I’ve written before about my son, DeForeest. At the age of three, he chose John Adams as his favorite U.S. president. Adams, a brilliant statesman, respected for his intellect and political acumen, comes closest to being the one man responsible for inventing America. He was also a curmudgeon, whose blunt honesty made enemies with ease. People are troubled by honesty.
Adams’ patron saint must surely have been Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus, now known as Jerome, patron saint of archivists, librarians, translators — and curmudgeons. Born in 347 A.D. in Dalmatia (now Croatia), Jerome’s father educated him soundly and sent him across the Adriatic to Italy in 360 A.D. Jerome traveled and refined his knowledge by exploring many academic disciplines. Visiting Trier in Gaul, he gained fame by transcribing the letters of St. Hilarius.
Arriving at Rome in 366 A.D., the young man was baptized by Pope Liberius and dove into philosophy and theology classes. Just for fun, he spent weekends deciphering inscriptions scrawled on catacomb walls.
Jerome loved acquiring books. What he couldn’t buy he borrowed, copying them with his own hand. In time, his personal library was so extensive that St. Augustine generously remarked, “Of what Jerome is ignorant no mortal ever knew.”
Studying the Greek Septuagint Old Testament, among friends, Jerome denigrated the awkward, bombastic style of the prophets, while rapturously praising classical Latin writers, especially Cicero. He wore his Catholicism lightly until one night, he dreamt he stood before the tribunal of Christ, who asked, “Are you a Christian?”
“Of course,” Jerome replied firmly.
“You lie!” Jesus roared back, “You’re nothing but a Ciceronian!”
Shaken, Jerome fled to the desert, became a monk and, eventually, a hermit. Settling into a cave he wore sackcloth, fasted and prayed with his whole heart.
After much effort and great difficulty, he learned Hebrew and Aramaic from the great Jewish scholar, Bar Ananias. Translating the Hebrew Scriptures years later, Jerome remembered his mentor with grateful affection. “I thank him and Our Lord that I now gather such sweet fruit from the bitter sowing of those studies.”
Pope St. Damasus I (366-384 A.D.) recalled the polyglot Jerome to Rome to be his secretary in 382 A.D. and ordained him a priest.
Realizing that Greek was falling into disuse while the Old Latin Gospel translations had become corrupt, Damasus turned to Jerome to restore their purity for reading at Mass. Delighted, Jerome exegetically compared the Latin to Greek and Aramaic manuscripts. Within a few months, he composed a reliable text, more correction than translation.
Damasus was pleased, numbering Jerome among his closest counsellors for the last three years of his pontificate. This is why artists of later periods sometimes anachronistically attired Jerome in a cardinal’s scarlet robes.
An irascible man with a sharp tongue, the papal secretary did not suffer fools gladly, making as many enemies as he did friends. When the monk Helvidius dared deny the perpetual virginity of Mary in 383 A.D., Jerome sharply countered the attack, clearing up a number of points.
Jerome the priest gathered a group of women in community, devoted to chastity and prayer similar to an order of nuns, with himself as their confessor. Tongues wagged but Jerome enjoyed the pope’s protection. Upon his death Jerome backed a monk for pope while harboring an unrealistic hope that he might be elected. Neither were, nor was Jerome that impressed with the new successor to St. Peter, St Siricius (384-399 A.D.).
Leaving Rome, Jerome toured the great centers of learning in the empire. Finding a home in Bethlehem, he again took up residence in a cave, one next to the grotto of the Nativity. There he commenced his magnum opus, the Latin translation of the Old Testament, preferring to translate the current Hebrew text, perhaps not knowing the Septuagint (c 200 B.C.) came from an older Hebrew text.
Written for ordinary folks (vulgus in Latin) Jerome’s Latin edition, joined to his renovated Latin New Testament, became known as the Vulgate. Still, Augustine, among others, while honoring Jerome’s industry, sanctity and undoubted intellect, detested his new Latin version, and continued to accept the Septuagint as the authoritative Christian Old Testament, as the Synod of Rome convened by Pope Damasus in 382 A.D. had proclaimed.
