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Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c. 342-420

Saint Jerome is very much a part of our everyday life. Most of us are affected by his chief work. This work, the Vulgate Bible, a translation of Scripture into Latin, which became and still remains the approved Catholic version, is undoubtedly one of the greatest accomplishments of history. It has had a tremendous influence on the evolution of Christian culture, and it is for this reason that all of us owe much to Saint Jerome.

 Jerome was born about 342, at Stridonium, a little village in Dalmatia, near the borders of present-day Hungary. Its exact site is unknown, as it was wiped out in a Gothic invasion. His parents were Christians; Christians in the fashion of a time when pagan and Christian were socially fused. Because they were wealthy and because Jerome was a precocious boy, and had succeeded well in his studies at home, they sent him to Rome to complete his education. He remained there for several years. He was an eager scholar and soon was deep in the study of the Greek and Latin classics of literature, history, and philosophy. In addition to his studies, the young man began a life-long project-building a library of his own. This did not mean the purchase of books, but copying the works himself. Besides enjoying the intellectual pleasures of literature, Jerome joined in the other pleasures of Rome and delighted in games and spectacles.

 At the age of twenty, Jerome was baptized by Pope Liberius. The sacrament had been deferred until this time so that the sins of youth would be taken away, a common abuse of the time. The young man had become aware of Christianity in the Eternal City. Two things impressed him: the fervor of congregations in the churches and the tombs of the apostles and martyrs which he visited.

 Eager for knowledge, Jerome made a journey to Gaul with a friend, searching for the centers of learning and opportunities to learn what they had to offer. He sojourned for some time at Trier (in present-day Germany, one of the oldest cities in Europe and in Jerome's time a seat of the imperial court) where he transcribed some of the works of Saint Hilary of Poitiers. It was probably while he was in Gaul that Jerome began to think of renouncing the world for a life entirely devoted to Christ. He returned to his own province, to the city of Aquilea, and remained there for some time, in the company of a group of devout men who had been brought together by a local priest. Soon some troubles arose and with three friends and all his precious manuscripts, Jerome set out eastward. Perhaps he intended to go to Palestine, but he arranged his route to take in many cities of Asia Minor on the way. When he reached Antioch, an important cultural center, his health required him to remain for several months.

 At Antioch, an event occurred that turned Jerome's love for literature from the pagan classics to Christian writings. He had a dream. In the dream, he was brought before the great judge. Asked who he was, he answered that he was a Christian. "You lie," said the judge, "you are a Ciceronian. Where your treasure is, there is your heart." Jerome re solved never again to read the literary works he had loved so well, but to devote himself to Scripture.

 Jerome now desired a more solitary life, and went to the desert of Chalcis, about fifty miles southeast of Antioch. Here he lived the penitential life of a hermit, but instead of occupying a narrow hut as the others did, Jerome lived in a room spacious enough to hold his library. He spent his days in prayer, study of the Scripture, and copying books.

 The delights of Rome were not easy to forget; Jerome was plagued by unchaste thoughts and was homesick also for the world of thought, study, and discussion. To dispel his unhappy state of mind, he decided to study Hebrew with the help of a monk who was a Jew by birth. The knowledge of this language enabled him to translate the Scriptures from more direct sources. He also organized a workshop of copyists, and began to write letters to his friends in the West.

 Unfortunately, this pleasant solitude was disrupted by the theological disputes of quarreling monks, and Jerome in exasperation went back to Antioch. Here after some resistance he allowed himself to be ordained a priest by the bishop Paulinus, but reserved the right to remain unattached to any particular diocese. He went to Constantinople in 380 to meet Saint Gregory Nazianzen and then to Rome in 382.

 When Saint Jerome spoke at a council there, Pope Damasus was impressed by his learning and the sureness of his doctrine, and took him as secretary. This gave Jerome many opportunities to exercise his talents. Almost immediately the pope commissioned him to revise the New Testament. He revised, in accordance with the Greek text, the Latin New Testament, which had been disfigured by clumsy correction.

 In fostering Christian asceticism, he sought the assistance of a group of holy women influenced by Saint Athanasius, members of Rome's first convent. Among the women were Saint Marcella and Saint Paula, with Paula's daughters, Saints Blesilla and Eustochium.

 During this time, Rome was at Jerome's feet. He was spoken of as the next pope. But one cannot be so well-liked and have such definite ideas (and express them with such vigor) and not gain enemies. In 384 Pope Damasus died and Jerome lost his protector. Those who hated Jerome influenced the people and shouted against him, attacking his reputation with slander.

 Jerome, with Paula and Eustochium and a group of other women who wanted to lead a dedicated life, went to the Holy Land where they traveled about for some time, and finally settled in Bethlehem, where two monasteries were built, one for Jerome and his monks, the other for Paula and her companions. Education and care of the needy were not neglected, but the most important work of the Bethlehem group was continued work on the Scriptures. Jerome now translated most of the books of the Old Testament from Hebrew, and some from the Greek Septuagint. He had sought the help of a Jewish rabbi to improve his knowledge of Hebrew. Not content with this, he wrote many scriptural commentaries, two biographies, and a history of ecclesiastical writers, and kept up a vast correspondence. Besides all this there were sermons or conferences for monks, and lessons for young people.

 For thirty-six years the scholar lived at Bethlehem. Most of these years were not peaceful there was much confusion in the Church. Jerome seems to have been involved in most of the quarrels over doctrine. He disputed with Saint Augustine, with the heretic Jovinian, with the bishop of Jerusalem, and with his friend Rufinus over the writings of Origen.

 Jerome died peacefully in 420, worn out by a lifetime of study and austerity and of labor and combat. He had worked for the Church in an heroic manner, for doctrine, for scriptural science, for monastic ideals. With Saint Augustine, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Gregory the Great, he is one of the four great Doctors of the Western Church.




Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved