Yesterday the pope turned his attention to St. Jerome. I’m sure he meant this as an early 44th birthday present for Yours Truly. If you, in keeping with this papal trend, want to treat yourself on my birthday, please go directly to iTunes and grab yourself a copy of the just-released song about St. Jerome, by Rock n Roll Hall-of-Famer Dion. (It’s called “The Thunderer.”) Better yet, buy the whole album. Though Amazon probably can’t deliver it to you before my birthday’s over, you’ll probably get it well within the octave.
Dear brothers and sisters!
We will turn our attention today to St. Jerome, a Father of the Church who placed the Bible at the center of his life: he translated it into Latin, he commented on it in his writings, and above all, he committed to live it concretely in his long earthly existence, despite his naturally difficult and fiery character, which he was known for.
Jerome was born in Stridon around 347 to a Christian family that educated him well, and sent him to Rome to complete his studies. Being young, he felt attracted to worldly living (cf. Ep. 22,7), but his desire for and interest in the Christian religion prevailed.
After his baptism around 366, he was drawn to the ascetic life, and upon moving to Aquileia, he joined a group of fervent Christians, whom he described as a type of “choir of the blessed” (Chron. Ad ann., 374), who were united around the bishop Valerian.
He then left for the East and lived as a hermit in the desert of Calcide, south of Aleppo (cf. Ep. 14,10), dedicating himself to serious study. He perfected his knowledge of Greek, began to study Hebrew (cf. Ep. 125,12), transcribed patristic codices and works (cf. Ep. 5,2). The meditation, the solitude, the contact with the word of God matured his Christian sensibility.
He felt intensely the weight of his youthful past (cf. Ep. 22, 7), and became vividly aware of the contrast between the pagan and Christian mentalities: a contrast made famous by the dramatic and vivid “vision” which he left to us. In this vision he saw himself being flagellated in the presence of God because he was a “Ciceronian and not a Christian” (cf. Ep. 22,30).
In 382, he moved to Rome where Pope Damasus, recognizing his fame as an ascetic and his competence as a scholar, took him on as secretary and adviser. He encouraged him to undertake a new Latin translation of Biblical texts for pastoral and cultural reasons.
Some members of the Roman aristocracy, above all noblewomen like Paola, Marcella, Asella, Lea and others, desired to commit themselves to the way of Christian perfection and to deepen their knowledge of the Word of God, and they chose him to be their spiritual guide and teacher in the method to read sacred texts. These women also learned Greek and Hebrew themselves.
After the death of Pope Damasus, Jerome left Rome in 385 and undertook a pilgrimage, first to the Holy Land, silent witness to the earthly life of Christ, then to Egypt, a destination chosen by many monks (cf. “Contra Rufinum,” 3,22; Ep. 108,6-14).
In 386, he decided to stay in Bethlehem, where, thanks to the generosity of the noblewoman Paola, a monastery for men was built, and another for women, as well as a hospice for pilgrims to the Holy Land “in memory of Mary and Joseph who found no shelter” (Ep. 108,14).
He remained in Bethlehem until his death, carrying on his intense activity. He commented on the Gospels; he defended the faith, vigorously opposing various heresies; he exhorted monks to perfection; he taught classical and Christian culture to young pupils; he welcomed pilgrims to the Holy Land like a pastor. He died in his cell near the Grotto of the Nativity on Sept. 30, 419/420.
His literary preparation and vast erudition allowed Jerome to revise and translate many Biblical texts: an invaluable service for the Latin Church and for Western culture. Beginning with the original texts in Greek and Hebrew, and comparing them to earlier translations, he revised the translation of the four Gospels in Latin, then the Psalms and a good part of the Old Testament.
Taking into account the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Septuagint, the classic Greek version of the Old Testament that dates back to pre-Christian times, and the earlier Latin translations, Jerome and his collaborators were able to offer a better translation. This is what we call the “Vulgate,” considered the “official” text of the Latin Church, which was recognized as such by the Council of Trent. Despite the recent revision of the text, it continues to be the “official” text of the Church in the Latin language.
It is interesting to highlight the criteria that the great Biblical scholar used in his work as a translator. He revealed them himself when he stated that he respected even the order of words in Sacred Scripture, because “even the order of the words is a mystery,” that is, a revelation.
He also reiterated the need to turn to the original texts: “Whenever a question is raised among the Latins regarding the New Testament due to discordant readings of the texts, we must turn to the original, that is, the Greek text in which the New Testament was first written. Likewise for the Old Testament, if there are divergences between the Greek and Latin texts, let us turn to the original text in Hebrew. In this way, “we will be able to find in the rivulets everything that flows from the spring” (Ep. 106,2).
Jerome also commented on several Biblical texts. He said commentaries should offer many opinions so that “the astute reader, after reading different explanations and getting to know different opinions — to accept or to reject — may judge which one is most reliable, and like a currency expert, reject the counterfeit” (“Contra Rufinum” 1,16).
With energy and liveliness, he refuted the heretics who contested the tradition and faith of the Church. He also showed the importance and validity of Christian literature, which had by then come into its own, and deemed worthy to confront classical literature. He did this in “De viris illustribus,” a work in which he presented the biographies of more than 100 Christian authors.
He also wrote biographies of monks, expounding the monastic ideal alongside other spiritual itineraries, and translated various works by Greek authors. Lastly, in the important Epistolary, a masterpiece of Latin literature, Jerome emerges characterized as a man of culture, an ascetic and a spiritual guide.
What can we learn from St. Jerome? Above all I think it is this: to love the word of God in sacred Scripture. St. Jerome said, “To ignore Scripture is to ignore Christ.” That is why it is important that every Christian live in contact and in personal dialogue with the word of God, given to us in sacred Scripture.
This dialogue should be of two dimensions. On one hand, it should be truly personal, because God speaks to each of us through sacred Scripture and has a message for each of us. We shouldn’t read sacred Scripture as a word from the past, but rather as the word of God addressed even to us, and we must try to understand what the Lord is telling us.
And so we don’t fall into individualism, we must also keep in mind that the word of God is given to us in order to build communion, to unite us in the truth along our way to God. Therefore, despite the fact that it is always a personal word, it is also a word that builds community, and that builds the Church itself. Therefore, we should read it in communion with the living Church.
The privileged place for reading and listening to the word of God is in the liturgy. By celebrating the word and rendering the Body of Christ present in the sacrament, we bring the word into our life and make it alive and present among us.
We should never forget that the word of God transcends time. Human opinions come and go; what is very modern today will be old tomorrow. But the word of God is the word of eternal life, it carries within itself eternity, which is always valuable. Carrying within ourselves the word of God, we also carry eternal life.
I conclude with a something St. Jerome had said to St. Paulinus of Nola, in which the great exegete expressed the reality that in the word of God we receive eternity, life eternal. St. Jerome said: “Let us seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven” (Ep. 53,10).