Saint Jerome (c. 341-420) is both a Father and a Doctor of the Church; and he has, through the centuries, been a great light and inspiration to the whole world. We are convinced that we need him now more than ever and in a very special way, facing as we are the present crisis of faith, and the multitude of rampant heresies devastating the vineyard of the Lord. The root cause of this crisis, according to a great leader in the Church, Cardinal Paul Taguchi of Tokyo, can be traced to false Biblical studies. Let us give the exact words of the Cardinal:
“The root causes of this new slant on sacred Scripture studies are to be found among those that underlie all of the present doctrinal confusion. Firstly, there is the influence that liberal evolutionist rationalism has had on theological thought; secondly, the sway of ‘modern philosophy’ based on subjective premises, which has penetrated various areas of thought, even in the field of theology. Both of these have favored a gradual impoverishment of Christian life in general, even to the stage where a sense of faith and of the supernatural is entirely lost.”
In the face of this crisis of faith, which is generally admitted, we feel we must resort to the great Saint Jerome: we must raise him up for an example, and must seek him for intercession.
The Fathers and Doctors of the Church
Catholics today should pay great attention to the Fathers and to the Doctors instead of listening to the Liberal and Modernist speculators in false theology, who, in great numbers, are confusing the faithful and leading men to hell. A Father of the Church is an ancient Christian writer who gave testimony to what the Christians believed in the early ages of the Church. A Doctor of the Church is a teacher of the Faith, outstanding for holiness as well as learning (eximia scientia et eximia sanctitas). The list of Fathers is long and indefinite, and not all the Fathers are canonized saints. Some examples of the Fathers are: St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Ephrem the Syrian, St. Basil the Great, Tertullian, and Origen. Since the Church has judged that at least in some of their writings they deviated from orthodoxy, these last two, Origen and Tertullian, are not recognized as saints. Two of the other Fathers we mentioned, St. Ephrem and St. Basil, are not only Fathers, but are also Doctors of the Church as well.
The list of Doctors of the Church contains now exactly 33 persons. Only two of them are popes: St. Leo the Great and St. Gregory the Great; and now we have in this list two holy women, St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila. All the Doctors are canonized saints, every one of them having been given that title, as well as an annual feast day and the Mass of a Doctor, by one of the popes. The Doctors can be of ancient times, like St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, and thus qualify to be considered Fathers; and they can be of modern times, like St. Alphonsus de Liguori and St. Francis de Sales. St. Jerome, as we have said, is both a Father and a Doctor of the Church.
Life of Saint Jerome
St. Jerome was born about the year 342 in a small town called Stridonium in Dalmatia (now part of Croatia), and he died in the year 420 in the town of Bethlehem, where Our Savior was born. We notice from the span of his life how close he was to the time of the last persecution, which although it was supposed to have ended when Constantine proclaimed the liberty of the Church by the Edict of Milan (313), actually continued in the East under the pagan emperor Licinius (d.325) for many years after the Edict was issued. During the persecution of Julian the Apostate 1 (361-363), Saint Jerome would have been a young man of about twenty or twenty-one.
St. Jerome received very good education and excellent moral principles from his father at home, after which he was sent to Rome for further studies. In Rome he was taught by some very famous teachers; he became a master of Greek and Latin, and was introduced to the great classics of antiquity. While a student in the great city, away from home, he became, as he was to accuse himself later in life, more of a pagan than a Christian. The sonorous and beautiful — but still pagan — poetry of Cicero, Plautus and other Latins was a source of too much enjoyment for a man called, as he was, to such sublime sanctity.
From this woeful condition, he was converted by a dramatic experience: 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.
It would seem that divine providence was already preparing him for his great life assignment. For to become fit for the study and interpretation of Holy Scripture, one must have a burning desire to sanctify oneself and to labor for eternal salvation. It is only such a person who can find in God’s revelation what God intended to reveal, namely the great science of sanctity and salvation. It is precisely because of the absence of this interest, this desire for knowledge which Catholic tradition calls scientia sanctorum (the wisdom of the saints) that Biblical studies have led the world to the heresy of Modernism, “the synthesis of all heresies,” as Pope St. Pius X called it. It is for this, among other reasons, that we need the example and the intercession of St. Jerome.
