St. Jerome, Confessor and Doctor of the Church
St. Jerome, the great doctor of the church, was born at Stridonium, in Dalmatia, during the reign of the Emperor Constantine. Not less celebrated for his holy life than for his eminent knowledge and the great learning with which he expounded Holy Writ, St. Jerome was also a most heroic and victorious com-batter of heresy, and an unwearied defender of the truth of the Catholic faith. He received his first instructions in science at Rome. An insatiable desire thoroughly to study all branches of knowledge led him to different lands to become a disciple of the most famous teachers. Hence, he made such progress in science, that the most learned men, even the Popes themselves, asked his advice in various matters, especially when they experienced difficulty in expounding Holy Writ. Having returned from Greece, whither he had gone in search of knowledge, he went to Syria, partly to study still more, partly to visit the holy places. Meeting a great many monks there, he became acquainted with the holy life they led, and resolved to leave the world also and live in solitude in order to serve God more faithfully and be undisturbed in the reading of learned and pious works.
Four years he remained there in deep solitude and great piety. His only garments were made of sack-cloth ; his bed was the bare ground, and his pillow, a stone. His fasting was so severe that, according to his own words, his whole body was emaciated, and his bones were covered only with skin. God permitted him, notwithstanding these austerities, to be for some time most fearfully tormented by terrible temptations. All that he had seen at Rome, in the theatres and other places, came before his eyes. Casting himself before the crucifix, he bathed the feet of Christ with bitter tears, took not the least nourishment for several days, beat his breast with stones, and left not off praying until heaven had restored peace and calm to his heart. To continue in this state of mind, he tried to occupy himself with other thoughts and to shun idleness, that the evil one might find no opportunity to tempt him further. He read Holy Writ with the greatest attention, and to understand it better, he learned Hebrew, which, as he confessed himself, he found exceedingly difficult.
After four years he went to Jerusalem to revisit the holy places, and to learn Hebrew more perfectly. Satan endeavored to disgust him with Holy Writ, pretending that the style was not so finished as that of Cicero, the pagan writer, whom he esteemed most highly, and often read with great attention. But God punished him severely for this. He relates himself that once, during a heavy sickness, it seemed to him that he stood before the judgment-seat of Christ. He was asked: ” Who art thou?” “I am,” answered he, “a Christian.” “Thou liest,” said the judge severely, “thou art a Ciceronian and no Christian ; for where your treasure is, there also is your heart.” Soon after this the judge ordered him to be scourged. During this punishment, Jerome cried: “O Lord, have pity on me, have pity on me!” The scourging ceased, but the marks on the body of the saint were a sign that the vision had been more than a dream. Jerome concluded from this that he had done wrong in spending so much time in reading a heathen orator. He laid all worldly books aside and once more began to study Holy Writ most diligently. He also translated many books of the Holy Scriptures from the Hebrew into Latin, and corrected others according to the Greek version, and added to all most learned commentaries.
At the age of thirty years he was ordained a priest by Paulinus, Bishop of Antioch, but would never consent to charge himself with a parish, because he desired to give all his time to the expounding of the Holy Scriptures. During the reign of the holy Pope Damasus, Jerome went with several bishops to Rome, where the Pope employed him in some very important affairs. At the request of the holy Father, he instructed several of the nobility, whom he led to great holiness. The most known among them were St. Paula and her daughter Paulina, St. Marcella, Eustochium, Ruffina, Blessilla, Albina, Ascella, and Laeta. He also preached frequently at Rome, and censured, with Christian liberty, the vices and abuses of the Romans. But his teaching those above mentioned, as well as his sermons, caused him much suffering, especially after the death of St. Damasus. Although the holy man defended his honor, which was severely attacked by some wicked people, he nevertheless, in order not to be disturbed in his work on the gospel, returned to Palestine, taking some persons with him who had determined to make their dwelling there. The holy widow, Paula, also left Rome, and went with some other women to the Holy Land, and built at Bethlehem, near the manger of the Savior, a monastery, in which the Saint led a religious life with those who submitted themselves to his rule. This was the origin of the celebrated religious order which still bears the name of St. Jerome. The Saint himself gave his brethren the brightest example in all virtues; but besides this, he labored zealously for the welfare of the Catholic Church.
At that time several new heretics attacked the Catholic faith with great fury ; among these were Vigilantius, Helvidius, Pelagius and Jovinianus. St. Jerome opposed all, refuted their heresies, and defended the Catholic faith by many written works. No enemy of the church came forth whom this holy man did not immediately challenge and defeat; hence, he is rightly called the hammer of the heretics, and the protector of the Catholic truth. No danger, no threats of the heretics, no persecution, not even death itself could deter him. ” The dog barks to protect his master,” said he, ” and shall I not speak to defend my God? I can die, but I cannot be silent.” All heretics feared him ; but all true Catholics loved and honored him, not only in Palestine, but in every part of the Christian world. Many travelled from distant lands to Bethlehem to see so renowned a man. Although St. Jerome was so great in the eyes of the world, he was too deeply humble not to avoid all vain glory. He says in a letter, that from childhood he had shunned nothing more than pride and haughtiness, as they draw down the hatred of God. He had, according to his own words, constantly before his eyes the verse: “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” In explaining the gospel, he never followed his own judgment alone, but first prayed fervently to God to enlighten him, and then asked the opinion of other learned men. To remain humble he frequently remembered his sins, as he himself confessed, and exclaimed with the Psalmist, on bended knees, and while shedding bitter tears: “O, Lord! remember not the sins of my youth and my ignorance.”
