Father Mitch Pacwa’s homily for September 30th
Today is the feast of St. Jerome. One of my favorites because he is the Patron Saint of Scripture scholars. I also find great hope in him because even though he was really cranky, he still got to be a saint. He gives me hope.
His own life began in what is today–I am not even sure what country it is today, because the borders change–it used to be Yugoslavia. But I suspect that Dalmatia is the place where he was.
He came down to Rome to study when he was 13. Now this is a wealthy country boy who is now in the big city–a city already in decline; it was less and less important. It was the founder of the empire but Rome had to give way to both Constantinople and Milan because those two cities were more strategic for being able to control the empire. But Rome was this old city that still had the memories of the past glory and still beautiful buildings.
And he lived out the kind of decadence that had now permeated Rome. This was a city where in many ways the Romans had lost faith in being Roman. The empire was in its decline and it would not be but just over 100 years before the western empire came to an end. That is how close it is to the fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly the moral corruption was part of it and it was not only moral corruption, they also had lost even a love of their own Latin language.
One of the great ironies is that the persecutions had ended just 30 years or so, 35 years before Jerome was born. In his parents’ lifetime. And yet it was the Christians who preserved what was good in the Roman language and one of the reasons was Jerome. And then his younger contemporary Augustine. That they became the two best writers in Latin of the era. They love the language and they love the literature and St. Jerome studied the Aeneid, the great book to read sometime, even in translations. But most people of that time were watching plays that had so easily lost its intellect and lost its creativity that they were left with the easiest of all kinds of jokes, namely the dirty ones–those are the easiest and cheapest.
And that kind of decline in the culture was something that this 13 year-old, on his own in the big city, loved. He loved the language. He loved the Aeneid and Cicero and the other great writers, but he also loved the dancing girls of Rome. And he lived a very lascivious life. What he would do though, because his parents were Christians, but at this point the custom of not baptizing your sons, especially your sons had already begun. Traditionally, Christians had baptized their infants. But around 325 it began to stop. And we see a number of saints from the 300s who do not get baptized until they are adults. Why? Because their Christian parents followed the local practice that you could go to confession once in your life, so what you would do is get baptized after you get some of the sin out of your system and then after you have done that, in case you slip up you still have one confession card left. Now, the Irish monks were great because later on they let people know you could go to confession more than once, as most of us need to do. And so that would eventually change back to the tradition of baptizing babies, but it was not until the time of Constantine who himself delayed his own baptism until his death but because he had a whole bunch of sins he was planning to commit, and apparently did so. So that is how that became a custom.
But, still, having Christian parents, what he would do after a wild Saturday night, probably Friday night also, he would then go to the catacombs, and go into the catacombs, where the martyrs and the Apostles and popes were buried. And he liked getting scared out of his wits, it gave him a certain comfort. He felt the terrors of hell. And he felt better after he left. This is very odd, to be sure.
He needed to change. Eventually by the time he was 18, five years of that kind of messing around as a teenager, he realized he needed Christ. And so he was baptized. But, as so many people learned the hard way, you do not commit a lot of sin in your youth in order to get it out of your system. That is not what happens. What happens is you build up bad habits, they become ingrained. Ask an alcoholic or drug addict if they get drunk enough and then just get it out of your system and you are done. No! When you commit sin, as St. Paul teaches us in Romans 6, you become a slave of sin and the members of your body become slaves of sin by its repetition.
And he had to do a lot of penance as a result. He traveled a lot in his twenties and thirties and he did that, in part, to overcome the temptations, sometimes trying to get away from the warm weather of Rome, thinking it would cool his passions; he never found the place cold enough for that.
Even when he went to live as a hermit in the desert of Syria he still said living by himself in the cave, I could not get the dancing girls of Rome out of my mind. So then his penance was to study Hebrew. He would use the temptation as a personal signal to study Hebrew until it went away. I used to tell my students about this. And mentioned to them that as a result he became the greatest Hebrew scholar of the first 1500 years of the Church. It was not until the renaissance that he met his match. I would tell them, think about that in the dormitories. You could solve the energy crisis, global warming and world hunger if you follow the same principle there. It is a good one. And this all ended up being part of a larger providence.
St. Jerome lived out that truth that God does not make us holy because we know what he wants us to do. A very important principle. Knowing what God wants you to do does not make you holy. It is in learning to accept what is in life, what happens in life and finding his will in that that makes you holy.
