During his general audience on Nov. 14, Pope Benedict XVI offered some further reflections on St. Jerome, following up on his previous general audience. St. Jerome’s integration of the enduring values of classical civilization and the wisdom of God’s inspired word made him one of the great figures of the emerging Christian culture of late antiquity.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will continue our presentation on St. Jerome. As we said last Wednesday, he devoted his life to studying the Bible, so much so that one of my predecessors, Pope Benedict XV, acknowledged him as an “eminent doctor in the interpretation of sacred Scripture.”
Jerome emphasized the joy and the importance of familiarizing oneself with the texts of the Bible: “Don’t you feel that here on earth you are already living in the Kingdom of Heaven, as you dwell on these texts and meditate upon them, not knowing or seeking anything else?” (see Epistola 53, 10).
Truly, conversing with God and with his word is, in a sense, an experience of the presence of heaven, in other words, of God’s presence. Drawing close to the Bible — especially the New Testament — is essential for the believer because “ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” This quote from Jerome, which the Second Vatican Council quoted in the constitution entitled Dei Verbum (see 25), is legendary.
Scripture Shapes Our Lives
Truly “enamored” with the Word of God, Jerome wondered: “How could we live without knowledge of Scripture, through which we learn how to know Christ, who is the life of the believer?” (see Epistola 30, 7). Hence the Bible, the instrument “through which God speaks to the faithful every day” (see Epistola 133, 13), becomes the catalyst and the source of Christian life in every situation and for every person.
To read Scripture is to converse with God: “If you are praying,” he wrote to a young noblewoman from Rome, “you are speaking with the groom. If you are reading, it is he who is speaking to you” (see Epistola 22, 25).
Studying and meditating upon Scripture makes men wise and gives them peace (see In Eph., prologue). Of course, in order to penetrate the word of God more deeply, you need to constantly and progressively apply yourself to the task. This is what Jerome recommended to a priest named Nepotian: “Read sacred Scripture regularly and never lay down this holy book. Learn from it what you ought to teach” (see Epistola 52, 7).
To a Roman matron named Laeta, he gave the following advice for the Christian education of her daughter: “Make sure that she studies some passages from Scripture every day. ... Follow prayer with reading and reading with prayer. ... Instead of loving jewelry and silk garments, may she rather love the divine books” (see Epistola 107, 9, 12).
Through meditation and knowledge of Scripture, a person “maintains balance of the soul” (see Ad Eph., prologue). Only through a deep spirit of prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit are we able to begin to understand the Bible: “In order to interpret sacred Scripture, we always need the Holy Spirit’s help” (see In Mich. 1, 1, 10, 15).
Thus, all of Jerome’s life was pervaded with a passionate love for Scripture, a love that he always sought to awaken within the faithful.
“Love sacred Scripture and wisdom shall love you,” he recommended to one of his spiritual daughters. “Love it tenderly, and it will protect you. Honor it and you shall receive its caresses. May it mean as much to you as your necklaces and your earrings” (see Epistola 130, 20).
He also said the following: “Love knowledge of Scripture and you shall not love the vices of the flesh” (see Epistola 125, 11).
Importance of the Magisterium
For Jerome, a fundamental criterion in any method of interpreting Scripture was to be in tune with the magisterium of the Church. We cannot read Scripture on our own. We will encounter too many closed doors and we can easily slip into error.
The Bible was written by the people of God for the people of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is only when we are in communion with the people of God that we can truly enter “with our whole being” into the heart of the truth that God himself wishes to tell us.
For Jerome, any authentic interpretation of the Bible always had to be in harmonious agreement with the faith of the Catholic Church. This is not some requirement imposed from the outside. The book itself is the voice of the pilgrim people of God and it is only in the faith of these people that we find, in a sense, the right frame of mind to understand sacred Scripture.
For this reason, Jerome made the following warning: “Remain firmly attached to the traditional doctrine that has been taught to you, so that you can preach based on a healthy doctrine and refute those who contradict it” (see Epistola 52, 7).
In particular, he concluded, given that Jesus Christ founded his Church upon Peter, every Christian has to be in communion “with the chair of St. Peter. I know that on this stone the Church is built” (see Epistola 15,2).
Consequently, he declared in no uncertain terms: “I am with whoever is united to the chair of St. Peter” (see Epistola 16).
Word and Action
Jerome did not overlook those aspects where ethics are involved. He often recalled that it is our duty to live life in accordance with God’s word and that only by living it will we find the means of understanding it.
Such coherence is indispensable for all Christians, especially for preachers, so that their actions are not a source of embarrassment when they are in conflict with what they are saying.
