What Does a Saint Look Like Anyway? Lessons from St. Jerome

John Kubasak

What Does a Saint Look Like Anyway? Lessons from St. Jerome

St. Jerome was one of the great Fathers of the Church who garners the most fame from his work as a Scripture scholar.  Some scholars place Jerome being born in 331 (J.N.D. Kelly, Jerome pg. 337-339) while others put it a decade later.  He was born in Dalmatia, a Roman province that covered modern-day Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia on the southern end and the northeast corner of Italy on the northern end.  

Jerome was born to a Christian family, although the family had a tepid devotion.  He had a brilliant mind well-suited to rhetoric and oratory.  As a young man, Jerome reflected both the attraction to the Christian faith but also the slow path to conversion.  On one hand, he enjoyed visiting the catacombs on Sundays; on the other hand, he delayed baptism until he was about 20 years old (Pernoud, Saint Jerome 24-26).  After a trip to Gaul (modern-day France), however, Jerome and one of his close friends decided to eschew the secular life and become monks (Ibid, pg. 32).  

St. Jerome is most famous for his ascetical life and his work translating the entire Bible into Latin.  He gathered prior translations in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin and compiled them into a single edition: the Latin Vulgate.  In addition to translating the Bible, he also translated the works of the Church Fathers, plus authoring numerous biblical commentaries.  He died in Bethlehem in 420. 

Historical Setting & Heresies Galore

We need to go back 1,700 years to the days of the Roman Empire.  By the time Jerome was born, Christianity had been a licit religion for almost twenty years (from Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313).  The First Council of Nicea was a mere six years prior to his birth.  Christianity still wrestled with the heresy of Arianism that denied the divinity of Christ.  And that was not the only heresy tearing at the Body of Christ.  Donatism seemed entrenched in North Africa and withheld reentry into the Church after serious sin.  Pelagius spread his heretical views on sin and the lack of a need for grace—that we could essentially earn our way into heaven. 

In other words, Jerome lived in a time similar to ours today: for all the devotees and self-proclaimed followers of Christianity, there were a lot of confusing and differing opinions on Who Jesus Christ actually was.  Regarding Our Lord and Savior, if we do not “get Him right” and understand Him as He revealed Himself to us, that is no harmless mistake.  And there is no nobility in a diversity of opinions in this matter.  Who Jesus is affects every other area of the faith: the nature of the human person, the moral life, sin, grace, authority in the Church, and most importantly, our eternal salvation.  As a piece of evidence, in 374, just after Jerome left Antioch, there were four so-called bishops of Antioch.  An Arian, a suspected Arian, one who held the orthodox (i.e. correct teaching) Christian teaching on Christ, and a fourth all claimed to be the rightful bishop of Antioch (Pernoud pg. 44).

Translating the Bible

The question of the person of Christ as shown in multiple heresies was not the only confusion at the time.  The Holy Scriptures also needed cleaning up on the human end of things.  St. Jerome’s great work of his career was translating the entire Bible, put on the job by Pope St. Damasus I in 382.  This was a very practical concern as multiple versions of the Scriptures existed.  For centuries, Christians had used the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint).  The original language was, of course, Hebrew.  And while the New Testament was originally written in Greek, it was translated into Latin in the 2nd Century.  Over the years, numerous versions, translators, and varying degrees of accuracy resulted in some diverse biblical translations; not to mention the changes in the Latin language and Christian usage over the previous century.  It was the task of Jerome to write down, in Latin, the most accurate translation of the Scriptures (Kelly pg. 86-90).  

In her brief biography of the saint, historian Regine Pernoud noted the poetic mind of St. Jerome.  For a moment, leave behind the curmudgeon and think of someone who wrote constantly.  Writing the biography of St. Paul the First Hermit from what were previously oral traditions: “Jerome constructed a wonderful story... in doing so, he has shown us one of the essential traits of his personality, one of the richest of all time.  Often we think of Jerome the ascetic, the scholar, the exegete, let us not forget Jerome the poet” (Pernoud, pg. 7).

What Does a Saint Look Like, Anyway?

The cloud of witnesses in heaven have saints of every kind: the famous and the unknown; scholars, laborers, nuns, priests, lay men and women, doctors.  Although Jerome was primarily a scripture scholar, he was not terribly liked by either by his heretical opponents or those on his own side.  To get a glimpse of why St. Jerome did not strike affection in the hearts of all churchmen, take a look at the opening paragraph from his tract refuting Helvidius, who took aim at the orthodox position on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

St. Jerome is a good case study on what makes a saint.  For those in the modern day that look at sainthood/sanctity as unattainable, Jerome is but one of many examples.  He does not fit a standard saintly mold that we are accustomed to: religious only, martyr recommended but optional, apparitions of the Blessed Virgin required, apparitions of Jesus a bonus, and so on.  

Sometimes it is tempting to look at that supposed saintly mold, look at ourselves, and wonder if heaven is even within reach.  We confuse the incredible difficulty of sanctity with impossibility.  We will be judged by our “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6).  Like Jerome, our efforts toward conversion will be rewarded when the Holy Spirit opens our hearts: 

“The Gospel lived heroically, as it had been at first, was for Jerome a revelation. In these surroundings, at once ardent and learned, he found complete satisfaction both for his studious tastes and his zeal as a new convert.” (Pernoud,pg. 33)

Mystical Humanity of Christ

Cora Evans’ mystical experiences led her to reflect much on the mystical humanity of Christ.  And the individual nature of holiness—while sharing a foundation in the Scriptures and the deposit of faith—also leads us in this direction.  The Lord did not ask Jerome to be anyone else but himself.  We loan our hands and feet to Jesus; our intellects too, and every other part of our life.  It looks different from person to person and it requires constant conversion.  So good news, there are no molds to fit into or saintly resume qualifications.

All we need is to live a life of “faith working through love” in our daily lives.  Easy to say and hard to do.  But with grace, this is not impossible nor beyond our reach!  

The most famous saying of St. Jerome is, “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”  I think he has a better one in one of his letters:

“Love the holy scriptures, and wisdom will love you. Love wisdom, and it will keep you safe.  Honor wisdom, and it will embrace you round about.” (Letter 130 to Demetrias, #20).

St. Jerome, pray for us!