Dear brothers and sisters!
Today we continue with the presentation of Saint Jerome. As we said last Wednesday, he devoted his life to the study of the Bible, for which he was acknowledged as “eminent doctor in the interpretation of sacred Scripture” by one of my predecessors, Pope Benedict XV.
Jerome underlined the joy and importance of familiarizing oneself with the biblical texts: “Don’t you feel, here on Earth, that you are already in the kingdom of heaven, just by living in these texts, meditating on them, and not seeking anything else?” (Ep. 53,10).
In truth, to converse with God and with his word means to be in heaven’s presence, that is to say in God’s presence. To draw close to the biblical texts, above all to the New Testament, is essential for the believer, because “ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” This is his famous sentence, also quoted by the Second Vatican Council in the constitution “Dei Verbum” (No. 25).
Truly “enchanted” by the Word of God, Jerome asked himself: “How could we live without the science of Scriptures, through which we learn how to know Christ himself, who is the life of the believer?” (Ep. 30,7). Hence the Bible, the instrument “with which God speaks to the faithful every day” (Ep. 133,13), becomes catalyst and source of Christian life for all situations and for everyone.
To read Scripture is to converse with God: “If you are praying,” he writes to a noble young lady from Rome, “you are speaking with the Groom; if you are reading, it is He who is speaking to you” (Ep. 22,25). The study and meditation of Scripture makes man wise and at peace (cf. In Eph., prol.). Certainly, to penetrate more deeply the word of God, a constant and increasing practice is necessary. This is what Jerome recommended to the priest Nepoziano: “Read the divine Scriptures with much regularity; let the Holy Book never be laid down by your hands. Learn there what you ought to teach (Ep. 52,7).”
To the Roman matron Leta he gave the following advice for the Christian education of her daughter: “Make sure that every day she studies some passages of Scripture. … That she ensues from reading to praying and from praying to reading. … Instead of loving jewelry and silk garments, may she rather love the divine books” (Ep. 107,9.12). With the meditation and the science of the Scriptures one “maintains the balance of the soul” (Ad Eph., prol.). Only through a deep spirit of prayer and the help of the Holy Spirit are we able to understand the Bible: “For the interpretation of sacred Scripture we always need the help of the Holy Spirit” (In Mich. 1,1,10,15).
A passionate love for Scripture pervaded all of Jerome’s life, a love that he sought to also awaken in the faithful. To a spiritual daughter he recommended: “Love sacred Scripture and wisdom shall love you; love it tenderly, and it will protect you; honor it and you shall receive its caresses. Let it mean to you as much as your necklaces and your earrings mean to you” (Ep. 130,20). And again: “Love the science of Scripture, and you shall not love the vices of the flesh” (Ep. 125,11).
A fundamental criterion Jerome used to interpret Scripture was to be in tune with the magisterium of the Church. Alone we are not able to read Scripture. We find too many closed doors and we are easily mistaken. The Bible was written by the people of God, for the people of God, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in communion with the people of God can we truly enter the core of the truth that God intends to convey us.
For him an authentic interpretation of the Bible always had to be in harmony with the faith of the Catholic Church. This is not an external requirement imposed on the book. The book itself is the voice of the people of God in pilgrimage, and only in the faith of these people we find the right frame of mind to understand sacred Scripture. Hence Jerome warned: “Stay firmly attached to the traditional doctrine that has been taught to you, so that you can preach according to the right doctrine and refute those who contradict it” (Ep. 52,7).
In particular, given that Jesus Christ founded his Church on Peter, he concluded that every Christian has to be in communion “with the chair of St. Peter. I know that on this stone the Church is built” (Ep. 15,2). Consequently, he declared: “I am with whoever is united to the chair of St. Peter” (Ep. 16).
Jerome obviously does not neglect the ethical side. Rather often he recalls the duty of reconciling life with the divine word, and that only by living it we manage to understand it. Such coherence is necessary for every Christian, especially for the preacher, to ensure that his actions are not a source of embarrassment when conflicting with his speech. So he urges the priest Nepoziano: “Let not your actions deny your words, so that when you preach in church someone won’t be able to say: ‘Why don’t you act this way?’ Easy is the teacher who, with full belly, preaches about fasting — even a thief can condemn greed — but for the priest of Christ the mind and word have to match” (Ep. 52,7).
