By Jonathan Hill
Saint Jerome, a Father of the Church, was born in 340 to 342 at Stridon, in the Roman Province of Dalmatia. It is believed that Stridon was located in present day Slovakia or Croatia. According to the saint, it was destroyed during his lifetime by invading Goths in 379.
Jerome traveled to Rome about 360, where he was baptized. From there he left for the Roman city of Trier, located in present day Germany, where he engaged in theological studies. In 373, he traveled east and settled in Antioch, an early center of Christianity, then under Roman control and now located in Turkey. There, he was influenced by Apollinaris of Laodicea, a prominent biblical scholar of the time, and ordained a priest. Jerome lived primitively as a desert hermit near Antioch, during which time he perfected his knowledge of Greek and began studying Hebrew, while taking extensive notes on the writings of the early Church Fathers. Reflection, solitude, and the Word of God provided the ferment for the deepening of his Christian character. During this period, he came to bitterly regret the sins of his youth.
After traveling to Constantinople in 380-382, where Jerome befriended Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, he traveled to Rome in 382. By this time, with his reputation for self-discipline, self-denial and scholarship being well established, Pope Damasus engaged him as secretary and counselor. Pope Damasus encouraged Jerome to begin a new Latin translation of the Bible. After the Pope’s death Jerome departed Rome, as he had made many enemies who, according to historian Louis Saltet, where trying to "ruin him." In 386, he travelled to Bethlehem, where he spent his life in asceticism and study, and sometimes in controversies related to his refutation of heresies. In 419 or 420, he died in his cell in Bethlehem, close to the Grotto of the Nativity.
Jerome's tremendous scholastic ability enabled him to translate biblical texts from the original Greek and Hebrew, although comparisons with previous translations formed part of his method. He revised the four Gospels as well as a major part of the Old Testament. His translation of the Old Testament was accomplished by referencing both the classical Greek version, known as the Septuagint, and earlier Latin translations. Jerome's great care in translation is not just witnessed by his reliance on early renderings when later versions conflicted, but also by his respect for the order of the words of scripture, which he says are "also a mystery." With other collaborators, he produced a translation of the bible which became known as the Vulgate, and which was officially decreed by the Council of Trent in 1546 to be the "authentic" scriptures. According to Pope Benedict XVI, "After the recent revision, [this] continues to be the 'official' Latin text of the Church."
Saint Jerome’s scholarship went beyond translation. He wrote many commentaries on scripture, which often included multiple opinions, "so that the shrewd reader… may judge which is the most reliable." He contested heretics, including the Luciferians, Helvidium (who believed that Mary bore children other than Jesus), and Rufinus (a believer in the heresy of Origen). In the opinion of Louis Saltet, Jerome's writings are "not always accurate in doctrine," and were sometimes influenced by the hastiness of his work and his temperament, which disposed him to harshly criticize his adversaries. "His commentaries represent a vast amount of work but of very unequal value."
Jerome placed much emphasis on the importance of education, and while in Rome, he taught his scriptural method to members of the Roman aristocracy, including a number of noblewomen who had chosen him as a spiritual mentor. At least one of these noblewomen followed him to Bethlehem, where male and female monasteries were founded through her patronage. In contrast with the tendency of his time, Jerome considered "the promotion of women" to be vital, as well as their right to "a complete formation: human, scholastic, religious, professional." Jerome considered every soul a "very precious gem," and insisted on the need to form every soul into "the temple of the Lord." He gave detailed exhortations on the raising of children.
A hallmark of Saint Jerome was that he believed reflection on the written word of God is necessary for perfecting our relationship with Jesus. He famously stated, "Ignorance of the scriptures is ignorance of Christ." Jerome understood that the scriptures contain a personal message for all, but he also understood the danger of becoming too individualistic when interpreting them, as the scriptures were written to bring a message that fosters a holy unity and communion of mankind. Jerome stated that scriptural interpretation always requires "the help of the Holy Spirit," and his interpretation of scripture indicated that the Holy Spirit works through the teaching authority of the apostolic Church. Jerome would have refuted the 16th century "reformers," as he recognized "with Saint Peter's See. I know that on this rock the Church is built." He also declared, "I am with whoever is united to the teaching of Saint Peter." It is instructive that the man who epitomized scriptural scholarship, would have strongly opposed the many distortions that are advanced in the name of "the Bible."
While Jerome valued the acquisition of scriptural knowledge, he considered conformity with The Word in daily life indispensable. He exhorted, "May your actions never be unworthy of your words… in the priest of Christ the mind and words must harmonize." In another case, he wrote, "Even if we possess a splendid doctrine, the person who feels condemned by his own conscience remains disgraced."
Jerome would have decried today's lapse of classical education, as this distances a person from critical sources of knowledge. The testimony of Canon Law, which specifies that seminary students are to be "well versed in Latin" (canon 249), affirms his outlook. Nevertheless, St. Jerome's life evokes more than the value of scholarship, but also the importance of keeping busy in doing Our Lord's work; this brief synopsis barely begins to describe his many pious undertakings.