"I know not Vitalis, I reject Meletius, I pass by Paulinus; he that cleaveth to the Chair of Peter, he is mine." Thus, about the year 376, when the whole East was disturbed by the competitions for the episcopal See of Antioch, wrote an unknown monk to Pope St. Damasus. It was St. Jerome, a native of Dalmatia, who implored "light for his soul redeemed by the Blood of Our Lord."
Far from Stridonium, his semi-barbarous native place, whose austerity and vigor he never lost; far from Rome, where the study of literature and philosophy had not had sufficient ascendancy to withhold him from the seductions of pleasure; the fear of God's judgments had led him into the desert of Chalcis. There, under a burning sky, in the company of wild beasts, he for four years tormented his body with fearful macerations; and then, as a yet more efficacious remedy, and certainly a more meritorious mortification for one passionately fond of classical treatises, he sacrificed his ciceronian tastes to the study of the Hebrew language. Such an undertaking was far more laborious then than in our days of lexicons and grammars and scientific works of every description. Many a time was Jerome discouraged and almost in despair. But he had learnt the truth of the maxim he afterwards inculcated to others: "Love the science of the Scriptures, and you will not love the vices of the flesh." So he took up his Hebrew alphabet again, and continued to spell those "hissing and panting syllables" until he had so mastered them as even to spoil his pronunciation of Latin. For the rest of his life, all the energy of his spirited nature was spent upon this labor.
God amply repaid the homage thus rendered to His Sacred Word: Jerome hoped to obtain by his toil the cure of his moral sickness; in addition to this, he also attained the lofty holiness that we now admire in him. Other heroes of the desert remain unknown; Jerome was one of those to whom it is said: "You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world"; and God willed that in due time this light should be set upon a candlestick that it might shine to all that are in the house (Matt. 5:13-15).
The once brilliant student returned to Rome an altered man; for his holiness, learning, and humility, he was declared by all to be worthy of the episcopal dignity. Pope St. Damasus, the virgin Doctor of the virgin Church, commissioned him to answer, in his name, the consultations sent from East and West; and caused him to begin, by the revision of the Latin New Testament upon the original Greek text, those great scriptural works, which have immortalized his name and entitled him to the undying gratitude of the Christian world. Meanwhile Helvidius dared to call into question the perpetual virginity of the Immaculate Mother of God: Jerome's refutation revealed that talent for polemics, of which Jovinian, Vigilantius, Pelagian, and other reprobate heretics were also to feel the force. Mary rewarded him for thus avenging Her honor, by bringing to him a number of holy souls, whom he was to lead in the paths of virtue, and instruct in the mysteries of Holy Scripture.
Here was a phenomenon inexplicable to the infidel historian: at the very time when the Rome of the Caesars was perishing, suddenly around this Dalmatian were gathered the fairest names of ancient Rome. They were thought to have died out, when the lower classes made themselves supreme; but at the critical moment, when Rome was to rise again purified by the flames kindled by the Barbarians, they reappeared to claim their birthright, and refound the city for its true eternal destiny. The combat was of a new kind; but they were at the head of an army that was to save the world. Four centuries earlier, the Apostle had said there were not many wise, and powerful, and noble; Jerome declared that in his day they were numerous-numerous among the monks.
The monastic army in the West was, at its origin, chiefly recruited from the patricians, whose character of ancient grandeur it ever afterwards retained; its ranks included noble virgins and widows; and sometimes husband and wife would enlist together. Marcella was the first to inaugurate the monastic life at Rome, in her palace on the Aventine. She obtained St. Jerome's direction for her privileged community; but after his departure, she was consulted by all, as an oracle, on the difficulties of Holy Scripture. She was joined in her retreat by Furia, Fabiola, and Paula, worthy descendants of Camillus, the Fabii, and the Scipios. But the old enemy could ill brook such losses to his power; Jerome must be forced to leave Rome.
A pretext was soon found for raising a storm. The Treatise on Virginity, addressed to St. Paula's daughter Eustochium, and written in St. Jerome's fearless and pointed style, evoked the animosity of false monks, foolish virgins, and unworthy clerics. In vain did the prudent Marcella predict the tempest; Jerome would make bold to write what others dared to practice. But he had not reckoned on the death of Pope St. Damasus at that very juncture, an event for which the ignorant and the envious had been waiting, in order to give full vent to their stifled hatred. Driven away by the storm, the lover of justice returned to the desert; not this time to Chalcis, but to the peaceful Bethlehem, whither the sweet recollections of Our Savior's infancy attracted the strong athlete. Paula and her daughter soon followed him, in order not to forego the lessons they prized above all else in the world; their presence was a consolation to him in his exile, and an encouragement to continue his labors. All honor to these valiant women! To their fidelity, their thirst for knowledge, their pious importunities, the world is indebted for a priceless treasure, viz.-the authentic translation of the Sacred Books, which was necessitated by the imperfections in the old Italic Version and its numberless variations, as also by the fact that the Jews were accusing the Church of falsifying the Scriptures.
