near the episcopal city of Aquileia. His father, a Christian, took care that his son was well instructed at home, then sent him to Rome, where the young man's teachers were the famous pagan grammarian Donatus and Victorinus, a Christian rhetorician. Jerome's native tongue was the Illyrian dialect, but at Rome he became fluent in Latin and Greek, and read the literatures of those languages with great pleasure.
His aptitude for oratory was such that he may have considered law as a career. He acquired many worldly ideas, made little effort to check his pleasure-loving instincts, and lost much of the piety that had been instilled in him at home. Yet in spite of the pagan and hedonistic influences around him, Jerome was baptized by Pope Liberius in 360.
From Rome he went to Trier, famous for its schools, and there began his theological studies. Later he went to Aquileia, and towards 373 he set out on a journey to the East. He settled first in Antioch, where he heard Apollinaris of Laodicea, one of the first exegetes of that time and not yet separated from the Church. From 374-9 Jerome led an ascetical life in the desert of Chalcis, southwest of Antioch. Ordained priest at Antioch, he went to Constantinople (380-81), where a friendship sprang up between him and St. Gregory of Nazianzus.
(by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876)
St. Jerome, the great doctor of the church, was born at Stridonium, in Dalmatia, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. Not less celebrated for his holy life than for his eminent knowledge and the great learning with which he expounded Holy Writ, St. Jerome was also a most heroic and victorious com-batter of heresy, and an unwearied defender of the truth of the Catholic faith. He received his first instructions in science at Rome. An insatiable desire thoroughly to study all branches of knowledge led him to different lands to become a disciple of the most famous teachers. Hence, he made such progress in science, that the most learned men, even the Popes themselves, asked his advice in various matters, especially when they experienced difficulty in expounding Holy Writ. Having returned from Greece, whither he had gone in search of knowledge, he went to Syria, partly to study still more, partly to visit the holy places. Meeting a great many monks there, he became acquainted with the holy life they led, and resolved to leave the world also and live in solitude in order to serve God more faithfully and be undisturbed in the reading of learned and pious works.
Four years he remained there in deep solitude and great piety. His only garments were made of sack-cloth ; his bed was the bare ground, and his pillow, a stone. His fasting was so severe that, according to his own words, his whole body was emaciated, and his bones were covered only with skin. God permitted him, notwithstanding these austerities, to be for some time most fearfully tormented by terrible temptations. All that he had seen at Rome, in the theatres and other places, came before his eyes. Casting himself before the crucifix, he bathed the feet of Christ with bitter tears, took not the least nourishment for several days, beat his breast with stones, and left not off praying until heaven had restored peace and calm to his heart. To continue in this state of mind, he tried to occupy himself with other thoughts and to shun idleness, that the evil one might find no opportunity to tempt him further. He read Holy Writ with the greatest attention, and to understand it better, he learned Hebrew, which, as he confessed himself, he found exceedingly difficult.
After four years he went to Jerusalem to revisit the holy places, and to learn Hebrew more perfectly. Satan endeavored to disgust him with Holy Writ, pretending that the style was not so finished as that of Cicero, the pagan writer, whom he esteemed most highly, and often read with great attention. But God punished him severely for this. He relates himself that once, during a heavy sickness, it seemed to him that he stood before the judgment-seat of Christ. He was asked: ” Who art thou?” “I am,” answered he, “a Christian.” “Thou liest,” said the judge severely, “thou art a Ciceronian and no Christian ; for where your treasure is, there also is your heart.” Soon after this the judge ordered him to be scourged. During this punishment, Jerome cried: “O Lord, have pity on me, have pity on me!” The scourging ceased, but the marks on the body of the saint were a sign that the vision had been more than a dream. Jerome concluded from this that he had done wrong in spending so much time in reading a heathen orator. He laid all worldly books aside and once more began to study Holy Writ most diligently. He also translated many books of the Holy Scriptures from the Hebrew into Latin, and corrected others according to the Greek version, and added to all most learned commentaries.
At the age of thirty years he was ordained a priest by Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch, but would never consent to charge himself with a parish, because he desired to give all his time to the expounding of the Holy Scriptures. During the reign of the holy Pope Damasus, Jerome went with several bishops to Rome, where the Pope employed him in some very important affairs. At the request of the holy Father, he instructed several of the nobility, whom he led to great holiness. The most known among them were St. Paula and her daughter Paulina, St. Marcella, Eustochium, Ruffina, Blessilla, Albina, Ascella, and Laeta. He also preached frequently at Rome, and censured, with Christian liberty, the vices and abuses of the Romans. But his teaching those above mentioned, as well as his sermons, caused him much suffering, especially after the death of St. Damasus. Although the holy man defended his honor, which was severely attacked by some wicked people, he nevertheless, in order not to be disturbed in his work on the gospel, returned to Palestine, taking some persons with him who had determined to make their dwelling there. The holy widow, Paula, also left Rome, and went with some other women to the Holy Land, and built at Bethlehem, near the manger of the Savior, a monastery, in which the Saint led a religious life with those who submitted themselves to his rule. This was the origin of the celebrated religious order which still bears the name of St. Jerome. The Saint himself gave his brethren the brightest example in all virtues; but besides this, he labored zealously for the welfare of the Catholic Church.