In another letter Jerome confirms: “Even when mastering a wonderful doctrine, he who is condemned by his own conscience will be shamed” (Ep. 127,4). Always in terms of coherence, he observes, the Gospel has to translate into attitudes of true charity, because in every human being Christ is present. For instance, when addressing Paolino (who became bishop of Nola and then a saint), Jerome advises: “The true temple of Christ is the soul of the faithful: adorn this sanctuary, embellish it, put your offers in it and receive Christ. To what purpose do you adorn walls with precious stones, if Christ starves in the person of the poor?” (Ep. 58,7).
Jerome continues: It is necessary “to dress Christ among the poor, to visit him among the suffering, to nourish him among the starving, to host him among the homeless” (Ep. 130,14). The love for Christ, fed with study and meditation, makes us overcome any difficulty: “We love Jesus Christ, we always search the union with him: then all that is difficult will seem easy” (Ep. 22,40).
Jerome, defined as “a model of conduct and a master of the human kind” by Prosper of Aquitaine (“Carmen de Ingratis,” 57), also left us a rich teaching on Christian asceticism. He reminds us that a courageous engagement toward perfection requires a constant alertness, frequent mortifications, even if with moderation and caution, an assiduous intellectual or manual work to avoid idleness (cf Epp. 125.11 and 130,15), and above all obedience to God: “Nothing … pleases God as much as obedience. … That is the most outstanding and the sole virtue” (Hom. De oboedientia: CCL 78,552).
The practice of pilgrimages can be included in the ascetic path. In particular, Jerome gave impulse to pilgrimages to the Holy Land, where pilgrims were welcomed and accommodated in the buildings built near Bethlehem’s monastery, thanks to the generosity of the noblewoman Paola, Jerome’s spiritual daughter (cf Ep. 108,14).
Finally, we have to mention Jerome’s contribution to Christian pedagogy (cf Epp. 107 and 128). He proposes to form “a soul that has to become the temple of the Lord ” (Ep. 107,4), a “most precious gem” to the eyes of God (Ep. 107,13). With deep intuition he suggests to protect the soul from evil and from sinful events, to exclude equivocal or wasteful friendships (cf Ep. 107.4 and 8-9; cf also Ep. 128,3-4).
Above all he urges the parents to create an environment of serenity and joy around the children, to encourage them to study and work, also through praise and emulation (cf Epp. 107,4 and 128,1), to encourage them to overcome difficulties, to nurture in them good habits and protect them from bad ones because — here he quotes a phrase that Publilius Sirus had heard as a schoolboy — “you will barely succeed to correct those things that you are getting used to do” (Ep. 107,8).
Parents are the primary educators for children, their first life teachers. By addressing to the mother of a girl and then to her father, with much clarity Jerome warns, as to express a fundamental requirement of every human creature that is brought to existence: “May she find in you her teacher, and may her inexperienced childhood look at you with wonder. May she never see, neither in you nor in her father, any actions that, if imitated, could lead her to sin. Remember that … you can educate her more with the example than with the word” (Ep. 107,9).
Among Jerome’s main intuitions as a pedagogue we must underline the importance attributed to a healthy and complete education since infancy, as well as the special responsibility acknowledged to parents, the urgency of a serious moral and religious education, and the need of study for a more complete human formation.
Moreover, a vital aspect retained by the author but disregarded in ancient times is the promotion of the woman, to whom he acknowledges the right to a complete education: human, academic, religious, professional. We actually see today that the true condition to any progress, peace, reconciliation and exclusion of violence is the education of the person in its entirety and the education in responsibility before God and before man. Sacred Scripture offers us the guidance of education and of true humanism.
We cannot conclude these rapid notes on the great Father of the Church without mentioning his effective contribution to the safeguard of the positive and valid elements of ancient Israeli, Greek and Roman cultures in the rising Christian civilization. Jerome recognized and assimilated the artistic values, the rich feelings and harmonic images of the classics, which educate heart and fantasy to noble feelings.
Above all, he put the word of God at the center of his life and actions, a word that shows to man the paths of life and discloses the secrets of holiness. Today we can’t be but deeply grateful to Jerome for all this.