The one canonical book Jerome had reservations about was the Apocalypse. Punning on the Greek title (meaning “Revelation” or “Unveiling”), he testily wrote, “It obscures much more than it reveals.” Citing Jerome’s reluctance, Luther desired to drop the book from his canon.
Heresies proliferated in Jerome’s day: Pelagius claimed good works alone would earn heavenly bliss, the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus mere icing on the cake; Jovinian taught that baptized Christians were incapable of sin, as many “Born Again” Christians think today.
From Bethlehem, the caustic hermit thundered, defending apostolic teaching with his pen: “Heretics do not have Christ, the Truth, on their lips, because they do not have Him in their hearts.”
His written scorn withered its targets and more than once Jerome, in his zeal, overstepped the bounds of charity. To help keep his tongue and pen in check, Jerome found a particularly jagged rock. Catching himself about to lose his temper, Jerome pounded his bare chest with that rock, begging God for mercy that he might better learn patience and forbearance. Sometimes it worked.
In 410 A.D., Jerome was stunned. Alaric the Goth sacked Rome, and refugees fled across the dying empire. Some found their way to Bethlehem where the scholar turned nurse, leaving his beloved scrolls to bring the mercy of Christ to the tattered survivors from once powerful Rome.
He spent sleepless nights and toilsome days doing all he could to care for the dazed, traumatized survivors. “Who could believe that the daughters of that mighty city would one day be wandering servants and slaves on the shores of Egypt and Africa,” he wrote mournfully. “I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them.”
On Sept. 30, 420 A.D., Jerome died where Jesus had been born. Venerated as a Doctor of the Church, he is further honored, with Sts. Ambrose, Augustine and Gregory the Great, as one of the four principal Western Fathers.
Remembering a description of John Adams, a staunch Congregationalist, as a man who was “hot-tempered but warmhearted” and who “got into fights with almost every prominent American of his time,” I was struck by the similarity between Adams, the forthright statesman, and Jerome the ardent apologist who waged vitriolic battles with nearly every theologian of his era. Both shared an overwhelming love for truth, compassion for those in need, and a singular devotion to Christ.
Nonetheless, Pope Sixtus V, pausing before a painting hanging in the Vatican of Jerome beating his chest, glanced up and muttered, “If it weren’t for that rock you’d never be up there!”
Two decades ago, I came across an assessment of St. Jerome, which concluded in a smugly patronizing way that, considering his infamous temper and intemperate language, Jerome’s sainthood is more honorary than deserved.
“How can anyone say something so stupid?” the 12-year-old DeForeest snorted. “Sure, Jerome had a temper, but he repented, fasted and prayed. He nursed the sick with his own hands. And the great St. Augustine has Jerome to thank for knocking sense into him when he almost became a Pelagian!”
Now 32, DeForeest is devoted to reading philosophy amid his nursing duties and maintains a deep devotion to St. Jerome. I contend that his most famous dictum, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ,” should be engraved on the frontispiece of every Bible printed.
Postscript: Fourteen years ago, completing my education by majoring in Christian Studies at Grand Canyon University, I made the Dean’s List all four semesters. My final necessary class, however, was made “pass/fail” since no one else signed up. Continuing with a Masters course, my academic advisor told me to apply for Latin honors. I did and was denied because of that one class. Expecting that, the advisor told me to appeal to the department chair.
I mentioned the situation during a phone conversation with DeForeest, who was away at college, and he said he’d pray for a successful conclusion. A week later he told me, “I’m praying to the Virgin Mary and St. Jerome.” I asked, “Why Jerome?” “Why, Papa,” my son replied, “he’s the patron saint of scholars.”
Oct. 1 dawned. The academic advisor called, happily telling me that I’d been granted a summa cum laude. I asked when the decision was made. “Just yesterday,” she replied,
I called DeForeest immediately. “Your prayers decided the issue!”
“How do you know?” he countered, puzzled.
“The decision was made yesterday, DeForeest, Sept. 30 — the feast of St Jerome.”
You think saints aren’t ready and willing to go to bat for us?
Sean M. Wright, MA, an Emmy-nominated television writer, is a Master Catechist for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is also part of the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, CA. He responds to comments sent him at Locksley69@aol.com.