Thus, he makes the following exhortation to Nepotian, the priest: “Let not your actions deny your words, so that when you preach in church a person won’t be able to say, ‘So why don’t you act that way?’ Indeed, a teacher who preaches about fasting on a fully belly can appear charming and even a thief can condemn greed, but when it is one of Christ’s priests, the mind and the word have to match” (see Epistola 52, 7).
In another letter, Jerome makes the following assertion: “Even if a person’s teaching is splendid, he will experience shame if he is condemned by his own conscience” (see Epistola 127, 4).
Elsewhere, on this theme of coherence, he observed that the Gospel has to be translated into an attitude of genuine charity because the person of Christ is present in every human being.
For example, when addressing Paulinus (who became bishop of Nola and then a saint), Jerome offered the following advice: “The true temple of Christ is the soul of the faithful: Adorn this sanctuary, embellish it, put your offerings in it and receive Christ. To what purpose do you adorn walls with precious stones, if Christ is dying of starvation in the person of the poor?” (see Epistola 58, 7).
Jerome expresses this in more concrete terms when he says we need “to clothe Christ in the poor, to visit him in the sick, to feed him in the hungry, and to shelter him in the homeless” (see Epistola 130, 14).
Our love for Christ, nourished with study and meditation, helps us overcome any difficulty: “Let us love Jesus Christ and always seek union with him. Then, all that is difficult will seem easy” (see Epistola 22, 40).
Jerome, whom Prosper of Aquitaine described as “a model of good conduct and a master of the human kind” (see Carmen de Ingratis, 57), also left us a rich and multifaceted teaching on Christian asceticism. He reminds us that a courageous commitment to the road towards perfection requires a constant alertness, frequent mortification (accompanied by moderation and prudence if needed), assiduous intellectual work or manual labor in order to avoid idleness (see Epp. 125, 11 and 130, 15), and, above all, obedience to God: “Nothing … pleases God as much as obedience ... which is the most excellent and outstanding virtue” (Homelia de oboedientia: CCL 78, 552).
The practice of pilgrimages can be part of this ascetic path. In particular, Jerome promoted pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where pilgrims were welcomed and housed in the buildings around his monastery in Bethlehem thanks to the generosity of a noblewoman named Paula, Jerome’s spiritual daughter (see Epistola 108, 14).
Jerome as Educator
Finally, we cannot remain silent on Jerome’s contribution to Christian education (see Epp. 107 and 128). He set as a goal the formation of “a soul that has to become the Lord’s temple” (see Epistola 107, 4), a “most precious gem” in the eyes of God (see Epistola 107, 13).
With deep insight, he advised that a soul protect itself from evil and from sinful occasions and avoid any compromising or wasteful friendships (see Epistola 107, 4 and 8-9; see also Epistola 128, 3-4).
Above all, he urges parents to create an environment of peace and joy around their children, to support them in their studies and in their work through praise and emulation (see Epp. 107, 4 and 128, 1), to encourage them in overcoming difficulties, to nurture good habits in them and to protect them from bad ones because — here he quotes a phrase that Publilius Syrus had heard as a schoolboy — “you will barely succeed in correcting those things that you are gradually getting used to” (see Epistola 107, 8).
Parents are the primary educators of their children — their first teachers in life. Addressing himself to the mother of a girl and then turning to the father, Jerome clearly warns them — as if to express a fundamental need of every human being who faces life — “May she find in you her teacher, and may her inexperienced childhood look at you with wonder. May she never see — neither in you nor in her father — any attitude that, if imitated, could lead her into sin. Remember that ... you can educate her more with your example than with your words” (see Epistola 107, 9).
Among Jerome’s main achievements as an educator we must highlight the importance he attributed to a healthy and complete education from early infancy, the special responsibility he attributed to parents, the urgency of a serious moral and religious education, and the need for study in order to achieve a more complete human formation.
Moreover, one aspect that was somewhat overlooked in ancient times but that Jerome considered vital was the promotion of the woman, whom he recognizes as having the right to a full education — human, academic, religious, and professional. Indeed, we can see today how the education of the person in his entirety — education in his responsibilities before God and before man — is the truly the basis that is needed for progress, peace, reconciliation and overcoming violence.
Education before God and before man: Sacred Scripture offers us the guidance of education and, therefore, of true humanism.
We cannot conclude these rapid notes on this great Father of the Church without mentioning the very effective contribution he made in safeguarding the positive and important elements of ancient Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures in Christian civilization as it emerged.
Jerome recognized and assimilated the artistic values and the rich feelings and harmonic images that were present in the classics, which educate the heart and the imagination in noble feelings.
Above all, he put God’s word at the center of his life and his work, a word that shows man the pathways of life and reveals to him the secrets of holiness.
Today, we cannot help but feel deeply grateful to Jerome for all this.