September 30: Saint Jerome, Priest and Doctor—Memorial
Patron Saint of archeologists, archivists, Bible scholars, librarians, libraries, schoolchildren, students, and translators
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV in 1724
Liturgical Color: White
I interpret as I should, following the command of Christ: “Search the Scriptures,” and “Seek and you shall find.” For if, as Paul says, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God, and if the man who does not know Scripture does not know the power and wisdom of God, then ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ. ~Saint Jerome, Commentary on Isaiah
Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, later known as Jerome, was born in the town of Stridon, somewhere in the Balkans. Thirty years before Jerome’s birth, Emperor Constantine legalized the practice of Christianity in the Roman Empire, but many still clung to Roman and Greek religions and philosophies. Jerome had at least one brother, and the two were raised by good Christian parents who believed in the importance of education.
While Jerome was in his mid- to late-teens, his parents sent him to Rome to study language, grammar, rhetoric, theology, and philosophy. He learned Greek, in addition to the Latin he had known since childhood, and engrossed himself in the classics: Virgil, Cicero, and Terence. Though Jerome had been raised a Christian, his morals lapsed in Rome, and he fell into sins of the flesh. This left him filled with guilt, and he would spend many Sundays visiting the catacombs to remind himself of death and the possibility of hell. As was the custom of that time, he had not been baptized as a child, so before he departed Rome, he chose to be baptized and began a conversion.
Around the age of thirty, after his baptism, Jerome traveled to various historic Christian sites. He traveled to Aquileia, in modern-day northern Italy where he spent time with a fervent Christian community under the leadership of Bishop Valerian. He then traveled to the Desert of Chalcis, south of modern-day Aleppo and Antioch in Syria, and became a hermit for several years. In the desert, he prayed, studied Greek further, and began to learn Hebrew. He also translated various Christian books into Latin. During this time, he had a vision in which he was “caught up in the spirit and dragged before the judgment seat of the Judge.” The Judge asked him who he was. Jerome replied, “I am a Christian.” Unsatisfied with the answer, the Judge said to him, “You lie, you are a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For ‘where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’” This profoundly affected Jerome, for he realized that he was still more attached to pagan literature than he was to Christ and His sacred Word. With that realization, Jerome committed himself more fully to Christ and to a life of celibacy, vowing to devote himself solely to the Word of God and God’s will, and to turn away from his interest in secular literature. After several years in the desert, he returned to Antioch where he was ordained a priest.
Once ordained, Jerome traveled to Constantinople where he spent a few years studying under the future saint, Archbishop Gregory of Nazianzus. In Constantinople, his knowledge of the orthodox faith enshrined in the Nicene Creed grew immensely. He continued translating works into the common Latin language and entered more deeply into the life of prayer.
Around the year 382, Father Jerome was summoned to Rome by Pope Damasus to become the pope’s secretary and counselor. The Holy Father encouraged him to prepare a new translation of the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew translations. At that time, there were many versions of the Bible in Latin that had been translated poorly. The pope wanted one good version, and Father Jerome rose to the occasion. He began with the New Testament, translating it from Greek into Latin.
Father Jerome continued to live a prayerful and ascetical life and was not shy about confronting the corruption he saw within the Roman clergy and society. Some biographers claim he had a fierce temper, but others see it as the passion with which he preached against sin and called people to repentance. He also gathered around himself a group of holy women—noblewomen, widows, and virgins—with whom he shared his knowledge of the Scriptures. Because he spent so much time with these women, others accused him of inappropriate behavior with them, especially some of the Roman clergy who took personal offense at him. When Pope Damasus died, the accusations only got worse and included criticism of Jerome’s translations of the New Testament. As a result of the hostility, Jerome decided it was time to leave Rome, and some of the holy women left with him.
After Rome, Jerome traveled back to Antioch and then to the Holy Land. He arrived in Bethlehem, where he would spend the rest of his life. He became a hermit in the caves near the Church of the Nativity and continued his prayer, study, translations, and numerous other writings. He formed a monastery for men, and the women who accompanied him established a convent nearby.
In Bethlehem, Jerome continued his work of translating the Bible into Latin. He spent about eight years translating the New Testament from the original Greek and then spent about fifteen years translating the Old Testament from the original Hebrew manuscripts, something that had never been done before. The completed work received acceptance from scholars within the Western Church because of its accuracy and clarity. His translation was referred to as the “Vulgate,” meaning the common translation, because it had the goal of presenting the Bible in a way that was easily understood and clear to the common people, in their own language. Over the next millennium, it became more widely used. Finally, after the Protestant Reformation, in 1546, the Council of Trent declared Saint Jerome’s Vulgate to be the official Latin translation of the Church.
With his deep knowledge of Scripture, Father Jerome also wrote commentaries on many books of the Bible, especially offering insights gained from his work of translation. He wrote on the lives of the saints, leaving some of the earliest historical documentation about their heroic lives. He wrote extensively upon the Blessed Virgin Mary, on the value of virginity, combated heresies, and left behind many lengthy letters that reveal deep spiritual and historical insights.
After about thirty-eight years in Bethlehem, Father Jerome died, but his writings continue to live. Shortly after his death, he was recognized as a saint through popular consent, which was the method of canonization in the early Church. Though he has had a profound impact upon the Church ever since, he was not declared a Doctor of the Church until 1724.
Saint Jerome was a devout Christian, theologian, priest, and monk. He preached the truth, even when people objected or took offense. His dedication to the Holy Scriptures is second to none, and the impact of his translations and writings continues to be felt today.
As we honor this early saint, ponder your own commitment to a prayerful reflection on the Word of God. Saint Jerome should inspire us to devote more of our attention to a better love for God’s Word through study, reflection, and prayer. Commit yourself to this ideal, and seek Saint Jerome’s intercession as you do.
Saint Jerome, God gave you a unique calling and used you to provide the Church with a foundational understanding of the Scriptures. Your dedication to prayer, asceticism, and study clearly shows your love for God and His Church. Please pray for me, that I will come to the same depth of love for the Scriptures as you did so that I will also come to the same love of God that you had. Saint Jerome, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.