After that he began a life of travels in pursuit of learning. He visited nearly every major center of learning in his time. He went to Trier (or Trèves) in Germany where he began his theological studies. He visited Aquileia in Northern Italy, a city illustrious at that time for its religious studies. There he met Rufinus, who became his companion and friend for many years, until their friendship was tragically broken after twenty-five years over the Origenist controversy, which we will discuss below. In France he visited Marseilles, Toulouse, Bourdeaux, Autun, Lyons, and other cities famous for their schools.
He then went to the East and spent about five years in the desert of Chalcis in Syria, living a most ascetic life. Let the saint himself describe his trials and temptations during his sojourn in the desert:
“In the remotest part of a wild and sharp desert, which, being burnt up with the heats of the scorching sun, strikes with horror and terror even the monks that inhabit it, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and assemblies of Rome. I loved solitude, that in the bitterness of my soul, I might more freely bewail my miseries, and call upon my Savior. My hideous emaciated limbs were covered with sackcloth; my skin was parched dry and black, and my flesh was almost wasted away. The days I passed in tears and groans, and when sleep overpowered me against my will, I cast my wearied bones, which hardly hung together, upon the bare ground, not so properly to give them rest, as to torture myself. I say nothing of my eating and drinking; for the monks in that desert, when they are sick, know no other drink but cold water, and look upon it as sensuality ever to eat any thing dressed by fire. In this exile and prison, to which, for the fear of hell, I had voluntarily condemned myself, having no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times found my imagination filled with lively representations of dances in the company of Roman ladies, as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pale with fasting; yet my will felt violent assaults of irregular desires; in my cold body , and in my parched-up flesh, which seemed dead before its death, concupiscence was able to live; and though I vigorously repressed all its sallies, it strove always to rise again, and to cast forth more violent and dangerous flames. Finding myself abandoned, as it were, to the power of this enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and I tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks. . . I went alone into the most secret parts of the wilderness, and if I discovered anywhere a deep valley or a craggy rock, that was the place of my prayer, there I threw this miserable sack of my body. The same Lord is my witness, that after so many sobs and tears, after having in much sorrow looked long up to heaven, I felt most delightful comforts and interior sweetness; and these so great, that, transported and absorbed, I seemed to myself to be amidst the choirs of angels; and glad and joyful I sang to God; After thee, O Lord, we will run in the fragrancy of thy celestial ointments.”
Let the reader take note of Saint Jerome’s vigilance against temptations. In this, he is in stark contrast to that sixteenth-century cleric who pretended himself to translate and comment on the Scriptures. Luther, suffering the same temptations, chose to succumb rather than to curb them as did Saint Jerome. The “Reformer” frankly admits in his diary that, “To be continent and chaste is not in me.” Ironically claiming foundation for his heresy in the writings of Saint Paul, Luther acted as if he had never read those words of the Apostle to the Gentiles, “But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:27); and “Keep thyself chaste.” (I Timothy 5:22)
Instead, Luther started a new religion, in which, “Sin will not destroy us in the reign of the Lamb, although we were to commit fornication a thousand times in one day.” (Luther’s Letter to Melanchthon, August 1, 1521) Unlike Luther, Saint Jerome fulfilled in his person the wise counsel that he himself had given: “Love the science of Scripture, and you will not love the vices of the flesh.”
Constantinople to Rome
From Syria Saint Jerome went to Constantinople, the Rome of the East, to visit the great doctor of Biblical studies, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, who became for a while Patriarch of that city. The two became friends instantly and Jerome became a disciple of the much older man (d. 389). What a joy it would have been to behold the two saints, the very old man and the young, together discussing the mysteries of revelation!
While Jerome was in the East, a dispute arose over the Patriarchate of Antioch in which three claimants to the see caused schism. The monks, his companions in the desert, were taking sides and urging him to do the same. But he refused and awaited the judgment of Rome. He wrote to the Pope, St. Damasus, a letter that became famous: “I am joined in communion with your Holiness, that is with the chair of Peter; upon that rock I know the Church is built. Whoever eats the lamb out of that house is a profane person. Whoever is not in the ark shall perish in the flood. I do not know Vitalis; I do not communicate with Meletius; Paulinus is a stranger to me. Whoever gathers not with you scatters; that is, he who is not Christ’s, belongs to Antichrist. He that cleaves to the Chair of Peter, he is mine.” The Pope having decided for Paulinus, St. Jerome soon became the new Patriarch’s friend and supporter. In fact, it was Paulinus who ordained Jerome a priest.
