Saint Jerome
Prominent Istrians


Flemish Tapestry (early XVI Century): Ss. John the Baptist, Augustine, and Jerome; Image courtesy of ChristusRex (http://www.christusrex.org)

Saint Jerome and the Fourth Century
by Joseph A. Dunney


Timeline

The Battle Joined

The fourth century witnessed the supreme trial of the Church of Christ. Persecution raised its ugly head like a giant cobra, while treacherous foes could be found within the gates. All in all, the world, the flesh and the devil sought the destruction of God’s kingdom. But the Church came through victorious by the efforts of great saints, fully a dozen standing out like the chosen Twelve in Apostolic times. Clad in the armor of God, they wore the breastplate of justice and wielded the sword of the Spirit. Not one of them, it is true, had to shed his blood, yet all underwent spiritual martyrdom; the price they paid was tears and toil, exile and endless sacrifice. What a pageant these commanders of Christ present leading their armies through the century! Desert legions waging a hidden warfare directed by Anthony, Pacomius, and Ephrem the Syrian. Troops in the field under the three great Fathers of the East, Basil, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Iron squadrons following the western leaders, Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine. Add to these great names Athanasius who waged a fifty-year war against the Arians; Hilary of Poitiers serving on the battle front in Gaul; and Pope Damascus who issued orders while the conflict raged around the Rock of Peter. The contribution of each of them must be seen as part of a much larger picture. Without their magnificent achievement, however, the tide of the holy war might have been in the other direction. As it turned out, when the smoke of battle cleared, the Church fortified in the most threatened quarters had quite mastered the Empire even to the frontiers of its vast borders.

If history teaches anything it shows us God at work in His world. His political providence is as evident in the drama of this century as His never-failing spiritual guidance of the indestructible Church. What, for instance, could be more divinely dramatic than the sudden change of Roman heart, the abrupt shift of imperial policy towards Christianity. The contemporary historian, Eusebius, relates how during the first decade of the century calumny and persecution hounded the faithful. In a demonic burst of bestiality, Diocletian and his nephew, Maximim, gave the Christians "fire and sword, piercing with nails, wild beasts, deep pools, burnings, cutting off of limbs, perforations, boring of eyes, mutilation of the whole body; add to these, starvation, the mines, chains."[1] Thus did ruler and rabble unite in cold blooded mass-murder to exterminate the children of the Church. And yet by the second decade, Diocletian’s spate of blood was well-nigh spent. Even more, the Emperor destined to succeed the tyrant, viewing with disgust the horrible waste of human life, was glad when that persecution failed. Constantius Chiorus, utterly unlike his blood-thirsty predecessors, appears to have been a happy man who worshipped only one God, but it was his soldier son whom Heaven chose to do away once and for all with the old savage methods. Like his humanitarian father, Constantine the Great recognized that Christians already formed a large minority of Roman citizens; they were too honorable to be baited like wild dogs; and ominously enough — was it Nemesis or divine justice — every one of their royal baiters had come to an evil end.

Dawn and Dark

The rapid change for the better began in 307 when Constantine’s legions in far-off Britain hailed him Augustus. In soldier fashion they then proceeded straightway to make good their claim by force of arms. A miracle of heaven followed on the field of strife — "About the middle of the day, as the sun was turning to the west, Constantine saw with his own eyes a figure of the Cross made up of light, and with it the inscription, ‘In this, conquer.’ "[2] After the Battle of Milvian Bridge the victorious leader, resolved to embrace the Christian religion, became a catechumen. Though Constantine only received baptism on his deathbed, all the laws and institutions of his career show him to be a whole-hearted Christian. The famous edict of Milan issued in 313 gave immunity to the clergy besides freeing the Church from her pagan foes. Next the Emperor bore down hard on the here tics, harder still on the pagans, urging all to join the Catholic Church. No heathen temple was permitted to be erected during his reign; whereas churches, basilicas, institutions were built and endowed by this incredible man who planned his own burial place among the tombs of the apostles. The sons of Constantine, Constans (350) and Constantius (361) carried on their father’s policy of uprooting paganism —cesset superstiuo: sacrificiorum aboleatur insania. Yet while Constans proved loyal to Pope Julius, his weaker brother favored the Arians in the bitter strife within the Church. With the accession of Christian Emperors the Church enjoyed more freedom of action. None the less, here was a century-long task of restoring justice as well as orthodoxy. "Holy Church," said one of her greatest Popes, "corrects some things with indignation, others she tolerates out of pity, while in yet other cases she averts her gaze and bears with the abuse for motives of prudence." The things she can never permit, however, are heresy and schism, the rending of the seamless garment of Our Savior. So in this fourth century, false teachers had to be exposed, the worst enemies of the Church being as usual those of her own household. By 311 the Donatist Schism became widespread, but deadliest of all were the errors disseminated in 317 by Anus, a presbyter of Alexandria. This clever dialectician, excommunicated when still a deacon, attacked the doctrine of the Trinity and denied the divinity of Christ, declaring that the Son is not equal to the Father nor did He exist from eternity. Had his heresy succeeded, the Name of Jesus would have been degraded, reverence for Him lessened, and His divine teachings reduced to mere myth. Arius won the support of Constantia, sister of Constantine, whereupon the vindictive anarch proceeded to travesty the teaching of the Church making his appeals to the mob. Like wasps of Satan, his followers swarmed over the Empire; they resorted to every trick, every ruse, even fire and sword, to tear out the very tap-roots of the true Faith. At length Pope Sylvester and three hundred and eighteen Catholic bishops condemned Arius and his adherents at the Council of Nice, in Bithynia; the aged hermit Anthony left his solitude to combat them in Egypt, while great doctors of the West and East exposed their subversive teachings through the century. But it was Athanasius, "the Father of Orthodoxy," who stood longest in the line of fire as the conflict spread. The holy bishop of Alexandria had seen through Arius from the first and refused to restore him to communion despite the threats of the Emperor. Sad to say, the synods of Arles (353) and Milan (355) under royal pressure actually condemned the indomitable prelate. Six times he suffered banishment; seventeen years were spent in exile, yet for half-a-century this champion of the faith waged war against the Church’s bitterest foes. Athanasius died in 373 and Arianism meantime wormed its way into the barbaric tribes of Germany. Cut up into many factions, the heresy continued to plague the Church until 744, when it eventually disappeared from sight on the plains of Lombardy.

