Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
In the year 1202 a wealthy young Italian man joined the cavalry of his town’s militia. The inexperienced soldiers went into battle against a neighboring town’s larger force and were obliterated. Most of the retreating soldiers were run through with lances and left for dead in the mud. But at least one was spared. He was an aristocrat wearing fine clothes and new, expensive armor. He was worth taking hostage for ransom. The captive suffered in a dark, miserable prison for a full year before his father made the payment for his release. He returned to his hometown a changed man. That town was Assisi. That man was Francis.
Today’s saint, Jerome Emiliani, endured much the same. He was a soldier in the city state of Venice and was appointed the commander of a fortress. In a battle against a league of city states, the fortress fell and Jerome was imprisoned. A chain was wrapped around his neck, hands, and feet, and fastened to a huge chunk of marble in an underground prison. He was forgotten, alone, and treated like an animal in the gloom of a dungeon. This was the pivot point. He repented of his godless life. He prayed. He dedicated himself to the Madonna. And then, somehow, he escaped, chains in hand, and fled to a safe, nearby city. He walked through the doors of the local church and headed to the front to fulfill a vow. He slowly approached a much venerated Virgin and placed his chains on the altar before her. He knelt, bowed his head, and prayed. His life was about to begin again.
Some pivot points can turn a life’s straight line into a right angle. Other lives change slowly, bending like an arc over a long span of years. The deprivations endured by St. Francis of Assisi and St. Jerome Emiliani occurred suddenly. These men were comfortable, had money, and were supported by family and friends. Then, shockingly, they were naked, alone, and chained. St. Jerome could have despaired in his imprisonment. Many people do. He could have rejected God, understood his sufferings as a sign of God’s disfavor, become bitter, and given up. Instead, he persevered. His imprisonment was a purification. He gave his suffering purpose. Once free, he was like a man born anew, grateful that the heavy prison chains no longer weighed his body to the floor.
Once he started sprinting away from that prison fortress, it was like St. Jerome never stopped running. He studied, was ordained a priest, and travelled throughout northern Italy founding orphanages, hospitals, and homes for orphans, abandoned children, fallen women, and outcasts of all kinds. Exercising his priestly ministry in a Europe newly split by Protestant heresies, Jerome also wrote perhaps the first question and answer catechism in order to inculcate Catholic doctrine in his charges. Like so many saints, he seemed to be everywhere at once, caring for everyone except himself. While tending to the sick he became infected and died in 1537, a martyr to generosity. He was, naturally, the kind of man who attracted followers. They eventually formed into a religious Congregation and received ecclesiastical approbation in 1540. St. Jerome was canonized in 1767 and named the patron saint of orphans and abandoned children in 1928.
His life hinged on one pivot. It is a lesson. Emotional, physical, or psychological suffering, when conquered or controlled, can be a prelude to intense gratitude and generosity. No one walks down the street more free than a former hostage. No one enjoys a warm, comfortable bed like someone who once slept on the street. No one gulps a breath of fresh morning air quite like someone who has just heard from the doctor that the cancer is gone. St. Jerome never lost the wonder and gratitude that filled his heart at the moment of his liberation. All was new. All was young. The world was his. And he would place all his power and energy in God’s service because he was a survivor.
St. Jerome Emiliani, you overcame confinement to live a fruitful life dedicated to God and man. Help all who are confined in any way – physically, financially, emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically – to overcome whatever binds them and to live a life without bitterness dedicated to the needy of any kind, especially those who know not God.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
ST. JEROME EMILIANI was a member of one of the patrician families of Venice, and, like many other Saints, in early life a soldier. He was appointed governor of a fortress among the mountains of Treviso, and whilst bravely defending his post, was made prisoner by the enemy. In the misery of his dungeon he invoked the great Mother of God, and promised, if she would set him free, to lead a new and a better life. Our Lady appeared, broke his fetters, and led him forth through the midst of his enemies. At Treviso he hung up his chains at her altar, dedicated himself to her service, and on reaching his home at Venice devoted himself to a life of active charity. His special love was for the deserted orphan children whom, in the times of the plague and famine, he found wandering in the streets. He took them home, clothed and fed them, and taught them the Christian truths. From Venice he passed to Padua and Verona, and in a few years had founded orphanages through Northern Italy. Some pious clerics and laymen, who had been his fellow-workers, fixed their abode in one of these establishments, and devoted themselves to the cause of education. The Saint drew up for them a rule of life and thus was founded the Congregation, which still exists, of the Clerks Regular of Somascha. St. Jerome died February 8, 1537, of an illness which he had caught in visiting the sick.
Reflection.—Let us learn from St. Jerome to exert ourselves in behalf of the many hundred children whose souls are perishing around us for want of some one to show them the way to heaven.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.