The problems of the Church in Antioch continued even after St. Damasus intervened. St. Paulinus needed to meet with the Pope in person to see what could be done. The bright energetic priest, whom St. Paulinus had only ordained roughly three years earlier, accompanied him along with St. Epiphanius to a Council, held in Rome, to address the question. That trip occasioned Jerome’s meeting of Pope St. Damasus, the two having previously known each other only by letter. When their business was finished, and Saints Paulinus and Epiphanius departed back to the East, the Pope detained Jerome in Rome, employing him as his secretary. It is for this reason that St. Jerome is sometimes represented in art as a cardinal.
The Vulgate Bible
St. Damasus then commissioned our saint to do the great work of his life, the Latin Bible as we now have it, called the Vulgate. 2 It did not involve the translation of the entire Bible from the original languages in which it was revealed, (namely Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic — sometimes called Chaldaic). There already existed versions in Latin of most books of Holy Scripture. What St. Jerome did was to review and revise the different versions, comparing them with the existing codices and the Septuagint. We know that the saint was already versed in Greek and Latin. But in order to qualify for the assignment he had to achieve mastery of Hebrew and Aramaic. He describes for us in tragicomic terms the excruciating experience he underwent in trying to master those harsh, guttural Oriental sounds, so strange and foreign to the Western ear. He describes his experience in a letter to a friend:
“When my soul was on fire with bad thoughts, that I might subdue my flesh, I became a scholar to a monk who had been a Jew, to learn of him the Hebrew alphabet; and after I had most diligently studied the judicious rules of Quintilian, the flowing eloquence of Cicero — I inured myself to hissing and broken-winded words. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and left off, and how I began again to learn, but I myself can witness and those who lived with me. And I thank Our Lord, that I now gather sweet fruit from the bitter seed of those studies.”
We see from this letter that he started to learn Hebrew from a Jewish convert who was a monk with him in the desert. Later on, when he was in the Holy Land, he hired a Jewish scholar by the name of Bar Ananias who came to teach him by night, lest the Jews should know about it.
We know that most of the Old Testament was inspired in Hebrew, some books in Greek, and some parts in Aramaic. In the New Testament, Matthew was in Aramaic, and all the other books in Greek. That is why a mastery of these three languages was necessary for the work he was assigned to do by the Pope.
It is by such labor that we now have the Vulgate (the name comes from the Latin word vulgus which means “the people, the great multitude, the public.” A good rendering for it in English would be to call it “the popular version” — not the vulgar!). The Vulgate version proved to be a great gift to the Church and to all succeeding generations, and will be so to the end of time. This achievement is not likely to be duplicated —never mind surpassed — because the saint had at his disposal texts and codices that do not exist today, and the means to be taught the sacred languages which were, at his time, still living languages. Besides having these texts, and his personal gifts of intellect and scholarship, Saint Jerome possessed in his person that intense holiness of life and great concern for orthodoxy indispensable to those who concern themselves with the study and interpretation of God’s revelations.
The work, as we said, was commissioned by the great pope, St. Damasus I. Another pope, Clement VIII, believed that the saint was divinely assisted in translating the Bible. And in our own century, Pope Benedict XV, on the occasion of the fifteen-hundredth anniversary of the saint’s death, proclaimed in 1920:
“The Church venerates in Jerome the greatest doctor given her by heaven for the interpretation of Holy Scriptures.”
Furthermore, the Holy Council of Trent had declared the Vulgate edition of the Bible to be authentic in these words:
“Moreover the same sacred and holy synod taking into consideration that no small benefit can accrue to the Church of God, if it be made known which one of all the Latin editions of the sacred books that are in circulation is to be considered authentic, has decided and declares that the said old Vulgate edition, which has been approved by the Church itself through long usage for many centuries in public lectures, disputations, sermons, and expositions, be considered authentic, and that no one under any pretext whatsoever dare or presume to reject it.”