St. Jerome was someone who knew he was very smart. He knew he had a fantastic education, one of the best of the era, and as he met different leaders of the Church like Paulinus, the patriarch of Antioch, who ordained him a priest, and he was able to help him later on in dealing with a schism by going to Pope Damasus, then meeting Pope Damasus and becoming his secretary. He became impressed with himself and he thought that I should be the next Pope. And that is what he figured on when, in 382, Pope Damasus died. But he also did not pay attention to how much he was hated especially by the other priests. They hated him. Because he was winning over a lot of the wealthy society people. Especially the society ladies; women whose families went back to the founding of Rome, ancient patrician families, extraordinarily wealthy; and he was calling them to live a life of asceticism and give up their wealth. And many of the clergy in Rome were so focused on living a good life and doing so often at the expense of the wealthy, that they were furious with him. And so, rather than being elected Pope like he thought because he thought I will be a natural, he was naturally kicked out of town.
So he went off to the holy land and this became the pilgrimage of his life. He went to the Holy Land and visited the places and then met a lot of other monks, especially in Egypt–brought some of these wealthy women from Rome to do the same–and eventually settled in Bethlehem and built a monastery and he lived in the cave where Jesus was born. In fact you can still see the room. He had an extra room cut into the rock, a whole room cut into the rock for himself–an extra staircase to go up and down.
The reason for that was he began to use that background in Hebrew and in Latin. What he had studied in order to overcome his temptations of lust now became the vocation. He did not plan on that. He was studying Hebrew as a penance but he became so good at it that it became the basis for him translating the Old Testament into Latin. And during his travels he studied Greek in the Greek world learning from people whose first language was Greek, not from teachers who learned it secondarily, and he corrected the Latin translation of the Bible. There was an old Latin translation but it was not very good. It was poorly done. It took him many years. By the time he died in 420 he had translated the whole Bible into Latin. That translation to this day is of such excellence that it is still the official translation of the Roman church, of the Latin rite of the Catholic Church. And this is one of the great things that he left us. That is why we here today about this reading from the 2nd letter of St. Paul to Timothy. “That you have known the Sacred Scriptures from infancy…” Then listen to why it is so important, “…which are capable of giving you wisdom, for salvation, through faith in Christ Jesus.” Because of our faith in Our Lord Jesus, our faith in his mercy, in his salvation, able to save somebody who had so many habits of sin to overcome, as Jerome did.
Someone who was as cranky, sometimes outright mean as he was. As well as intelligent. If you do not think I am saying what is correct, take a look at each St. Jerome’s letters to his former best friend Rufinus who became his number one enemy. He wrote meanly. And despite these character flaws that faith in Christ gave him wisdom for salvation. Not only could he translate the Scriptures but he could also apply the meaning when various heresies arose. Errors in the teaching of another scripture scholar, Origen, who taught falsely. And as a matter fact Origen was the one who came up with the idea that at the end of the world even Satan will repent and change. St. Jerome said, “no, that is contrary to the nature of the angels. They cannot repent. They are like concrete. Once it gets its shape and has its form, you cannot change its shape anymore.” And he corrected the Pelagians who taught that you could save yourself by your own efforts. And they were so mad at his correction that they burned down his monastery and killed one of the deacons.
It was not easy dealing with opposition within the Church. Whether from the heretics, from jealous people, people who wanted to live immoral lives when you wanted to repent, all of these variety of problems arose. And through it all he not only became a great scholar and one of the great doctors of the Church but he also became holy and worked hard on that. That is why we also read today all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, refutation and correction. That is how he used it. We live at a time when there is an attempt even by the government to bring about what Amos said in Chapter 8, in the prophecy of Amos, that there is a famine of the Word of God.
We live at a time–in my own lifetime, when Scripture was forbidden to be read in schools; prayer was forbidden. In 1982 the 10 Commandments were forbidden to be displayed in the public school. You cannot read “thou shalt not kill” in a public school–you cannot. Then we blame God, “why did God let people kill children in our schools,” when we will not let people even hear or see the words “thou shalt not kill”?
There is a famine of the Word of God as states are still shutting down the churches in some places. Forbidding people to sing hymns to Our Lord. In Michigan and other places. So in the face of this attempt to force a political famine of the Word of God we learn from St. Jerome to cherish the Word of God all the more, to read it all the more, to study it so that we also will find the wisdom for salvation in Scripture that comes from reading it.
Transcript provided by WQPH