Although he led so austere and holy a life, yet his dread of the last judgment and of hell was extremely great. His fear of the former he explains in these words : ” As often as I think of that terrible day my whole body trembles. I may be eating or drinking, or otherwise employed, but I seem always to hear the terrible sound of the trumpet of the last day: ” Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment! ” and again : ” Neither fame nor honor can disturb me, because the fear of the terrible judgment of God is constantly upon me.” In regard to his fear of hell, he confessed that the principal reason for which he had concealed himself in a dark cave, fasted so strictly, and practiced other penances, was his fear of hell. ” For fear of hell,” he writes, ” I have condemned myself to such a dungeon.” This double fear kept the holy man, so celebrated in the whole Christian world, humble, and led him in the sure way to heaven.
St. Jerome reached a very great age, although his body was so weakened by his many labors, that long before his death he was unable to rise, or even to turn from one side to the other. But even then he still instructed others, and, not being able to write with his own hand, he dictated several books in defense of the Catholic faith. When, at last, a fever was added to his weakness, he knew that his death was approaching, and prepared himself for his last hour by devoutly receiving the holy sacraments. He manifested great joy in contemplating the eternal happiness to which he hourly came nearer. Those with him, especially his spiritual children, he exhorted, with great zeal, to love God and their neighbor, and then calmly gave his soul into the keeping of Him for whose honor he had labored and suffered. His holy body was buried with great solemnities at Bethlehem, not far from the Manger of the Lord; but was afterwards, together with the Holy Manger, transported to Rome. The vestments and the chalice which he used for a long time in saying Mass, are still preserved, and are rightly esteemed as precious relics of so great a Saint. Not less precious to the Church of Christ are the many works which the holy teacher wrote ; as they contain, not only the strongest weapons against heretics, but also much useful instructions for true Catholics. God has made the Saint glorious by many miracles. But we may consider it as, perhaps, the greatest of his miracles, that a man who travelled so much, and suffered such persecutions, and who was always of a weakly and sickly constitution, could write so many and such learned works, defeat so many heresies, lead so many souls to God; in a word, how he could do all he did for the benefit of the Church, and of numberless souls! Truly it was the hand of the Lord that worked through him!
St. Jerome, while in the wilderness, was often disturbed by the recollection of scenes which he had beheld at Rome in the theatre. Behold what is the fruit of such amusements. Many have perhaps no evil thoughts so long as they are at such places; the Evil One does not tempt us there in order to induce us to continue to frequent them. But the time will come when this false spirit will bring to our mind everything that we heard and saw in these unchaste plays, and thus, perhaps, lead us to commit great sin. If you desire to escape this danger, avoid all that may occasion it. “At holy baptism,” says St. Salvianus, “you renounced the devil and all his works. Frivolous plays and unchaste amusements are works of the devil.” Hence, if you frequent these, you show that you revoke your first renunciation and that you turn again to Satan.
Can you do this without rendering an account of it to God? Much more severe will be your account, if you bring others, perhaps even young children, to such places. Quintilian writes that, at one time, it was not allowed at Rome, that the young should visit the theatre, that they might not learn what it was better for them not to know. So solicitous were the heathens for their children. And how do some Christian parents act? Oh! Parents! Christian parents only in name? How the heathens will bring shame upon you before the judgment-seat of God! How will you justify yourselves? St. Jerome prayed and did penance when he was tempted. He also endeavored to fill his mind with other thoughts. May you also act thus in your hours of temptation. Endeavor to think of something else, and avoid idleness. St. Jerome was scourged because he found great pleasure in reading a book, although he neither learned from it, nor sought in it anything that was impure or sinful. Oh! how will those be scourged, how deep will be the wounds they will have to bear, who read all kinds of sensational, scandalous, superstitious and heretical books! If you wish to escape such a chastisement, throw away books of that kind. “When you read a good book, God converses with you,” says St. Jerome. Hence, when you read a bad book, Satan converses with you.
II. St. Jerome lived many years in great austerity. And why? Fear of the Judgment Day and of hell actuated him ; as he unceasingly thought of these. He believed that he would not be able to justify himself before the Divine Judge and not escape hell, without this severity : or it was at least his opinion that such severity was beneficial to man, in order that he might receive a favorable sentence at the divine judgment and escape hell. You avoid fasting and every severity, lead a sensual, comfortable life ; and yet expect to acquit yourself well at the day of judgment and to escape hell. Is Jerome, or are you, wrong? I fear you consider not as earnestly as St. Jerome did, the awfulness of the last judgment and of hell. You do not think of it so frequently ; hence, you do not endeavor more earnestly to find a gracious Judge, and not be banished into hell. My advice is, that you think oftener and more earnestly of the last day and of hell. I am sure that you will then not omit to do all that is necessary to justify yourself before the Judgment-seat of God. ” Consider frequently and earnestly the approaching day of judgment, and the eternal fire of hell,” says St. Ambrose. ” Those who think, in all their actions, on the day of judgment, will easily be saved,” says St. Hilary. Tertullian writes: ” The contemplation of hell is the beginning of our salvation. It puts an end to sin and prepares the way for grace and pardon.”
Lives of the Saints: Compiled from Authentic Sources with a Practical Instruction on the Life of Each Saint, for Every Day in the Year by Rev. F. X. Weninger. Permissu Superiorum. New York: P. O’Shea, Publisher, 67 Barclay Street and 42 Park Place. 1876.