At that time several new heretics attacked the Catholic faith with great fury ; among these were Vigilantius, Helvidius, Pelagius and Jovinianus. St. Jerome opposed all, refuted their heresies, and defended the Catholic faith by many written works. No enemy of the church came forth whom this holy man did not immediately challenge and defeat; hence, he is rightly called the hammer of the heretics, and the protector of the Catholic truth. No danger, no threats of the heretics, no persecution, not even death itself could deter him. ” The dog barks to protect his master,” said he, ” and shall I not speak to defend my God? I can die, but I cannot be silent.” All heretics feared him ; but all true Catholics loved and honored him, not only in Palestine, but in every part of the Christian world. Many travelled from distant lands to Bethlehem to see so renowned a man. Although St. Jerome was so great in the eyes of the world, he was too deeply humble not to avoid all vain glory. He says in a letter, that from childhood he had shunned nothing more than pride and haughtiness, as they draw down the hatred of God. He had, according to his own words, constantly before his eyes the verse: “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” In explaining the gospel, he never followed his own judgment alone, but first prayed fervently to God to enlighten him, and then asked the opinion of other learned men. To remain humble he frequently remembered his sins, as he himself confessed, and exclaimed with the Psalmist, on bended knees, and while shedding bitter tears: “O, Lord! remember not the sins of my youth and my ignorance.”
Although he led so austere and holy a life, yet his dread of the last judgment and of hell was extremely great. His fear of the former he explains in these words : ” As often as I think of that terrible day my whole body trembles. I may be eating or drinking, or otherwise employed, but I seem always to hear the terrible sound of the trumpet of the last day: ” Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment! ” and again : ” Neither fame nor honor can disturb me, because the fear of the terrible judgment of God is constantly upon me.” In regard to his fear of hell, he confessed that the principal reason for which he had concealed himself in a dark cave, fasted so strictly, and practiced other penances, was his fear of hell. ” For fear of hell,” he writes, ” I have condemned myself to such a dungeon.” This double fear kept the holy man, so celebrated in the whole Christian world, humble, and led him in the sure way to heaven.
St. Jerome reached a very great age, although his body was so weakened by his many labors, that long before his death he was unable to rise, or even to turn from one side to the other. But even then he still instructed others, and, not being able to write with his own hand, he dictated several books in defense of the Catholic faith. When, at last, a fever was added to his weakness, he knew that his death was approaching, and prepared himself for his last hour by devoutly receiving the holy sacraments. He manifested great joy in contemplating the eternal happiness to which he hourly came nearer. Those with him, especially his spiritual children, he exhorted, with great zeal, to love God and their neighbor, and then calmly gave his soul into the keeping of Him for whose honor he had labored and suffered. His holy body was buried with great solemnities at Bethlehem, not far from the Manger of the Lord; but was afterwards, together with the Holy Manger, transported to Rome. The vestments and the chalice which he used for a long time in saying Mass, are still preserved, and are rightly esteemed as precious relics of so great a Saint. Not less precious to the Church of Christ are the many works which the holy teacher wrote ; as they contain, not only the strongest weapons against heretics, but also much useful instructions for true Catholics. God has made the Saint glorious by many miracles. But we may consider it as, perhaps, the greatest of his miracles, that a man who travelled so much, and suffered such persecutions, and who was always of a weakly and sickly constitution, could write so many and such learned works, defeat so many heresies, lead so many souls to God; in a word, how he could do all he did for the benefit of the Church, and of numberless souls! Truly it was the hand of the Lord that worked through him! (1)
Prayer to Saint Jerome
The Liturgical Year: Father Prosper Gueranger 1903
Thou completest, O illustrious Saint, the brilliant constellation of Doctors in the heavens of holy Church. The latest stars are now rising on the sacred Cycle; the dawn of the eternal Day is at hand ; the Sun of Justice will soon shine down upon the Valley of Judgment. O model of penance, teach us that holy fear, which restrains from sin, or repairs its ravages ; guide us along the rugged path of expiation. Historian of great monks,1 thyself a monk and father of the solitaries attracted like these to Bethlehem by the sweetness of the divine Infant, keep up the spirit of labour and prayer in the monastic Order, of which several families have adopted thy name. Scourge of heretics, attach us firmly to the Roman faith. Watchful guardian of Christ's flock, protect us against wolves, and preserve us from hirelings. Avenger of Mary's honour, obtain for our sinful world that the angelic virtue may flourish more and more.
