St. Jerome – Ascetic and Doctor of the Church

St. Jerome in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Sacramento, CA

St. Jerome was a 4th century influencer whose writing, theological ideas and translation of the Bible into Latin (“the Vulgate”) continues to resonate today. His ascetic life had characteristics of St. John the Baptist – “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert, “Make straight the way of the Lord,”’” (John 1:23) . St. Jerome spent four of his early adult years in the desert of Chalcis in Syria where he composed the first group of his many letters on theology and asceticism. His life was so impactful, that he was among a group of four men who were declared Doctors of the Church by Pope Boniface VIII in the 13th century. His Feast Day is September 30th in the Roman Catholic Church and June 15th in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Four Doctors of the Western Church, and in addition to Saint Jerome include: Saints Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great. A prerequisite of being declared a Doctor of the Church are significant theological contributions through writing, study and research. Saint Jerome’s works certainly fit that description as he wrote extensively over his 80-year life. His corpus included works on the Bible, commentaries, treatises and letters on various topics including the refutation of popular heresies of the time, such as the Arian heresy; and also a defense of the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. However, his most treasured contribution to the faith is considered to be his translation of the Old and New Testaments from Hebrew and Greek, respectively, into Latin. This translation was deemed to be authoritative and became known as “the Vulgate” version of the Bible, the official Bible of the Roman Church. This work is considered to be, probably, the most important translation of the Bible in that it was the source of virtually all later translations for over 1,000 years. Aside from the work on the Vulgate, many of his works dealt with controversial topics and he had an impassioned, and sometimes satirical, writing style which created some friction with those who were on the wrong side of his argument.

Saint Jerome was born at Stridon, a town in Dalmatia (modern day Croatia) in about 340 A.D. His early education in argument and rhetoric, along with becoming familiar with both Latin and Greek literature set the stage for his future endeavors. At around age 12, he went to Rome to study, and there he was baptized by Pope Liberius. After Rome, he received a theological education at Trier, Germany and then went to a monastery in Aquileia (ancient Roman city in Italy) which had some of the greatest Christian minds of the time. In 373, he made a journey to the East which included a 4-year period of ascetics in the desert of Chalcis in Syria where he may have further refined his thinking on the importance of a simple and disciplined life which were the topic of several of his writings. He was ordained a priest in Antioch around 380 A.D. and then traveled to Constantinople before going back to Rome. Over this time, he became close to Pope Damasus I working as his personal adviser. He was forced out of Rome, by some of the enemies created by his polemical approach, when Pope Damasus died. Jerome then went to Bethlehem to a convent founded by two Roman ladies, Paula and Eustochium, where he led a life of ascetism and scholarly study. Saint Jerome died on September 30th, 420 at Bethlehem. His remains were later disinterred and now lie in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome.

Many aspects of Saint Jerome’s life can be viewed in the iconography of the great Doctor of the Church. He is usually shown with a beard to his mid-chest; and many times depicted as a cardinal with a red cape, although Saint Jerome shunned a life in the church hierarchy, preferring instead the ascetic life of a monk. Since the title of Cardinal did not exist until decades after Saint Jerome’s death, it is understood that the Cardinal outfitting referred to his service as an advisor to Pope Damasus I. Another common view of Saint Jerome is with a stone used for beating his bear breast to recall his life of prayer and fasting during his four years in the desert. Of course, many images show Saint Jerome working in his library full of books, along with other common articles such as a Crucifix, the red Cardinal hat and garments, writing implements, a candle and eyeglasses.

One of the popular medieval images of Saint Jerome’s death shows him kneeling to receive communion for the last time, such as in the images shown here. The scene is said to have come from a 12th century letter sent to the Pope by a friend who was with Saint Jerome at his death. Some of the Saints last words before the host were communicated in the letter as, “Lord, who am I that I should be worthy for you to enter under my roof? … Why do you lower yourself and suffer to descend to a publican and a sinner?” A painting from the early 1490’s by Botticelli (Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi) titled “The Last Communion of St. Jerome” depicts the scene and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

References
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Catholic Online Saints & Angels – St. Jerome – https://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=10

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City – Botticelli painting – https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435728

New World Encyclopedia – https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Saint_Jerome

Stracke, Dr. Richard. Christian Iconography – https://www.christianiconography.info/jerome.html

U.S. Catholic – https://uscatholic.org/articles/200807/chronological-list-of-the-doctors-of-the-church/

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