Early Years of Jerome

Nearly midway in the century, in the year 347, Jerome was born in Stridon, Italy. The parents of this great battler for God appear to have been nominal Christians of the worldly sort, time-serving and ambitious. Next their heart lay the success of their five children — these must make good in the turbulent Roman world. And what a world! Already, in Jerome’s infancy and childhood the Arian Goths lay in wait behind the Julian Alps, ready to swoop down on the Italian peninsula. In 378 they spread in wild waves over Stridon which eventually disappeared from the face of the earth so that today not even the site of the town can be identified. "Witness," Jerome wrote, "witness the soil of my birthplace; apart from the sky and earth, the bushes springing again, and the thickets, all has perished." It must have pained the heart of the old scholar when he looked back to the. tender years when he went to school there, played "hide and seek" in the cells of the slaves, and shared youth’s joys and sorrows with Bonosus, his inseparable friend and classmate. Life in Stridon had been good to this pair, hope bright, and dark hours far away. But the day came in 359 when the comrades quit their natal town to continue their studies in the city of the Caesars. Both, aged twelve, full of energy and joy of life, had cemented a lasting friendship, nor did they part company until, fifteen years later, each went his hermit way to different solitudes. As we glimpse them now the striplings are bound for the capital looking forward to eight exciting years to be spent in the freshness of their youth.

Arrived in Rome, they very likely found lodgings with friends or at the home of a schoolmaster. That from the first they had ardent desire to study there can be little doubt, for both lads were endowed with endless curiosity and love of learning. The celebrated grammarian, Donatus, taught them Greek and Latin classics, Virgil in especial; and often Jerome could be found busily copying manuscripts, intent on building up a library. Books he always held in high value, and these laboriously transcribed treasures were to prove his vade mecum in years to come when he would travel a good part of the Roman world — Gaul, Asia Minor, Palestine. Did the ‘teener in school ever dream of such an odyssey? Who knows? What we do know is that Jerome completed the Roman course in secondary school in 363 and was ready for the rhetoricians. In the meantime the sixteen-year-old lad had his eyes opened to many things not at all good. For among his companions were boys of questionable character attracted to the big city by love of pleasure rather than scholarship. Infirm of purpose they proved an easy prey to impulse which led them into sin, sloth, and many consequent difficulties. Even in the classroom rowdyism often prevailed when care-free grown-ups, known as Eversores — that is, smashers — took it into their empty heads to wreck the place. They would crash the lectures, rib the masters and, what was exceedingly dangerous, dodge their school fees. Since scant restraint was placed on them after school hours, boys of that sort frequented vile pagan shows or noisily muscled their way into the amphitheatre. Too often these public cut-ups, cornered by the local police, were handed their passports and sent borne, for trouble-makers might not tarry in the capital. It was unfortunate that Jerome, witty, vivid of speech, got to rubbing elbows with such like; very soon he joined them to prove he could be a boon companion in the wild life of Rome. The hand of God, however, reached out to save him, so the predestined youth escaped the toils of evil, but only by the skin of his teeth. At the age of nineteen, having experienced a change of heart, he asked to be baptized and was privileged to receive the Sacrament from Pope Liberius. A while later Jerome and Bonosus turned their backs on the sin-laden city, the Roman school law requiring all out-of-town students to depart at the age of twenty.

