Homily: St Jerome

Today we commemorate St Jerome, Doctor of the Church. He is known for translating the Bible into Latin, for which he had to learn Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He grew up speaking Illyrian, whatever that is, maybe Albanian. Jerome, in Latin Hieronymus; Geronimo, happy name day.

He had a marked temperament. He was very choleric, and had strained relations even with his friends. He corresponded with numerous people, including with Augustine, who was extremely patient, and ended up estranged from his best friend, Paulinus. He is usually depicted in a Cardinal’s garb with a lion and striking his breast with a stone. He’s very dour looking up there. He lived for many years in Israel, in the desert. He was a desert father, in a sense. The most important thing about him is that he lived the vita ascetica—he lived with that stone. This vita ascetica is the one thing I want to say about Jerome. He wrote a work on virginity, On Virginity. Many women came from Rome to live around him in the desert, and people talked about him a lot because of this. But he knew, lived, and taught the value of chastity. To be chaste is to be on fire with love, with love of God. Acting on torrid passions is cold, it is icy cold. The world around us tells us all about the glories of sex, as it did in Jerome’s time. Rome in Jerome’s time was decadent with regards to sex, like some places we might know today. Even inside the Church, people talk about the wonders of sex; it’s a wonder Catholics haven’t written tantric manuals. But that is not the tradition. We speak of sex with great reverence. Augustine knew what it was to be a slave to sex. Origen, who lived slightly before the time of Augustine and Jerome, knew the dangers of sex. He was rather more zealous than Jerome, but he was a great theologian. Jerome, Augustine, and Pope Benedict all highly revere him. It is only his zealousness that has kept him from being named a saint; if you don’t know about this already, you can ask Sam later. Augustine knew the relief of chastity, after years of orgy.

To be chaste is to be most on fire with love. Virginity is a way of life, of the heart. In looking at Jerome’s On Virginity I saw where the Church fathers spoke of becoming virgin again: it is a matter of the heart. Only love can conquer lust; only love can conquer lust. Chastity and virginity are not about a physical state, but about your heart. It has to do with all 24 hours, not just the one hour when temptation comes. You can’t live, be, however you want in those 23 hours and expect to keep from falling in that one hour. Sure, a cold shower helps at that hour, we have all the natural means available to us, but we must at all time cultivate chastity in our heart. Be on fire with love. Be consumed with longing for the Lord, as in the first reading today.

I get into conversations with people about the spirituality of the diocesan priest versus the spirituality of the religious priest. I think that really, on a gross level, there is one spirituality, because there is one Spirit, the Holy Spirit. But I do believe that diocesan priests are called to be desert fathers, like St Jerome, leading people into the desert to purity of heart.

Many people translated the Bible before Jerome, and after. That is not the important thing about him. It is his asceticism. There was a medieval pope who said, “Jerome, but for that stone you would not have been canonized.”Jerome’s asceticism is all that matters about him.

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