In Rome with Pope St. Damasus
The saint remained in Rome until the death of Pope St. Damasus, which took place on December 11, 384. During that time he was sought after by many men and women desiring spiritual direction under his guidance. He also was involved in polemics, not only with pagans and heretics, but also with Catholics who were leading bad lives. As a result, he acquired a large number of powerful enemies. He actually prayed for this kind of combat:
“Would to God that all the infidels would rise up together against me, for having defended the name and the glory of God! I wish that the whole world would conspire in blaming my conduct, that I may, by this means, obtain the approbation of Jesus Christ. You are deceived if you think that a Christian can live without persecution. He suffers the greatest who lives under none. Nothing is more to be feared than too long a peace. A storm puts a man on his guard, and obliges him to exert his utmost effort to escape shipwreck.”
His prayer was answered, and the storm arose soon after he lost the protection of St. Damasus. All the while St. Damasus was alive, St. Jerome’s enemies — growing in number and fury — were kept in check. But when that saintly Pontiff went to his reward, all hell seemed to erupt in hatred of our holy recluse. All of those who had ever felt the sharp point of Jerome’s holy indignation, and all those who had reason to think they were the objects of his moral discourses ganged up on the little anchoret, spreading lies and calumnies designed to bring him to ruin. His morals, his personal habits (including even the way he walked!), and seemingly everything he said and did, were brought into question. He had to leave Rome. In part, to take refuge from the diabolical assault against his character, but also to pursue greater seclusion in order to foster his contemplative life, he returned back to the East.
He went to Antioch and then to Egypt, where he visited the famous theological school of Alexandria, and consulted with its theologians and Biblical scholars. During this time, Jerome befriended one of the most famous teachers of that school, Didymus the Blind, spending one month of study under the tutelage of that sightless prodigy. (Later on, Jerome was to translate Didymus’ work De Spiritu Sancto — On the Holy Ghost — from Greek into Latin.) From Alexandria, he then journeyed to the Holy Land, to Bethlehem, which was to be his home to the end of his life.
Many of the ladies who were under his spiritual direction in Rome joined him in Bethlehem. They came from some of the most prominent families and had for a leader, St. Paula (whose life the Saint was to write) and later her daughter, St. Eustochium. St. Paula was a lady of means and very generous. With her help, the saint was able to establish in Bethlehem, at the site where Our Lord was born, one monastery for men and three convents for religious women. Jerome himself lived and worked in a large rock-hewn cell near the monastery. Saint Paula would now say that, should the Holy Family visit Bethlehem again, there is one place that surely would welcome them.
St. Jerome had found peace at last, but not for long. New heresies will soon arise, as we shall see, and will engage his vehement zeal, and his not exactly popular style. But we will let him describe his life in Bethlehem during the interim and compare it with life in Rome.
Rome indeed was the capital of the world, but Bethlehem was no less cosmopolitan, where pilgrims gathered from the remotest parts of the world, even from far-off Britain and from Gaul, to meet with Armenians, Persians, the peoples of India and Ethiopia, of Egypt and Pontus, of Cappadocia, Syria and Mesopotamia.
“They throng here and set us the example of every virtue. The languages are different but the religion is the same; there are as many different choirs singing the psalms as there are nations. . . Here bread, and vegetables grown with our own hands, and milk, country fare, afford us plain and healthy food. In summer the trees give shade; in autumn the air is cool and the fallen leaves restful; in spring our psalmody is sweeter for the singing of the birds; we do not lack wood in winter when snow and cold are upon us. Let Rome keep its crowds, let its arenas run with blood, its circuses go mad, its theatres wallow in sensuality and, not to forget our friends, let the senate of ladies receive their daily visits.”
The bucolic peace described by the saint in the words we have just quoted, did not last long. Soon the storms were to arise. Faithful as he was to the Apostolic Faith and zealous for the triumph of truth over error, the fiery Dalmatian had an intense hatred for heresy. For modern man, who has made the Gospel of Love into a gospel of effeminacy, the very idea of hatred of heresy and heretics is considered a thing to be avoided. But for those heroes of the ages of Faith, to hate heresy and heretics was a holy and righteous thing. After all, King David, the Royal Prophet, himself had said, in words inspired by the very God of Love, “Have I not hated them, O Lord, that hated thee: and pined away because of thy enemies? I have hated them with a perfect hatred: and they are become enemies to me” (Psalm 138).
