Saint Jerome, Priest and Doctor

Jerome was born about 341 AD at Strido in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia). He was first educated by his father and then was taught by the grammarian Donatus in Rome. His study of rhetoric is apparent in the quality of his later writing. Prior to his baptism just before 366 AD, he liked to visit the churches and catacombs of Rome. He also travelled in Gaul, his native Dalmatia, and Italy.

It was at Trier in Aquileia, he decided to become a monk with some good friends. But, after a quarrel, arising from some real or supposed scandal, Jerome left for Palestine. In 374 AD, he was in Antioch in Syria where two of his companions died and Jerome himself became seriously ill. It was during his sickness that he had a dream in which he saw God condemning him for being a Ciceronian rather than a Christian, and this experience affected him for a number of years.

He became a hermit in the Syrian desert for five years, gave up his beloved classics and began learning Hebrew in order to study the Old Testament in its original language. With his knowledge of Greek and his training in style and rhetoric, he was now ready for his future work as a writer and translator.

Unfortunately Jerome also had the reputation of being cantankerous and sarcastic which led to his making a number of enemies all during his life.

He was raised to the priesthood in Antioch, even though he did not want to be ordained and in fact never celebrated the Eucharist. He then went to study in Constantinople under Gregory of Nazianzus where he felt more at home than with monks in the deserts of Syria.

He translated Eusebius’ Chronicle from Greek into Latin as well as some of Origen’s homilies. He also wrote his first scriptural work on the Vision of Isaiah, which in a later form was dedicated to Pope Damasus I.

He returned to Rome as interpreter to Paulinus, a claimant to the See of Antioch, and was retained as ‘secretary’ by Damasus, then a very old man.

He produced a number of small pieces, mainly involving translations of Scripture. It was at this point that he began the enormous task of making a standard Latin text of the whole Bible. It was not really a completely new translation, but more a revision of existing texts made from the original Hebrew and Greek. He began with the four Gospels and the psalms. He eventually completed almost the whole text of the Bible which became known as the Vulgate (literally, ‘popularised version’). He also wrote much appreciated commentaries on the Prophets and the Letters of the New Testament. His commentary on Matthew’s Gospel became a standard work.

During his three years in Rome, he also became the spiritual director of a group of semi-monastic women. This relationship gave rise to some gossip, generally regarded as unjustified, but it was not helped by his sarcasm and arrogance. He left Rome in 385 AD, as he had left Syria and Constantinople before, under something of a cloud. He was determined to make a new start, this time in Bethlehem, where Paula, one of his Roman directees, established a convent and Jerome a monastery. It was here that he would spend the rest of his life teaching, writing and studying.

During his life he aimed to produce the most accurate version of the Bible and to explain the meaning of the text through sound interpretation. He also believed that monastic life should be based on Scripture-centred prayer, what we now call lectio divina. Such a life should be based on the teachings of the Gospel and Paul, and its finest example was Mary.

Although marred by his difficult temperament, his learning had no equal at that period except for Augustine. His Letters are regarded as the finest of the time. And his deep spirituality and austerity of life were unquestioned.

Jerome died in Bethlehem on 30 September, 420, and was buried under the church of the Nativity there, close to the graves of his spiritual companions, Paula and Eustochium, and close to the traditional site of the birth of Christ. Later his body was transferred to the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.

In art, it has been common to represent Jerome as a cardinal, although there was no such thing at the time. Even when shown as a scantilly clad anchorite, with cross, skull and Bible as the only furniture of his cell, the red hat or some other indication of his rank is usually introduced somewhere.

He is also often shown with a lion, due to a medieval story in which he removed a thorn from a lion’s paw, and, less often, an owl, the symbol of wisdom and scholarship. Writing materials and the trumpet of final judgment are also part of his iconography. One Renaissance pope commented that it was well Jerome was shown holding a stone, representing his penitential life, because otherwise it would be difficult to regard him a saint! He is also one of the four Latin Doctors.

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