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Saint Jerome: Priest and Doctor, Father of Biblical Science

By F. K. Bartels
September 30th, 2009
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Let us, with St. Jerome, embrace the Catholic Church as a guiding, guarding and nurturing mother whose concern is that we receive truth.

GLADE PARK, Colorado (Catholic Online) - St. Jerome is one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church, and is perhaps best known for his translation of the Hebrew books of the Bible into Latin, termed as the Vulgate. During the turn of the century (391-406), St. Jerome brought this most productive work to fruition, and, as a result, Latin became the language of the Church. Up until 1979, when Pope John Paul II issued the Nova Vulgata, the Vulgate was the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church.

St. Jerome was born into a Christian family, most likely in 342. At a young age, he was sent to Rome for his education and studied the classical authors, from which he developed a love for literature; at about the age of thirty, he spent five years as a monk in the desert of Calcis. He was ordained a priest in the East by Bishop Paulinus, and became the secretary of Pope Damasus. St. Jerome did not actively exercise his priestly office, instead preferring to remain a monk and scholar. As the Holy Spirit led him into deeper love for Christ, he directed his love for literature toward an intense study of Scripture.

"Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ" – St. Jerome

While he is most frequently remembered for his Vulgate, St. Jerome was a prolific writer, and wrote many commentaries on Scripture. His whole life became focused on the Word, seeking truth, and defending that truth. Through his life of prayer, St. Jerome grew wise and insightful, gifts which he shared in his writings. In St. Jerome's famous letter to St. Eustochium (letter 22), he shows his understanding of the true value of voluntary celibacy and consecrated virginity as a self-giving act directed at obtaining the highest love: "How very difficult it is for the human heart not to love something! Of necessity, our minds and wills must be drawn to some kind of affection. Carnal love is overcome by spiritual love. Desire is extinguished by deeper desire. Whatever is taken from carnal love is given to the higher love."

As a defender of the Church and her teaching, St. Jerome refuted the objections of Helvidius in regards to the perpetual virginity of Mary. Among such false objections, as are common even today, were those based on scriptural references to "the brothers" of the Lord, the "carpenter’s son," and Mary’s "firstborn son" (see Mt 13:55; 1:24-25).

St. Jerome responded: "Every only-begotten son is a firstborn son, but not every firstborn is an only-begotten. By firstborn we understand not only one who is succeeded by others, but one who has had no predecessors." In reference to the Lord’s "brothers," St. Jerome tells us: "In Holy Scripture there are four kinds of brethren – by nature, race, kindred, love." Certainly we still associate the word "brother" with those same "kinds of brethren" today. St. Jerome explained that, as our holy Church teaches presently, the brothers of Jesus were his cousins and the nephews of the Virgin Mary. Showing both his usual yet wonderful bluntness, which often surfaced due to his love of truth, St. Jerome tells Helvidius: "You neglected the whole range of Scripture and employed your madness in outraging the Virgin."

If we learn nothing else from St. Jerome, let us learn the wise art of obedience to the Church’s authority, and, certainly, to the supreme earthly authority of the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ. For St. Jerome frequently showed his reliance on the authority of the pope, as well as the extreme importance of Church teaching for guidance on matters of doctrine.

In an appeal to Pope St. Damasus in order to decide a dispute, St. Jerome wrote: "My words are spoken to the successor of the Fisherman, to the disciple of the Cross. As I follow no leader save Christ, so I communicate with none but Your Blessedness, that is, with the Chair of Peter. For this I know is the rock on which the Church is built. This is the house where alone the Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten. . . "

St. Jerome, of course, understood that it is within the Catholic Church alone that we receive the true body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ as we receive the Eucharist under the signs of consecrated bread and wine. Yet St. Jerome’s understanding of how the "Paschal Lamb can be rightly eaten" was not based on Scripture alone, which, as he knew very well, can lead to error through a misguiided subjective interpretation not informed by Sacred Tradition.

His understanding of the nature of the Eucharist descended from On-High; that is, the truth of the Eucharist descends from Christ to the Church he founded, which is then transmitted to future generations through the apostles and their successors. Therefore St. Jerome arrived at the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist through not only his intense study of Scripture, but also in combination with Sacred Tradition and the Magisterium of the Catholic Church.

St. Jerome was intimately familiar with the importance of the Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Magisterium or teaching authority of the Church. Remove any of them and truth is threatened in its integrity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the relationship: "It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others" (CCC, 95).

Speaking to the errors of a stubbornly subjective Scripture interpretation, a disturbing and widespread aspect of contemporary Christianity, St. Jerome, in his usual style of telling it as he sees it, had this to say: "The art of interpreting the Scriptures is the only one of which all men everywhere claim to be the masters . . . The chatty old woman, the doting old man, and the worldly sophist, one and all, take in hand the Scriptures, rend them in pieces and teach them before they have learned them . . . They do not deign to notice what the prophets and apostles have intended, but they adapt conflicting passages to suit their own meaning as if it were a grand way of teaching – and not rather the faultiest of all – to misrepresent a writer’s views and to force the Scriptures reluctantly to do their will . . . " (Fr. Christopher Rengers, The 33 Doctors of the Church, p. 97).

Let us, with St. Jerome, embrace the Catholic Church as a guiding, guarding and nurturing mother whose concern is that we receive truth; a truth she speaks in her ancient words which flow from the unfathomable light of the Holy Spirit. For without truth life becomes little more than a drab and meaningless existence, where we labor away the days and years with little fruit, unaware of our greater purpose, blind to the reality God has set before us, separated from the true beauty of living a life in Christ crucified.

The Church, "the pillar and bulwark of the truth," faithfully guards "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." she guards the memory of Christ’s words; it is she who from generation to generation hands on the apostles’ confession of faith. As a mother who teaches her children to speak and so to understand and communicate, the Church our Mother teaches us the language of faith in order to introduce us to the understanding and the life of faith" (CCC, 171).

There can be no doubt that during those years spent searching the Scriptures, living an ascetic life, immersed in constant prayer and reaching for God on-high that St. Jerome’s awareness of the reality of sin and man’s judgment became refined and polished: "Whether I eat or drink, or whatever else I do, the dreadful trumpet of the last day seems always sounding in my ears: ‘Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment!’" (attributed to St. Jerome by Rev. Alban Butler).

St. Jerome died in 420, but his profound influence still works among us. In his encyclical, "Spiritus Paraclitus," Pope Benedict XV says of St. Jerome: "His voice is not still, though at one time the whole Catholic world listened to it when it echoed from the desert; yet Jerome still speaks in his writings, which ‘shine like lamps throughout the world.’ Jerome still calls to us."

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F. K. Bartels operates catholicpathways.com, and may be reached via email at: bartels@catholicpathways.com. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online.

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