St. Jerome considered it a duty and an honor, not only to hate the enemies of God, but to be hated by them. In paying tribute to St. Augustine, his brother-in-arms against the Pelagians, Jerome exclaimed: “The whole world celebrates your praises; the Catholics venerate you and admire you as the restorer of the ancient faith. But what is a mark of still greater glory, all the heretics hate you.”
Of all of the furious battles in which the great Doctor of the Scriptures engaged himself, we shall discuss only three, chosen on account of their similarity to the storms of heresy raging in our time: the Pelagian heresy, the heresy of Helvidius, and the Origenist heresy.
The Pelagian Heresy
The heresy of Pelagius is an ally of naturalism in as much as it exalts nature and depreciates the supernatural order — the order of grace. It is also an ally of rationalism in that it denies the mysteries of faith which transcend all reason.
The Pelagians begin by denying original sin. They hold that the sin of Adam harmed only himself. According to them, babies are born now in identically the same condition in which Adam was before the fall; unbaptized babies are saved without baptism, and adults can be saved by practicing the natural virtues without faith or grace.
Many people today who consider themselves to be Catholic would find nothing wrong with these beliefs. Many priests and religious would probably sign these statements, if they did not remember from their history books that they are condemned. Who would rise up today with holy indignation to do battle against these Pelagian heresies as did St. Jerome? The saint rose to defend the Faith of Catholics in the Redemption achieved by Jesus in His death on the Cross — the Faith of Catholics in the necessity of the Sacraments which communicate to men singly the fruits of that Redemption. If the sin of Adam hurt only himself, how are we saved by the sufferings and death of Jesus? The Pelagian principle, the Pelagian logic renders vain the Cross of Jesus Christ.
Pelagius originated in the British Isles and had many followers in those regions. And his heresy proved throughout the centuries to find peculiar affinity in the Anglo-Saxon spirit and culture. There is no question but that the Pelagian spirit has been, and still is, one of the major obstacles hindering the spread of the genuine Catholic Faith in the English speaking world. Pelagianism is unquestionably one of the elements of the condemned heresy of Americanism.
Pelagius left his native land some time about the year 400 and journeyed first to Italy, then to Africa, and finally went to the Holy Land. Wherever he landed, Catholics became suspicious of his orthodoxy, but he usually was clever enough to escape detection. He even deceived the great St. Augustine, at least for a while. When he reached the Holy Land, he first won to his doctrine the weak bishop, John of Jerusalem. He appeared before a synod of fourteen bishops in the city of Diospolis (ancient Lydda) and managed to escape condemnation.
St. Jerome set himself to do battle against the heresy, and in alliance with St. Augustine (who had awoken from his deception) succeeded in having it condemned by a local synod at Carthage in Africa; and when the Pope, St. Zozimus, ratified the act of the council, St. Augustine uttered the famous words, “Roma locuta est, causa finita est”(“Rome has spoken, the case is ended”). The case was ended as far as the Church was concerned, but not for St. Jerome, who continued to be harassed to the very end of his life by the Pelagians, protected as they were by his enemy, John of Jerusalem.
Helvidius and Other Arians
Arianism is a heresy which attacked the two great mysteries of the Faith, the Trinity and the Incarnation. The whole faith of the Church and all its prayers and devotions presuppose these two mysteries and depend on them. Arianism was condemned by the first Ecumenical Council, Nicæa I in 325, but the Arian spirit of rebellion continued to the time of St. Jerome. As a matter of fact, it continued throughout all succeeding centuries down to our own time. Common to all the Arian or semi-Arian heresies is denial of the infallibility of the Church and rejection of sacred tradition. They depreciated the value of the Sacraments, denied the efficacy of prayers to the saints and especially devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ridiculed the veneration of relics. One Arian, the priest Helvidius, denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Basing his heresy on references to the “brothers of Jesus” in the Bible, he concluded that Our Lady must have had other children after the birth of Jesus.
