Latin Doctor of the Church
Estimated reading time: 6 mins
Theologian. Writer. Saint. We delve into the background and contributions that St Jerome has made to the Church.
We all know how much emphasis is placed on studying and education here in Singapore. The foundations of our education open doors to opportunities and help shape our lives in one way or another. In St Jerome’s life, it was no different.
If you do not know, St Jerome is one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church and is best known for his translation of the Hebrew books of the Bible into Latin.
Partly as a result of Jerome’s works, Latin became the language of the Church. (Latin became the Church’s language for many reasons, and although Jerome’s work was certainly not the first Latin translation of the Bible, his works raised the prominence of Latin in the Church.) As a modern scholar would say, “No man before Jerome or among his contemporaries and very few men for many centuries afterwards were so well qualified to do the work.”
St Jerome’s importance in the Church can be seen from the fact that his Latin translation of the Bible became known as the “versio vulgata”, which literally means “the commonly used version”, known as the Vulgate in English. Up until 1979, when Pope John Paul II issued the Nova Vulgata, the Vulgate was the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church.
St Jerome also wrote scriptural commentaries which are a great source of inspiration for Christians all around the world today. Furthermore, besides being a Scripture scholar, he was an avid student, a prodigious letter-writer and a consultant to monks and bishops. St. Augustine once said of him, “What Jerome is ignorant of, no mortal has ever known.”
Born into a Christian family around the year 347 AD, St Jerome received a very good education and excellent moral principles from his father at home. After his preliminary education, he went to Rome, the centre of learning at that time. He spent several years in each place he visited, always trying to find the very best teachers. As such, at an early age, he was already well-versed in the works of the classical authors, from which he developed a love for literature, and became a young scholar in Rome. He was also a master of Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Chaldaic.
After his studies in Rome, he travelled across Palestine to places where Christ once went to, with an outpouring of prayers and devotion. When he reached the age of 30, he spent five years as a monk in the desert of Chalcis so that he might give himself up to prayer, penance and study.
At one point in his life, he experienced a dramatic spiritual conversion: He had a dream in which he found himself before the judgment seat of Christ. When asked by the Just Judge, who knows every deed and thought of men, to declare what he was, Jerome replied that he was a Christian. “You lie,” answered the Judge. “You are rather a Ciceronian, for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He then received his due punishment in the dream, and woke up to find himself a changed man. After this conversion, he lived a life of extreme penance and mortification.
He was ordained a priest in Antioch by Bishop Paulinus, and became the secretary of Pope Damasus. As the Holy Spirit led him into deeper love for Christ, he directed his love for literature towards an intense study of Scripture. It was his fervent love for the inspired Word, together with his intellectual gifts, that gave him the strength to complete the arduous task of translation.
Finally, he settled in Bethlehem, where he lived in the cave believed to have been the birthplace of Christ. On 30 September in the year 420, Jerome died in Bethlehem. The remains of his body now lie buried in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome.
More on St Jerome
For a prolific writer like St Jerome who wrote many commentaries on Scripture, it didn’t come as a surprise that his whole life was focused on the Word, seeking Truth, and defending the Church and her teachings. Through his life of prayer, St Jerome grew wise and insightful, and shared his spiritual gifts through his writings. For instance, he opposed the objections concerning the perpetual virginity of Mary.
A famous excerpt from his commentary on Isaiah (Nn. 1.2: CCL 73, 1-3) is commonly used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast (liturgical memorial) of St Jerome on 30 September. It is in this excerpt that St Jerome famously wrote, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” As Father and Doctor of the Catholic Church, he wanted to urge all Christians to recognise that serious bible study is a necessity, not an optional luxury.
Although Jerome showed strong affection for his many friends, he was known to be hot-tempered and had a quick tongue which resulted in him making enemies and saying things he did not mean. But despite being prone to offend others, he was always lively and amusing.
Learning from St Jerome
The story of St Jerome shows us the importance of placing the love of Christ over the love of all earthly things, even of earthly knowledge and human learning. St Jerome was also a great exemplar of the art of obedience to the Church’s authority and teachings; in his work of translation and commentary-writing, he was always a servant of the Church and never his own master.
St Jerome is also an inspiration for us to be open to the fullness of Truth, which can only come through prayer and study. He spent years searching the Scriptures, living an ascetic life immersed in constant prayer and drinking from the life-giving waters of the Holy Trinity. As a result of his quest, St Jerome’s awareness of the reality of sin and the Final Judgment became refined and polished. He was once quoted as saying, “Whether I eat or drink, or whatever else I do, the dreadful trumpet of the last day seems always sounding in my ears: ‘Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment!’”
Despite facing setbacks and troubles along the way, St Jerome showed his continuous reliance on God’s grace, evident in his letter to Ctesiphon, written in 415 AD: “It is not enough for me that God has given me grace once, but He must give it always. I ask, that I may receive; and when I have received, I ask again. I am covetous of receiving God’s bounty. He is never slow in giving, nor am I ever weary of receiving. The more I drink, the more thirsty I become.”
In essence, St Jerome embraced the Catholic Church as a guiding, guarding and nurturing mother whose concern is that we receive the fullness of Truth; a Truth she faithfully speaks in her ancient words, and which flows from the incomparable light of the Holy Spirit. For without Truth, life becomes little more than a drab, rather meaningless existence, in which the days and years pass by in fruitless labour, blind to the wondrous reality that God has lovingly communicated to his children for the purpose of their salvation.