St. Jerome

Written by Dr. Paul Severn

This year we keep the seventeen hundredth anniversary of St. Jerome’s death. He is one of the Latin Doctors of the Church.

Are you plagued by sexual temptation, is your libido in overdrive? Do you frequently see yourself in the midst of a crowd of young women dancing? If so, then you have much in common with St Jerome (c. 345 – 420) who was prone to the temptations of the flesh, but he had a remarkable method of coping with these temptations: he taught himself Hebrew! And of course this is what led to his fame for his translation of the Bible into Latin, known as the Vulgate and recognised in 1942 as the authoritative Latin Biblical text of the Catholic Church.

St Jerome revised texts of the psalms and New Testament, but translated much of the Old Testament, from the original Hebrew into Latin. It is important to note that the very early Douai translation of the Bible and the Knox English translation were both translations of St Jerome’s Vulgate. It is partly for this reason that perhaps the most authoritative, single volume commentary on the Bible is known as the Jerome Commentary (1968), revised and updated as the New Jerome Biblical Commentary in 1989.

Briefly, St Jerome known in his day as Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius was born near Aquileia (in Italy) between 340 and 347. He was brought up as a Christian and well-educated, fluent in both Latin and Greek. Around 370 he became a monk and spent some time in the desert of Chalcis near Antioch. He eventually returned from the desert and was ordained by Paulinus, the bishop of Antioch, although it has been suggested that he did not really want to be ordained, that it was the idea of others and he did not, in fact, ever celebrate the Mass!

Jerome then travelled from Antioch to Constantinople where he studied under St Gregory Nazianzen, translated various Greek texts into Latin and wrote a commentary on Isaiah’s vision (Is 6:1-13). In 382, Jerome went to Rome, teaching and acting as a spiritual director. Also it was here that he worked on and completed his Latin text of the Bible. When Pope Damasus died, Jerome rather fell out of favour in Rome and went travelling once again, finally establishing something of a monastery in Bethlehem. Jerome lived and worked in a cell hewn from the rock, close to the traditional birthplace of Jesus. He wrote commentaries on the Pauline epistles and established a school.

Amongst other things he defended the perpetual virginity of Mary, against Helvidius, who claimed that Mary had other children with St Joseph after the birth of Jesus. By all accounts Jerome seemed to have courted controversy, or to put it more generously, it seems he liked nothing better than a good theological argument and was forthright in the expression of his views! In particular, his views on marriage were extreme. He once said that he praised marriage because it produced virgins!

His ascetic life and his personal austerities gradually wore him out and he died peacefully in Bethlehem on 30 September (his feast day) 420. He was buried in the Church of the Nativity, but later his remains were translated to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome.

There are many representations of St Jerome in art, depicting him either in a study or in his cave at Bethlehem, often with a lion at his feet. This is a reference to the legend that a lion with a thorn stuck in its paw, came limping to St Jerome for help. Jerome removed the thorn and tamed the lion which then minded his donkey!

Sancte Hieronyme ora pro nobis!