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St. Jerome Roars in Latin

Though he is a saint, Jerome was also a man—and saints who were more human than angelic are sometimes the best ones to emulate

Latin may be a dead language, but it lives on as the language of the Roman Catholic Church. That living on can be attributed in large part to the life of one who had the fearlessness and the ferocity to tackle the most consequential linguistic challenge in all of humanity’s history. Long ago, there lived a man of God who was a veritable lion for courage and whose den was the ancient scriptorium. This was St. Jerome, who filled all of Christendom with his roaring—and he roared in Latin.

In her first few hundred years, the Church succeeded in launching from the East but failed to bring her language to her new children. By 380, Greek was “all Greek” to the Western world, and the few Latin translations that existed of the Bible were about as rough and ready as a schoolboy’s scrip. So, under Pope Damasus (c. 304-384), the Catholic liturgy was translated into Latin, the language of the people—but to complete the project, a solid translation of the Gospels was required.

It was then that an ingenious, irascible Italian monk returned to Rome from the Holy Land, where he had been mastering Hebrew. The pope came to meet the shabby linguist with the sharp tongue and, taking a liking to him, appointed Jerome as his personal secretary. Pope Damasus soon gave Jerome the task of translating the Gospels to Latin for the Christian West.

Jerome firmed his jaw and set to the task with vigor, though he longed for the prayerful solitude of a hermitage. The teeming life of Rome was too much for Jerome’s God-given measure of charity, which was often on the shorter side. But even as he spurned and sparred with those around him, the Vulgate flowed from his pen—that pen that scratched and stabbed like a lion’s claw—to the page to help all men get to heaven.

For all his impatience and impertinence, Jerome was also a man of good deeds and an inexhaustible work ethic. He was just not a man of good humor. He was a man of discipline, but not a man of tolerance. He was quick-tempered, cantankerous, and confrontational, and his reputation always preceded him for both good and ill—but more for ill than good, it often seemed.

Pagans hated him for his bristling condemnations, like “it is idle to play the lyre for an ass.” Heretics hated him for his erudite put-downs, such as, “it is worse to be ignorant of your ignorance.” Christians hated him for his barbed disposition, from which he said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” And all the while, Jerome growled in response, “I thank God I am deemed worthy to be hated by the world.”

When Pope Damasus died, rumors rumbled that Jerome would be his successor. But his enemies rippled the Roman waters with their own rumors about Jerome having unsavory dealings with the holy women he communed with spiritually in the first convent of Rome, most notably St. Paula. Jerome was run out of Rome by these slanders and fled to Bethlehem to live a life of strict asceticism and prayer. In a cave near the birthplace of Christ, Jerome translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin, completing his great work, and gave Sacred Scripture to the Latin-speaking people of God in the vernacular.

Pious legend has given Jerome a far less cranky and critical persona, presenting him instead as the calm and comforting hermit who removed a thorn from the paw of a raging lion. It was, however, Jerome himself who was the raging lion of his story, pricked by thorns that he, though a holy hermit, had by nature.

Though he is a saint, Jerome was also a man—and saints who were more human than angelic are sometimes the best ones to emulate. Jerome is such a saint, clearly a man who also happened to be a saint rather than a saint who also happened to be a man; a man who clearly relied on the grace of God to do what he was called to do on earth—and he did it like a lion, despite the thorny shortcomings of his nature. A lion Jerome was, truly, and so that king of beasts is rightly associated in poetry and pageantry with that king of theologians.

Jerome is credited with saying, “The scars of others should teach us caution”—a wise saying from a lion who doled out plenty of scars and a man who bore as many himself. “They please the world most, who please Christ least,” Jerome was also known to say. So should we all sharpen our claws and cut our teeth and shake out our manes, prepared to stand with Jerome in the pride of the Catholic Church.


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