St Jerome, whose memoria we keep today, was, after St Augustine, the most voluminous writer of Christian Antiquity. Today he is remembered for many things: his translation of the scriptures into Latin (the Vulgate); his embrace of the monastic life in Bethlehem and elsewhere, including Gaza and Syria; his friendships with women, especially Marcella, Paula and Eustochium; his rather prickly temper; a host of treatises on theology and history, the practice of the ascetic life, ecclesiastical controversies and a wonderful collection of letters, to name just a few. Martin Luther’s disdain has done his reputation no harm. However, I think it fair to say that more people refer to Jerome than actually read him; and those who do read him tend to do so in order to throw light on subjects that interest them more than they appear to have interested Jerome himself.
For example, I think the clue to understanding Jerome is his zeal for the ascetic life. He was repulsed by the laxity he saw all around him. Not for him the idea that ‘love is all you need’ without any qualification. Indeed, his understanding of the need for self-discipline in order to be truly loving sometimes led his followers to overstate the case. The death of the young Blaesilla, just four months after adopting the ascetic practices he recommended, stirred up the fury of the Roman mob, but what has never sufficiently been explained, to my mind, is how the rough, tough, curmudgeon of popular fiction could inspire such trust and devotion in the first place. He made people want to lead better lives; he made them want to know the Lord; and he was hard on himself before he was hard on others. True, his writing shows he could deliver a tongue-lashing, but one never gets the sense that he was out of control. With Jerome it is rather a case of ‘zeal for the Lord of hosts consumes me.’ Very few of us can lay claim to such pure-hearted zeal.
One of the big questions facing the Church today is how we hold in tension what Pope Francis has aptly described as the healing mission of the Church — the proclamation of love and mercy — with its teaching mission — which says that in order to be a Christian one does indeed have to live by certain standards, and they can be tough, involving self-renunciation and discipline. It is easy to get hold of the love and mercy bit; much harder to see that self-restraint is necessary if one is to be loving and merciful. It is no accident that Jerome wrote terrifyingly of hell. Sometimes, one needs the shadow to appreciate the sunlight. Perhaps today we could ask his prayers to enable us to see how we need to change our lives to become better disciples. And one more detail I find telling. Jerome could have translated the scriptures from the Septuagint (Greek version) alone but he put himself to the trouble of learning Hebrew as an adult so that he could read the Hebrew versions as well. That is not just the scholar at work, anxious to use every means at his disposal to ascertain truth; that is the man who loves God so ardently that he is driven to find out all he can about Truth himself and is prepared to make every effort to do so. I wonder how many of us measure up to that?