Of all the doctors of the Church, Jerome is considered the greatest because of his work faithfully translating the Bible that has served the Church for most of its history.
Jerome was born 342 in what is now northeastern Italy. His father provided him with a good education, even sending him to Rome to learn from the best teachers. His teachers were not Christian, however, and Jerome began to fall into vice and vanity.
With friends, however, he would visit the tombs of the martyrs and apostles, especially in the crypts and catacombs. When he was 18, he decided to travel to improve his learning, and one one trip with a friend, he had a conversion experience and gave his life to God.
In 374 he settled in Antioch. Jerome was struck ill, and had a delirious vision in which he stood before Christ in judgment and felt inadequate because he had put rhetoric and study before faithfulness.
The experience touched him deeply, and he decided to retreat to live in the desert to seek holiness—he spent four years alone, focusing on prayer and fighting temptation with fasting, but suffering from poor health. His time in the desert focused his will and fired his passion for faithfulness, but he eventually had to return to the city.
To suppress his fiery will and temptation, he dedicated himself to learning Hebrew from a fellow monk who had been a Jew. He struggled at learning the new language, after such eloquence and distinction in Latin and Greek, but persevered.
When he returned to Antioch he was ordained a priest, but felt certain that his vocation was to live as a reclusive monk. He went to Constantinople to study Scripture under the great St. Gregory of Nazianzen. He later went to Rome with friends to attend a council and was kept there by the pope to be his secretary. At the pope’s request, Jerome retranslated and corrected the Latin version of the Greek Gospels, which had a number of errors in their transcription through the years.
He had a sharp wit and used harsh sarcasm to speak out against non-believers and even other Christians with slack faith. “I never spared heretics and have always done my utmost that the enemies of the Church should also be my enemies,” he wrote. He was direct and honest, and won many friends as well as enemies—people either loved or hated him.
Those who disliked him threw gossip and scandal his way, and he decided to leave Rome and to live in the Holy Land. He lived in a stone cave and opened a free school and hospice, and enjoyed the comaraderie that came from living in a place of pilgrimage.
He continued to correspond with Church leaders, including St. Augustine, about certain heresies or distortions of the faith, lending his voice to orthodoxy.
He hated moderation, and was always all-in. He is often depicted striking his breast with a stone (as in the statue above, from Dillon Hall) because he was as quick to repent as he was to convict.
He is known best for his work translating Scripture—the Church recognizes him as the greatest of all the doctors of the Church and sees him as a person especially sent and raised by God for this essential purpose. He finished retranslating the rest of the New Testament, and went on to work on most of the books of the Old Testament as well. His translations served the Church for most of her history.
When Rome fell in 404, the wealthy elite that had slandered him were scattered. Many wandered through the Holy Land as beggars. Jerome interrupted his study and translation work to attend to their needs. “Today we must translate the words of the Scriptures into deeds,” he wrote. “Instead of speaking saintly words we must act them.”
Jerome died on this date in 420, and his relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica. He is depicted in stained glass windows there as well, including one pane that shows him with a lion that represents his time in the desert as well as his fearless and fierce defense of the faith.
Jerome often wrote of the saints praying for us in heaven: “If the apostles and martyrs while still living upon earth can pray for other men, how much more may they do so after their victories?” he wrote. “Have they less power now that they are with Jesus Christ?”
St. Jerome, the sarcastic recluse who faithfully translated the words of Scripture, pray for us!