Hike to Gaul

Three great climaxes marked the drama of Jerome’s career from this time on. The first took place in Gaul whither the pilgrim students now directed their steps. A look at the map is enough to show the enormous distances they braved in attempting such a journey. Many a bright idea they must have exchanged on the way; many, too, the surprises as they came in contact with strange tides of life. Make no mistake, these days were full of hazards for two young travellers just at the age when curiosity is most active, and danger a very challenge. Grim reality stared them in the face as they slogged along side by side, until they finally arrived in Treves, the court city of the Gallic area. The Empire, divided by Diocletian, you will remember, embraced the praefectures of Gaul, including Britain and Spain; of Italy embracing South Germany and North Africa; the praefecture of the Danubian Provinces; and that of the East — Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt and the Balkan peninsula. One time or another in his travels Jerome would set foot in every praefecture, but now he sought wisdom, pursued knowledge in Gaul. Out here in the west the authority of the Pope was anything but powerful, Arianism having made frightful ravages in the district. What with the devastating effects of this deadly heresy, the times were such as to try the souls of all good Catholics at home or abroad. Only a few years earlier, the great Bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, born of a pagan Gallo-Roman family, had gone to his reward after a lifetime of heroic effort in warding off the heretics. And if ever a man fought the good fight, withstanding to their faces both prince and Emperor, it was this same Hilary. In Gaul he bad worked incessantly for the maintenance of the Nicene Creed; indeed the Latin Church owed to him its victory over Arianism. News of this "Athanasius of the West" our travellers doubtless heard — the great battle Hilary had put up, his exile from Asia Minor, then from the East, then from Milan, and all at the hands of the Arian hater. One wonders how deeply Jerome and Bonosus were impressed by the vivid accounts of such undying heroism. Or how they felt when along with the sight of much human suffering they also witnessed the tremendous enthusiasm and boundless devotion of persecuted Catholics.

War scarred the earth those Gallic days just as heresy scarred men’s souls. Intertribal strife was so common that the Roman students doubtless encountered more than one eerie experience on the road. In later years Jerome writes about meeting cannibals, an original tribe of Brittany; tells how he picked up a few words from a Celtic tribe with the same language and culture he found among the Galatians in far-off Asia Minor. Not only were the hikers lucky in learning many folkways and much curious folklore, they did better by devotion to serious study. Wide-eyed, Jerome acquired a store of wisdom by stopping here and there to copy time worn manuscripts, thus adding to his priceless collection. Even greater discoveries awaited the comrades as they went along, spiritual "finds" which would profit them more than gold or silver. Echoes of another great exile lingered in Gaul — Athanasius. The illustrious "Father of the West" was well known in these parts, having taught the Gallic Church unforgettable lessons about Anthony of Egypt, and the amazing austerities of the monks in the Thebaid. To wandering students these reports must have seemed marvellous, well nigh incredible, until one day they actually came across skin-and-bone hermits living in huts remote from human society. No doubt of it, experience is a great teacher, and they had many experiences in and out of Treves, then a center of Christian ascetism. Deep, indelible marks had been made on these young men; in fact so great was the power of word and work, so strong the urge to lead a holy life that Jerome secretly vowed himself to Christ. He firmly resolved to enter the hermit ranks, nor was it long before he won Bonosus over to the same ideal. As you see them about to leave the west, the plan of hermit life is already fast-laid in their minds. Gaul can hold these young men no longer, for they are determined to attempt a great spiritual adventure.