Every book he translated brought upon him fresh criticisms, and those not only from enemies. There were the timid, who were alarmed for the authority of the Septuagint (the Greek text of the Old Testament), so sacred both to the Synagogue and to the Church; there were the possessors of precious manuscripts, written on purple vellum and adorned with splendid uncials, and with letters of silver and gold, all which would now lose their value. "Well, let them keep their precious metal, and leave us our poor papers," cried an exasperated Jerome. "And yet, it is you," he said to the fair inspirers of his works, "who force me to endure all this folly and all these injuries; to put an end to the evil, it were better you enjoined silence on me." But neither the mother nor the daughter would hear of such a thing, and Jerome yielded to constraint. Finding that the text of his first revision of the Psalter upon the Greek Septuagint had become corrupted through careless transcriptions, they induced him to undertake a second. This version is inserted into our present Vulgate (the official Latin text of the Bible), together with this translation of most of the other Books of the Old Testament from Hebrew or Chaldaic. In all these works the Saint appealed to Paula and Eustochium as guarantees of his exactitude, and begged them to collate his translations word for word with the original.
There was great joy in the monasteries at Bethlehem when news arrived that another Paula was born in Rome. Eustochium's brother had married Laeta, the Christian daughter of the pagan priest Albinus. They had vowed their child to God before her birth; and now they rejoiced to hear her lisp into the ear of the priest of Jupiter the Christian Alleluia. On hearing of her grandmother beyond the seas, and of her aunt consecrated to God, the little one would beg to go and join them. "Send her," wrote Jerome delightedly, "I will be her master and foster-father; I will carry her on my old shoulders; I will help her lisping lips to form her words; and I shall be prouder then Aristotle; for he indeed educated a king of Macedon, but I shall be preparing for Christ a handmaid, a bride, a queen predestined to a throne in Heaven." The child was, in fact, sent to Bethlehem, where she was destined to solace the last hours of the aged Saint, and to assume, while yet very young, the responsibility of carrying on the work of her holy relatives.
But Jerome had still more to suffer, before leaving this world. The elder Paula was the first to be called away, singing: "I have chosen to be an abject in the house of my God, rather than to dwell in the tabernacles of sinners" (Ps. 83:11). So great a languor then took possession of St. Jerome, that it seemed his end was approaching. Eustochium, though broken-hearted, repressed her tears, and implored him to live and fulfill his promises to her mother. He therefore aroused himself, finished his translations, and took up again his commentaries on the text. He had completed Isaias, and was engaged upon Ezechiel, when the most awful calamity of those times came upon the world. Referring to the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410, he wrote: "Rome is fallen; the light of the Earth is extinguished; in that one city the whole universe has perished. What can we do, but hold our peace and pray for the dead?"
He had, however, to think about the living also, for numberless fugitives, destitute of all things, made their way to the holy places; and the uncompromising wrestler was all tenderness to these unfortunates. Loving the practice of the Holy Scriptures no less than its teaching, he spent his days in discharging the duties of hospitality. In spite of his failing sight, he gave the night hours to his dear studies, wherein he forgot the troubles of the day, and rejoiced to fulfill the desires of the spiritual daughter God had given him. The prefaces to his fourteen books on Ezechiel bear witness to the share taken by the virgin of Christ in this work undertaken despite the misfortunes of the times, his own infirmities, and his last controversies with heretics.
Heresy seemed indeed to be profiting by the new troubled state of the world, to rise up with renewed audacity. The Pelagians, supported by bishop John of Jerusalem, assembled one night with torches and swords, and set fire to the monastery of St. Jerome, and to that of the sacred virgins then governed by Eustochium. Manfully seconded by her niece Paula the younger, the saint rallied her terrified daughters, and they escaped together through the midst of the flames. But the anxiety of that terrible night was too much for her already exhausted strength. Jerome laid her to rest beside her mother, near the crib of the Infant God; and leaving his commentary on Jeremias unfinished, he prepared himself to die (September 30, 420). His body was buried at Bethlehem; but was afterwards translated to Rome and laid in the basilica of St. Mary ad Praesepe (St. Mary Major).
Thou dost complete, O illustrious Saint, the brilliant array of doctors in the heavens of holy Church. O model of penance, teach us that holy fear, which restrains from sin, or repairs its ravages; guide us along the rugged path of expiation. Scourge of heretics, attach us firmly to the Catholic Faith. Watchful guardian of Christ's flock, protect us against wolves, and preserve us from hirelings. Avenger of Mary's honor, obtain for our sinful world that the angelic virtue may flourish more and more.
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