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Blessed the Man Who Heeds God's Word

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By Br. Stephen, MIC

"Blessed indeed is he who ponders the law of the Lord day and night: he will yield his fruit in due season." This antiphon, which begins the Mass of St. Jerome, is an apt summary of his life. Jerome was a devoted student of the Scriptures, and he would undoubtedly have been familiar with the first verses of Psalm 1, from which these words are taken. He famously said, "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ," and he devoted his life to knowing the Scriptures and making this knowledge available to others. Thus, he is known today as a Doctor of the Church and the "Father of Biblical Science."

Born in 342 in Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia or Slovenia), Jerome studied Latin, Greek, and the classics under Donatus in Rome. Baptized by Pope Liberius at the age of 18, he embraced a life of poverty 10 years later in 370, moving to Antioch and even living as a hermit for four years between 374 and 380. Ordained a priest by St. Paulinus upon his return to Antioch, he distinguished himself in Scripture studies under another Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory Nazianzen. In 382, he assisted Pope Damasus at the Council of Rome. This council, among others, helped to decide the canon of Scripture, the 73 Biblical books that Catholic Bibles still include today. Jerome's fiery temper and biting wit, however, made him many enemies in Rome. So, after Pope Damasus' death in 384, he decided to return to Antioch, and eventually settled in Bethlehem with other scholars and hermits.

At the direction of Pope Damasus, Jerome revised the Latin translation of the New Testament. He also translated the Old Testament from Hebrew into Latin, and the completed Latin version was called the Vulgate (or "common tongue" version). Jerome's revisions, relying heavily on the Hebrew text, caused no small uproar in churches where people were accustomed to other translations. Although not many people could read, they objected to the slight differences in his wording from the texts they knew by heart. For the most part, however, the Vulgate was accepted, and became the Church's standard Latin version from 405 to 1979, when John Paul II replaced it with the New Vulgate.

Jerome was not merely a Scripture scholar, however: He was also a brilliant and controversial theologian. He defended the perpetual virginity of Mary against authors such as Helvidius and Jovinian, who declared that Mary had other children besides Jesus. Jerome widely promoted the virtue of virginity, and persuaded many men and women to make a vow of celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 19:12). This unworldly stance and the fierceness with which he attacked his intellectual opponents brought him many enemies. He even had a serious disagreement with St. Augustine over one of his commentaries. This was later resolved, however, and he joined Augustine in answering the Pelagian heresy in 415. Local Pelagians, infuriated by his logical assault, retaliated by burning his monastery, including the private library that he had been gathering all his life. Unharmed, but in utter poverty, he died after a long illness on Sept. 30, 416.

Saint Jerome is venerated as the patron saint of librarians, archaeologists, Biblical scholars, translators, and students, particularly students of Latin. These diverse fields were united in him by his love of Scripture and his sense of the importance of the Word of God. Jerome sought to be the "scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven" that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel of today's Mass (Mt 13:52). He sought to be faithful to this learning, using it, as Paul instructed Timothy, "for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:17). Indeed, as the Communion Antiphon for St. Jerome's feast says, the Word of God "became the joy and the happiness of [his] heart" (see Jer 15:16).

How can we imitate this great Scripture scholar today? Certainly most of us will not be called to offer a complete translation or commentary of the Bible. However, each of us can imitate St. Jerome's love for Scripture and make a resolution to read it more diligently. This might mean getting a personal missal and following the readings for Sunday or weekday Masses. It might mean studying the Bible on one's own. The goal, however, is not simply to know the structure or text of the Bible better, but to come to know its Divine Author. "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ," as Jerome said. We might re-state this positively, saying, "Knowledge of the Scriptures is true knowledge of Christ." On this memorial of St. Jerome, the "Father of Biblical Science," let us ask ourselves, "How well do I know Christ in His Word?"

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