There again, St. Jerome rose with great indignation to defend the Faith of the Church. From the first ages Christians believed that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of her Divine Son, that Jesus came from her immaculate body like light through a glass window, leaving her virginity perfectly integral. Sacred tradition also explains that the “brothers of Jesus” were but close relatives. St. Jerome reports for us and for all future generations the exact relation of these relatives. St. Cleophas (or Alphaeus) was a brother of St. Joseph, and his family was very close to the Holy Family. Three of his sons, St. James, St. Simon, and St. Jude, are counted among the twelve Apostles, and so are two of his grandsons, St. James the Greater and St. John the Evangelist.
Holy Scripture and the Church
God never intended his religion to be a book understood by the agency of private interpretation. He gave the great gift of Holy Scripture to us as part of a large Revelation, called the Deposit of Faith. In addition to Holy Scripture, God also inspired Holy Tradition. Both of these comprise the full Revelation of God to his creatures; neither of them can be omitted. Nor did God give us Holy Scripture to be interpreted privately. He entrusted it to the Church and bestowed on the Church the infallible authority to interpret it.
The Faith of the Church — the Deposit of Faith entrusted by God to the Church — is an integral whole: Our Lord Jesus Christ is true God and true Man. As true God He is born eternally from God the Father; as true Man, he is born in time from Mary ever Virgin. He had no mother in eternity; he had no father in time. Uniquely among all men He existed as God before the Incarnation, and after the consent of Mary at the Annunciation, He began to exist in time as the God-Man, as God Incarnate, and will be so forever. This is the Faith of Catholics from the days of the Apostles — guaranteed for us by the infallibility of the Church, guardian of Tradition and interpreter of Scripture. This is the Faith for which millions of men and women shed their blood in the age of the catacombs.
Armed with what he knew to be the constant belief of those martyrs, whose churches and relics he honored with pious devotion, St. Jerome battled against Helvidius to defend the honor of Mary; and in so doing, to defend the Apostolic Faith. He probed and studied, applying his keen intellect and masterful scholarship in pursuit of the ancient traditions that were preserved in the Holy Land. The scholar discovered that the conclusions of science agreed with the beliefs of the simple Christian peasant: Jerome found it was an historical fact that all of the Christians since the time of the Apostles believed in Mary’s perpetual Virginity. Let the reader keep in mind that St. Jerome was alive during a time when these traditions were only three hundred years old. What he found in his study was a clear, constant, and undeniable body of evidence proving the universal belief of the faithful in the dogma Helvidius denied.
Helvidius, and other heretics who were infected with this anti-Marian heresy — like Jovinian and Vigilantius — did violence to the Catholic belief in the virtue of celibacy. They derided consecrated virginity as something superfluous and unmeritorious. To attack this impiety, St. Jerome wrote eloquently and brilliantly about the beauty and excellence of consecrated virginity, and of the innumerable choirs of holy women through the centuries, who gave much glory to God by consecrating their virginity in honor of Mary and in imitation of her. His intense vehemence — would that we had something of that today — earned for him many enemies. In theheat of this polemical exchange, he was accused, among other things, of having depreciated marriage and the beauty of motherhood. So he took the pen again, with equal vehemence and zeal, in defense of holy matrimony.
The Controversy of Origenism
Origen (c. 185-253) is one of the Fathers of the Church, i.e., one of the early Christian writers who give testimony to the faith of Christians close to the time of Our Lord and His Apostles. Origen’s father, St. Leonidas, suffered martyrdom in the persecution of Septimus Severus, and Origen himself prayed to become a martyr. He constantly professed his submission to the judgment of the Church on his writings. For about twenty years he led the theological school of Alexandria. This school, which we have already mentioned in connection with its later head, Didymus the Blind, boasted many great theologians and ecclesiastical writers. Located in a diocese founded by St. Mark the Evangelist, and still glorying in the memory of the great St. Athanasius, the school had for one of its earliest leaders, the hero of the Council of Ephesus, St. Cyril of Alexandria.
But in spite of the holy traditions of his house and of his school, and in spite of his good intentions, Origin fell under the influence of bad philosophy, never getting completely over the effects of it. He exposed himself to this danger by studying for some time under the pagan Ammonius Saccas, the founder and leader of Neo-platonism. As a result, some doctrines contrary to the Faith were mixed in with his writings. Becoming exaggerated by some of his disciples, these doctrines were the cause of bitter controversies centuries after Origen’s death. In the case of St. Jerome, such controversy not only made him many new enemies, but also caused the loss of friends, including his lifelong companion, Rufinus.
