As we part ways with September the church honors a saint you know about, but you don’t know you know about: St. Jerome, Priest and Monk of Bethlehem.
Italian Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius…but you can call him Jerome…was born in 345 in northeast Italy. His family was Christian, and he was tutored at home until the age of 12 largely because his family made just enough money to afford a teacher.
At the age of 12 he was sent to Rome to study under Donatus, the famous grammarian, where he excelled as a student and acquired a reputation…both for his studiousness and for his out-of-class shenanigans.
St. Jerome was no, well, saint…at least behaviorally, but he remained close to his faith heritage and was baptized at the age of 19. The interesting thing about Jerome is that he notes that he experienced a conversion after his baptism, not before, as he traveled East toward Antioch where he would spend a good deal of his life.
It was there in Antioch that he had a vision where God encouraged him to take time away from studying the classics and focus more on the scriptures. In response to this vision, Jerome withdrew to the desert to lead the life of a hermit…lugging his books along with him. These books became the springboard for his own writings, detailing the joys and temptations of the hermit life.
When Jerome returned to Antioch he was ordained a priest, though he never desired the ordination, and he never fully took up the duties of a priest, feeling it wasn’t truly his calling. St. Jerome knew his calling was to be a secretary, a historian, a student of the words of the day, recording a legacy of thoughts and reports for the world to read.
He revised the Latin version of the Gospels. He revised the Latin Psalter. He wrote scathing pieces on the unethical and luxurious living of wealthy Christians and some clergy…which ensured he’d never be elected Bishop, by the way. He encouraged a growing ascetic movement amongst the elite, making a notable friend with a woman known as Lady Paula and her daughters. Lady Paula would come to join Jerome when he established a monastery in Bethlehem, and she would become the abbess of a community nearby.
St. Jerome visited all of the major cities of the empire before retiring to Bethlehem: Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria. This gave him a wide lens and a foundation of experience that would serve his writing and reflections well.
After settling in Bethlehem, Jerome carved out for himself a home…literally. In a rock. He lived there as a hermit, and opened a school for boys, translating historical, philosophical, and theological works into Latin. He also wrote an early “history of notable Christians,” expounding upon early Christian lore. He wrote letter after letter, involving himself in theological arguments.
Now, you’ve read all this, and you’re wondering, “Yeah, OK…but how do I know him?”
You know him, Beloved, because he wrote the Latin translation of the Bible that remained the standard Latin version for 16 Centuries.
You know him because you’ve read his work.
Or, more precisely, translations of his work. And translations of translations of his work.
Toward the end of his life, Jerome was besieged by trouble. Bethlehem was rocked by an influx of refugees as political problems plagued the empire. His reputation was soiled by theological opponents. His friend Paula died, and his monastery was burned.
In 420 on September 30th Jerome died and was buried next to his companion Paula in the Church of the Nativity.
St. Jerome is still considered one of the most brilliant Biblical scholars. He was a bit brash, and was not always theologically on the mark (I personally have strong issues with his remarks on Origen), but he is probably the most influential Christian of his day, and remains one of the most to this day.
St. Jerome is a reminder for me, and for the whole church, that they who wield the pen do indeed shape history. And yes, we need all sorts of STEM education in schools…I’m all for that. But if we don’t have some good writers in the world, all the advancements we make and the stories that surround them could, indeed, be lost in the endless stream of time.
We need writers, in the church and in the world.
-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations