As part of his General Audience series on the Greek and Latin Church Fathers, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke twice about St. Jerome, whose feast is today:
What can we learn from St Jerome? It seems to me, this above all; to love the Word of God in Sacred Scripture. St Jerome said: “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ”. It is therefore important that every Christian live in contact and in personal dialogue with the Word of God given to us in Sacred Scripture. This dialogue with Scripture must always have two dimensions: on the one hand, it must be a truly personal dialogue because God speaks with each one of us through Sacred Scripture and it has a message for each one. We must not read Sacred Scripture as a word of the past but as the Word of God that is also addressed to us, and we must try to understand what it is that the Lord wants to tell us. However, to avoid falling into individualism, we must bear in mind that the Word of God has been given to us precisely in order to build communion and to join forces in the truth on our journey towards God. Thus, although it is always a personal Word, it is also a Word that builds community, that builds the Church. We must therefore read it in communion with the living Church. The privileged place for reading and listening to the Word of God is the liturgy, in which, celebrating the Word and making Christ’s Body present in the Sacrament, we actualize the Word in our lives and make it present among us. We must never forget that the Word of God transcends time. Human opinions come and go. What is very modern today will be very antiquated tomorrow. On the other hand, the Word of God is the Word of eternal life, it bears within it eternity and is valid for ever. By carrying the Word of God within us, we therefore carry within us eternity, eternal life.
For Jerome, a fundamental criterion of the method for interpreting the Scriptures was harmony with the Church’s Magisterium. We should never read Scripture alone because we meet too many closed doors and could easily slip into error. The Bible has been written by the People of God and for the People of God under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God do we truly enter into the “we”, into the nucleus of the truth that God himself wants to tell us. For him, an authentic interpretation of the Bible must always be in harmonious accord with the faith of the Catholic Church. It is not a question of an exegesis imposed on this Book from without; the Book is really the voice of the pilgrim People of God and only in the faith of this People are we “correctly attuned” to understand Sacred Scripture. Therefore, Jerome admonishes: “Remain firmly attached to the traditional doctrine that you have been taught, so that you can preach according to right doctrine and refute those who contradict it” (Ep. 52, 7). In particular, given that Jesus Christ founded his Church on Peter, every Christian, he concludes, must be in communion “with St Peter’s See. I know that on this rock the Church is built” (Ep. 15, 2). Consequently, without equivocation, he declared: “I am with whoever is united to the teaching of St Peter” (Ep. 16).
Obviously, Jerome does not neglect the ethical aspect. Indeed, he often recalls the duty to harmonize one’s life with the divine Word, and only by living it does one also find the capacity to understand it. This consistency is indispensable for every Christian, and particularly for the preacher, so that his actions may never contradict his discourses nor be an embarrassment to him. Thus, he exhorts the priest Nepotian: “May your actions never be unworthy of your words, may it not happen that, when you preach in church, someone might say to himself: “Why does he therefore not act like this?’. How could a teacher, on a full stomach, discuss fasting; even a thief can blame avarice; but in the priest of Christ the mind and words must harmonize” (Ep. 52, 7). In another Epistle Jerome repeats: “Even if we possess a splendid doctrine, the person who feels condemned by his own conscience remains disgraced” (Ep. 127, 4). Also on the theme of consistency he observes: the Gospel must translate into truly charitable behaviour, because in each human being the Person of Christ himself is present. For example, addressing the presbyter Paulinus (who then became Bishop of Nola and a Saint), Jerome counsels: “The true temple of Christ is the soul of the faithful: adorn it and beautify this shrine, place your offerings in it and receive Christ. What is the use of decorating the walls with precious stones if Christ dies of hunger in the person of the poor?” (Ep. 58, 7). Jerome concretizes the need “to clothe Christ in the poor, to visit him in the suffering, to nourish him in the hungry, to house him in the homeless” (Ep. 130, 14). The love of Christ, nourished with study and meditation, makes us rise above every difficulty: “Let us also love Jesus Christ, always seeking union with him: then even what is difficult will seem easy to us” (Ep. 22, 40).
Prosper of Aquitaine, who defined Jerome as a “model of conduct and teacher of the human race” (Carmen de ingratis, 57), also left us a rich and varied teaching on Christian asceticism. He reminds us that a courageous commitment towards perfection requires constant vigilance, frequent mortifications, even if with moderation and prudence, and assiduous intellectual and manual labour to avoid idleness (cf. Epp. 125, 11; 130, 15), and above all obedience to God: “Nothing… pleases God as much as obedience…, which is the most excellent and sole virtue” (Hom. de Oboedientia: CCL 78, 552). The practice of pilgrimage can also be part of the ascetical journey. In particular, Jerome promoted pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where pilgrims were welcomed and housed in the lodgings that were built next to the monastery of Bethlehem, thanks to the generosity of the noblewoman Paula, a spiritual daughter of Jerome (cf. Ep. 108, 14).
Lastly, one cannot remain silent about the importance that Jerome gave to the matter of Christian pedagogy (cf. Epp. 107; 128). He proposed to form “one soul that must become the temple of the Lord” (Ep. 107, 4), a “very precious gem” in the eyes of God (Ep. 107, 13). With profound intuition he advises to preserve oneself from evil and from the occasions of sin, and to exclude equivocal or dissipating friendships (cf. Ep. 107, 4, 8-9; also Ep. 128, 3-4). Above all, he exhorts parents to create a serene and joyful environment around their children, to stimulate them to study and work also through praise and emulation (cf. Epp.107, 4; 128, 1), encouraging them to overcome difficulties, foster good habits and avoid picking up bad habits, so that, and here he cites a phrase of Publius Siro which he heard at school: “it will be difficult for you to correct those things to which you are quietly habituating yourself” (Ep. 107, 8). Parents are the principal educators of their children, the first teachers of life. With great clarity Jerome, addressing a young girl’s mother and then mentioning her father, admonishes, almost expressing a fundamental duty of every human creature who comes into existence: “May she find in you her teacher, and may she look to you with the inexperienced wonder of childhood. Neither in you, nor in her father should she ever see behaviour that could lead to sin, as it could be copied. Remember that… you can educate her more by example than with words” (Ep. 107, 9). Among Jerome’s principal intuitions as a pedagogue, one must emphasize the importance he attributed to a healthy and integral education beginning from early childhood, the particular responsibility belonging to parents, the urgency of a serious moral and religious formation and the duty to study for a more complete human formation. Moreover, an aspect rather disregarded in ancient times but held vital by our author is the promotion of the woman, to whom he recognizes the right to a complete formation: human, scholastic, religious, professional. We see precisely today how the education of the personality in its totality, the education to responsibility before God and man, is the true condition of all progress, all peace, all reconciliation and the exclusion of violence. Education before God and man: it is Sacred Scripture that offers us the guide for education and thus of true humanism.
And why is a lion one of Jerome’s attributes in art?
St. Jerome was quite a popular subject for artists – the inherent drama of his situation – out there in the wilderness, surrounded by his texts, translating and writing – was quite attractive to artists.
And what of that lion? The imagery is rooted in early medieval hagiography which told a story – inspired most assume by Aesop, but others draw connections to nother saint, >Gerasimus, whose legend includes a similar tale. The story is of a lion, rescued from a wound by Jerome, who is brought into the monastery to watch and protect the monks’ donkey. One day, the donkey is lost, and the monks (not Jerome) assume the lion has killed him, and punish him with menial tasks as a consequence.
The donkey, however, had been stolen by traders, and one evening the lion sees the donkey, returning with the traders, and he alerts the monastery. The monks, so quick to rush to judgment, are chastised by Jerome, and the lion lives out his days, faithful to his friend.
There are at least two versions of this story retold for children. The more contemporary version was written by Margaret Hodges, who has quite a few saints’ books under her belt, and illustrated by Barry Moser.
Then there’s the Rumer Godden version which is a little longer than the modern telling, and is of course, by Rumer Godden.