What was most objectionable to the saint in Origenism is a heresy that is coming back today with great force and from very high quarters. Its technical name is apocatastasis, but its popular name is universalism. It amounts to saying that, in the end, all will be saved. This view has affinities with Oriental pantheism and with a certain strain of pagan philosophy. It rests on the false belief that human souls preexist the conception in the mother’s womb, and go through a series of reincarnations.
The Catholic Church teaches that the human soul is created at the moment of conception, and has no existence prior to that. Only our Divine Savior had existence before He became man, because, as God, He is eternal and therefore existed even before the creation of the universe. All other men go through one life in which they can make heaven or miss it. The Origenists led people to the presumption that they will have many chances to save their souls in an indefinite series of reincarnations, after which all will finally attain salvation. This presumed universal restoration of all souls to God was finally condemned by Pope Vigilius at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople II (553). But that was many years after the death of St. Jerome, and exactly three centuries after the death of Origen.
Jerome, and many other saints saw the incompatibility of Origenism with the Faith before it was condemned by Pope and council. But, apparently in his time as in ours, there are to be found people who, while not espousing a heresy, fight those who oppose it rather than fighting the heresy itself. Rufinus, St. Jerome’s companion, took a stand against the saint in the matter of Origenism, leading to a famous doctrinal battle between the two, who had once been such close friends.
Very few people appreciate the vehemence of the saints in combating against heresy, and designate it as lacking charity. But the saints know that true charity is saving people from hell, and heresy leads souls to hell. There is some insinuation of that judgment in the humorous story told of Pope Sixtus V. Looking at a picture of St. Jerome beating his chest with a stone, that pontiff said, as if addressing the saint in person, “you do well to hold that stone, for without it the Church would never have canonized you.”
St. Jerome in Bethlehem
We now return to Bethlehem, the Saint’s last abode. Here he continued to labor in order to complete and perfect his magnum opus, the great work of his life, the Holy Bible in Latin together with commentaries on its different books. Besides the many qualifications with which Divine Providence fitted him for this work, his linguistic skills, his literary ability, and his tenacious scholarship, Jerome had the advantage of living and working in the land of the Bible, at the very place where its events occurred.
Somehow he and Bethlehem were mystically connected. By his great devotion and loyal defense of their various perfections, he entered into the intimacy of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the Holy Family, who had sanctified that site. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messias, who called Himself the “Living Bread which has come down from heaven.” It was also where St. Jerome last partook of that Bread. This same quiet little spot where the Eternal God entered time, was the place where Saint Jerome entered eternity. The very crib wherein Jesus was laid in the manger was the pillow upon which Saint Jerome’s head took its final rest. But as Bethlehem was incomplete without Calvary, Saint Jerome couldn’t enter into his reward until he had suffered more for the Divine Babe, and suffer he did.
To the very end of his life he was never free from trials and persecutions. His great friend and benefactress, St. Paula, died in 404. In 410 the historic sack of Rome by Alaric took place, producing crowds of refugees who fled to the East. Of these pathetic masses the saint writes: “Who would have believed that the daughters of that mighty city would one day be wandering as servants and slaves on the shores of Egypt and Africa? That Bethlehem would daily receive noble Romans, distinguished ladies, brought up in wealth and now reduced to beggary? I cannot help them all, but I grieve and weep with them, and, completely given up to the duties which charity imposes on me, I have put aside my commentary on Ezechiel and almost all study. For today we must translate the words of the Scriptures into deeds, and instead of speaking saintly words we must act them.”
Later on, the Pelagians, encouraged by his enemy, John, the Bishop of Jerusalem, attacked his religious communities, and set the monastery on fire, killing one of his men. Then St. Eustochium, the daughter and successor of St. Paula, died. The saint himself followed shortly after, dying in peace on September 30, 420. He was buried under the Church of the Nativity, but his body was removed long after and now lies somewhere in the Church of St. Mary Major at Rome, where the crib of Baby Jesus is also preserved.
When this writer visited the Church of St. Mary Major in 1985, he went in search of the relics of St. Jerome but was told that during a period of trouble in the City, the relics were hidden somewhere in the great Basilica, and now no one knows where they are. So the saint continues to be persecuted even after his death. No words could epitomize his life better than what he said of himself: “I never spared heretics and have always done my utmost so that the enemies of the Church should also be my enemies.”
