General Audience November 7, 2007
Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Jerome during his general audience on Nov. 7. St. Jerome was responsible for the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible that is still used by the Church today. As St. Jerome urged St. Paulinus of Nola, “Let us seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today we will focus our attention on St. Jerome, a Father of the Church who put the Bible at the center of his life. He translated it into Latin, commented on it in his writings, and above all, was committed to living it out concretely during his long life here on earth, even though, as is well known, he was by nature difficult and impetuous.
Jerome was born in Stridon around the year 347 to a Christian family that made sure he had a proper education and even sent him to Rome to complete his studies. As a young man, he felt the attraction of a worldly lifestyle (see Epistola 22, 7), but his desire for and interest in Christianity prevailed.
After his baptism around the year 366, he felt drawn to a life of asceticism and, upon moving to Aquileia, he joined a group of fervent Christians, which he described as a type of “choir of the blessed” (see Chron. ad ann., 374) that gathered around the bishop Valerian.
Later, he left for the East and lived as a hermit in the desert of Chalcis, south of Aleppo (see Epistola 14, 10), seriously dedicating himself to his studies. He perfected his knowledge of Greek, began to study Hebrew (see Epistola 125, 12), and transcribed codices and patristic works (see Epistola 5, 2).
Meditation, solitude and contact with the word of God matured his Christian sensibilities. His youthful transgressions weighed heavily upon him (see Epistola 22, 7) and he became keenly aware of the contrast between the pagan mentality and Christian life — a contrast that was made famous by the dramatic and vivid “vision” that he described for us.
In this vision, he felt as though he was being scourged in God’s presence because he was a “Ciceronian and not a Christian” (see Epistola 22, 30).
In 382, Jerome moved to Rome. There, Pope Damasus, recognizing his renown as an ascetic and his competence as a scholar, took him on as his secretary and adviser. For pastoral and cultural reasons, he encouraged Jerome to undertake a new translation into Latin of the texts of the Bible.
Some members of the Roman aristocracy, especially noblewomen like Paola, Marcella, Asella and Lea among others, who wanted to make a commitment to grow in Christian perfection and deepen their knowledge of the Word of God, chose him to be their spiritual director and as their teacher in a methodical approach to reading the sacred texts. These women also learned Greek and Hebrew.
In 385, after the death of Pope Damasus, Jerome left Rome and undertook a pilgrimage, first to the Holy Land — a silent witness to Christ’s life on earth — and then to Egypt, a place where many monks chose to live (see Contra Rufinum, 3,22; Epistola 108,6-14).
In 386, he settled in Bethlehem, where, thanks to the generosity of the noblewoman Paola, a monastery for men and another monastery for women were built, as well as a hospice for pilgrims who traveled to the Holy Land, “remembering that Mary and Joseph had found no place to stay” (see Epistola 108,14).
He remained in Bethlehem until his death, carrying on his prolific work. He wrote commentaries on the Word of God, defended the faith by vigorously opposing various heresies, exhorted monks to a life of perfection, taught classical and Christian culture to young pupils, and welcomed pilgrims to the Holy Land with the soul of a pastor.
He died in his cell near the Grotto of the Nativity on Sept. 30 in 419 or 420.
Jerome’s literary formation and vast erudition enabled him to revise and translate many biblical texts, which was an invaluable service for the Latin Church and for Western culture.
Using the original texts in Greek and Hebrew as a basis and comparing them to earlier translations, he updated the Latin translation of the four Gospels, which was followed by the Book of Psalms and a good portion of the Old Testament.
Taking into account the original Hebrew and Greek texts, the Septuagint, the classic Greek translation of the Old Testament dating back to pre-Christian times, and earlier Latin translations, Jerome, with the support of some other collaborators, was able to offer a better translation. This is what we call the “Vulgate.”
It was considered the “official” text of the Latin Church and was recognized as such by the Council of Trent. After the recent revision, it remains the “official” text of the Church in the Latin language.
It is interesting to highlight the criteria that this great Bible scholar used in his work as a translator.
He revealed them himself when he stated that he respected even the order of words in sacred Scripture, because, he said, “the order of the words is also a mystery” — in other words, a revelation. He also reiterated the need to go back to the original texts: “Whenever a question is raised among the Latins regarding the New Testament due to discordant readings of the manuscripts, we must turn to the original, that is, the Greek text in which the New Testament was first written. Likewise, if there are divergences between the Greek and Latin texts of the Old Testament, let us appeal to the original text in Hebrew. In this way, all that flows from the spring, we can recover in the streams” (see Epistola 106, 2).
Jerome also commented on many biblical texts. He felt commentaries should offer multiple opinions so that “the astute reader, after reading different explanations and getting to know different opinions — whether accepting them or rejecting them — might judge which one is most reliable, and like a currency expert, reject the counterfeit” (see Contra Rufinum 1,16).
Champion of Christian Culture
Jerome energetically and vigorously refuted heretics who attacked the tradition and faith of the Church. He also demonstrated the validity and importance of Christian literature, which had by then truly become a culture in its own right, worthy to contend with classical literature. He did this by writing De Viris Illustribus (On Illustrious Men), a work in which he presented the biographies of more than a hundred Christian authors.
He also wrote biographies of monks, describing the monastic ideal along with other spiritual paths. Moreover, he translated various works by Greek authors. Finally, in his important collection of Letters, a masterpiece of Latin literature, Jerome emerges as a man of culture, an ascetic and a spiritual guide for souls.
What can we learn from St. Jerome? I feel it is, above all, this: to love the word of God in sacred Scripture.
St. Jerome said that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” That is why it is important that every Christian live in personal contact and dialogue with the word of God that has been given to us in sacred Scripture.
This dialogue of ours with the word of God should always have two dimensions. On the one hand, it should be truly personal because God speaks to each of us through sacred Scripture and has a message for each of us. We should not read sacred Scripture as a word from the past, but rather as the word of God addressed also to us, and we must try to understand what the Lord wishes to tell us.
However, in order not to fall prey to individualism, we must also keep in mind that the word of God has been given to us to build communion — to unite us in the truth on our journey to God. Therefore, despite the fact that it is always a personal word, it is also a word that builds community and that builds up the Church. Therefore, we should read it in communion with the living Church.
The privileged place for reading and listening to the Word of God is the liturgy where, in celebrating the word and making the body of Christ present in the sacrament, we make this word contemporary with our life and make it present among us.
We should never forget that the Word of God transcends time. Human opinions come and go. What is really modern today will be really old tomorrow. But the Word of God is the word of eternal life and carries eternity within, which is valid forever. Carrying within ourselves the Word of God, we also carry the eternal within us — eternal life.
And so I would like to conclude with words of St. Jerome to St. Paulinus of Nola, in which the great exegete expressed this reality — that in the word of God we receive eternity, life eternal.
St. Jerome said: “Let us seek to learn on earth those truths which will remain ever valid in heaven” (Epistola 53, 10).