O Jerome, thy special glory is a participation in the power of the Lamb to open the mysterious Book; the key of David was given to thee to unclose the many seals of holy Scripture, and to show us Jesus concealed beneath the letter. The Church, therefore, sings thy praises today, and presents thee to her children as the official interpreter of the inspired writings which guide her to her eternal destiny. Accept her homage and the gratitude of her sons. May our Lord, by thy intercession, renew in us the respect and love due to his divine word. May thy merits obtain for the world other holy Doctors, and learned interpreters of the sacred Books. But let them bear in mind the spirit of reverence and prayer with which they must hear the voice of God in order to understand. God will have his word obeyed, not discussed; although, among the various interpretations of which that divine word is susceptible, it is lawful, under the guidance of the Church, to seek out the true one ; and it is praise-worthy to be ever sounding the depths of beauty hidden in that august doctrine. Happy is he who follows thy footsteps in these holy studies! Thou didst say: ” To live ” in the midst of such treasures, to be wholly engrossed in them, to know and to seek nothing else, ” is it not to dwell already more in heaven than on ” earth. Let us learn in time that science which ” will endure for ever.” (1)
The elderly Pope Damasus asked Jerome to be his secretary. Damasus was a dynamic and assertive Pope who accepted his public role as the head of the Christian Church. He fostered the cult of the early Roman martyrs, restoration of the catacombs and construction of new churches. A cultured Pope he organised the papal archives and ‘found the younger man useful, with his knowledge of languages, his familiarity with eastern church affairs, and his flair for writing.’
It was at Rome that Jerome first began the translation of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Pope Damasus, horrified by various versions of the Bible, appealed to him in 383 A.D. to provide a standard translation. It was a monumental undertaking, which resulted in an edition which lasted over eleven hundred years. The Vulgate, as it was called, would meet the needs of Christian society and became one of the most influential books in western society.
Happy and respected in his role as translator and mouthpiece of the Pope, Jerome was considered as a candidate for the papacy. But now complexity entered into his life. Marcella, Paula, and Eustochium were wealthy Roman Christians who sought out persons who could offer spiritual direction and religious knowledge.
Marcella was a beautiful and wealthy widow who was strong-minded and realistic. Spurning offers of a second marriage, she consecrated herself to a life of chastity, simplicity and Bible reading. To Marcella’s home came a thirty-five-year old widow named Paula. She became a close friend of Marcella and then turned her home into a similar spiritual centre. Paula’s daughter, Eustochium, was directed by Marcella in a life of prayer and asceticism.
Jerome taught scripture at the homes of Marcella and Paula, and he delighted in the friendship of Paula. The attractive widow was so modest, however, that she never ate a meal with a man, not even a bishop.
Inquiry into rumours
The fact that Paula, the source of Jerome’s financial solvency, intended to join him in Bethlehem provided grist for the rumour mills. Jerome was investigated by a commission which found him entirely innocent of any wrongdoing, but asked him to depart from Rome immediately. Jerome felt most injured by the aspersions cast on the good character of Paula who had heroically committed herself to the service of God. Despite the upset, an impressive crowd of well-wishers came to the port of Rome in 384 AD to see the departure of Jerome, his brother and their companions for the east.
Jerome opened a monastery in Bethlehem and, at the same time, Paula and Eustochium opened a convent nearby. By 390 AD Jerome began his labour on the Jewish Bible – ‘with my eyes open I thrust my hand into the flame’. He made corrections to the text and provided an unpolished edition with strong Hebrew colouring in ‘Christian Latin.’
When Jerome’s sight began to fail, Paula and Eustochium read the psalms to him in Hebrew. Paula died in 404 A.D. in her fifty-seventh year and was buried in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity. Jerome was dazed for some months by her loss and fell sick with a raging fever. To Eustochium he eulogised Paula’s humility, charity and acceptance of suffering. She came into a world of wealth and for her apostolic endeavour left behind crippling debts.
For fifteen years after Paula’s death Eustochium continued to help Jerome and read Hebrew to him until she too died and was buried next to her mother.
After a long illness, Jerome succumbed to death in 420 A.D., at seventy-four years of age and was buried next to his dear friends Paula and Eustochium.
By compiling the Vulgate Bible, Jerome rendered an incalculable service to western Christendom. He also contributed greatly to the establishment of monasticism in Europe. He revealed his passionate nature in his pursuit of scholarship, in his dedication to his monastic commitment, and in his great love for the women who supported the major project of his life.
We might also say that Jerome’s brilliance and strong character disciplined his powerful passions. He schooled himself so that his good works might shine as a beacon within the Christian community. His writings provided Christians with inspiration for over a thousand years.
Image: Saint Jerome penitent, artist: Matthias Stom, circa first half of 17th century