“I have hated them with a perfect hatred.”
The Saint would be considered a “hate monger” today for his treatment of a heretic. These and other passages in Against Helvidius show the indignation of a holy man against an impious one. Catholic men today can learn a lesson from Saint Jerome:
“I was requested by certain of the brethren not long ago to reply to a pamphlet written by one Helvidius. I have deferred doing so, not because it is a difficult matter to maintain the truth and refute an ignorant boor who has scarce known the first glimmer of learning, but because I was afraid my reply might make him appear worth defeating. There was the further consideration that a turbulent fellow, the only individual in the world who thinks himself both priest and layman, one who, as has been said, thinks that eloquence consists in loquacity and considers speaking ill of anyone to be the witness of a good conscience, would begin to blaspheme worse than ever if opportunity of discussion were afforded him. He would stand as it were on a pedestal, and would publish his views far and wide. There was reason also to fear that when truth failed him he would assail his opponents with the weapon of abuse. But all these motives for silence, though just, have more justly ceased to influence me, because of the scandal caused to the brethren who were disguised at his ravings. The axe of the Gospel must therefore be now laid to the root of the barren tree, and both it and its fruitless foliage cast into the fire, so that Helvidius who has never learnt to speak, may at length learn to hold his tongue. …
“…There are things which, in your extreme ignorance, you had never read, and therefore you neglected the whole range of Scripture and employed your madness in outraging the Virgin, like the man in the story who being unknown to everybody and finding that he could devise no good deed by which to gain renown, burned the temple of Diana: and when no one revealed the sacrilegious act, it is said that he himself went up and down proclaiming that he was the man who had applied the fire. The rulers of Ephesus were curious to know what made him do this thing, whereupon he replied that if he could not have fame for good deeds, all men should give him credit for bad ones. Grecian history relates the incident. But you do worse. You have set on fire the temple of the Lord’s body, you have defiled the sanctuary of the Holy Spirit from which you are determined to make a team of four brethren and a heap of sisters come forth. In a word, joining in the chorus of the Jews, you say, “Is not this the carpenter’s son ? is not his mother called Mary ? and his brethren James, and Joseph, and Simon, and Judas? and his sisters, are they not all with us ? The word all would not be used if there were not a crowd of them.” Pray tell me, who, before you appeared, was acquainted with this blasphemy ? who thought the theory worth two-pence? You have gained your desire, and are become notorious by crime. …
“…I have become rhetorical, and have dispotted myself a little like a platform orator. You compelled me, Helvidius; for, brightly as the Gospel shines at the present day, you will have it that equal glory attaches to virginity and to the marriage state. And because I think that, finding the truth too strong for you, you will turn to disparaging my life and abusing my character (it is the way of weak women to talk tittle-tattle in corners when they have been put down by their masters), I shall anticipate you. I assure you that I shall regard your railing as a high distinction, since the same lips that assail me have disparaged Mary, and I, a servant of the Lord, am favoured with the same barking eloquence as His mother.”
1 The Persecution of Julian the Apostate is considered separately from the other Roman persecutions because, unlike the others, it was not the policy of the state; rather, it was the indulgence of the evil whim of a perverse individual.
2 Rheims is the most faithful translation of the Vulgate of St. Jerome. It was originally rendered by holy English priests who were living martyrs, exiles from their native land on account of the intense persecution of the Faith in England during the 16th and 17th centuries. The New Testament was published at Rheims (1582) and the Old Testament at Douay (1609), both cities in France. In the middle of the 18th century, a holy English scholar, Bishop Richard Challoner (1691-1750) revised the Douay-Rheims version (1749-1750) remaining strictly faithful to St. Jerome’s Latin. And another holy priest and scholar, Father George Leo Haydock, using the same text as revised by Bishop Challoner, added marginal notes in great abundance, supplying the pious reader of the Bible with quotations from the Fathers and the Doctors of the Church, explaining, according to the mind of the Church, every difficult passage in the whole of Holy Scripture. This priceless edition which gives not merely the authentic Bible, but also the authentic interpretation of it, was put back in print by Catholic Treasures (Catholic Treasures, 626 Montana Street, Monrovia, CA 91016).