Desert Bound

On their eastern journey, Jerome planned a stopover at Stridon to say a last good-by. Back home, however, he met with a cool reception from frankly disappointed parents. Ten years in Rome, two more in the West, and this worn and travel-stained son of theirs returns — empty-handed! No job in the capital, not even a promise of court employment in Gaul. Nothing to show for all the money spent! When Jerome told them of his long-cherished plan to enter the hermit life, it was the last straw. God’s tramp in a paradisal cave! The very idea was crazy, the attempt insane! After their stubborn son bad made a very brief stay, he betook himself to the near-by town of Aquileia. As a matter of fact the realization of his hermit dreams lay years ahead; it would be far from easy to escape the bonds of habit or fly the trap of circumstances. He tarried three years in Aquileia, which served as a real step forward, since he was able to practice ascetism there with a company of kindred spirits — Bonosus, of course, Rufinus, Heliadorus, Paul of Concordia, Innocentius and Evagrios. All six, it is worth noting, became monks later on, arriving by different routes in Egypt, Palestine or Syria. The plan Jerome nursed in his eager heart was to visit Syria first, then Antioch, and end his journey in Jerusalem. There was much shilly-shallying again before the wavering pilgrim could make up his mind, but in 373 he bestirred himself and bravely set out for that distant goal. Let no one suppose that Jerome entered upon a gay or easy adventure. No modern explorer, you may be sure, ever had harder going than this desert-bound scholar. Many a day as he drove himself mercilessly, book-pack on back, there was no relief in sight, no respite from risk. Yet for weeks he plowed along because the cave in the sands held out the gift, the chance he so desired. The big thing was to reach a hermitage but the road proved difficult almost beyond belief; not only did he know hunger, thirst and deadly fatigue, he saw worse things in the eyes of evil doers who lived in the midst of pagan night. "At last," he writes, "having led a wandering life in the uncertainty of my journeyings, after having travelled through Thrace, Pontus, and Bithynia, the whole of Galatia, Cappadocia and Cilicia, my body was broken by the burning heat, at last I reached Syria which to me was like a peaceful harbour opened to the ship-wrecked sailor."[3]

The second climax in Jerome’s life occurred in Antioch, his last stepping-stone to the desert. Upon reaching this ancient center he was obliged to stay long enough to regain his lost energy. "Always ill," he wrote, "I have been stricken by all possible maladies. My continual sufferings so consumed me that death lay in wait for me and I almost lost consciousness of myself."[4] None the less the semi-invalid managed to attend the lectures of Apollinaris, a famous master, and add precious manuscript to his growing library; more important still he wrote a book — "The Miracle of Vercelli." Was the avid Jerome at large in the pagan classics becoming content with mere scholarship? Or was he inwardly confused by his stay in an atmosphere of ease amid the pleasures of congenial companionship? One can get out of spiritual condition so much more quickly than one can get back into spiritual condition. And Jerome’s problem —how to keep his soul fit — was vastly important in that hard, rough, godless world. Eager as ever for things present, he may have grown somewhat indifferent to his early ideal. It was then God took him by the hand and led him to the road he really wanted to follow. In that Arian-ridden center the lagging pilgrim experienced another spiritual crisis which steeled his will to struggle onward. One day in his twenty-seventh year Jerome fell into a faint; his friends, believing the ailing man had passed out of life, began to make ready for his burial. "Suddenly," he relates, "I was rapt in spirit and brought before the tribunal of the Great Judge. There was so much light, such a radiance of glory in those who stood about Him, that I fell upon my face not daring to raise my eyes.. . . Then said. the Judge, ‘Thou liest. Thou art a Ciceronian, not a Christian. Where thy treasure is there is thy heart!’ Immediately I fell silent. . . . ‘Lord, if ever I touch profane books, if I read them, I shall have decried Thee’: Upon this oath I was released and I came once more to the earth. . . . And all that was no mere illusion of sleep, one of those vain dreams which often deceive us. Witness the judgment seat before which I lay: witness the sentence at which I trembled. God grant that I never be subjected to such torments! My shoulders were all bruised, I could still feel the blows after my awakening."[5] The time of temporizing was over, the "Ciceronian" at long last had become alert to the old call, aware more than ever of the danger that lay in further delay.

Life in a Cave

Vibrant with great resolves, Jerome struck out for the desert, never resting until he reached his hermit goal. There were at the time many monks dwelling in Syria; they formed the vanguard of the great army of God that overflowed Egypt, fanned out across the Red Sea to the Sinai peninsula and thence to the north. The fame of Ephrem, "Prophet of Syria," shone brightly and his writings inspired those monks among whom Jerome cast his lot. Ephrem, son of a pagan priest, had found the faith in which he was instructed by St. James of Nisibis; after that he lived eight years with the Egyptian ascetics and received Baptism at the hands of St. Basil. "The Harp of the Holy Ghost," as Syrians call him, wrote some 300,000 verses; he was also an orator, exegete, and teacher whose fearless engagement with the Eastern heretics merited for him the title, Father of the Church. Now Ephrem’s ascetic genius no less than his country held great appeal for the world-weary newcomer. "Near to Syria, then, among the lands of the Saracen," the pilgrim sought for an abode large enough to shelter himself and his library. Nor was it long before he found a suitable limestone cave; and he quietly settled down to a life of prayer, meditation and penance. Here in this remote corner, hermits could feel certain of protection from barbarian raiders. Here also, not far from Chalcis on the caravan route to the Euphrates, they received the service of priests and messages from far away friends.

Luckily the hermit in the making has left us a clear, vivid picture of his two-and-a-half years’ stay in the Syrian desert.

"From the caverns of our cells," Jerome wrote, "we condemn the world. . . . I have robbed no one. I am no idler in receipt of charity. By our arms, in the sweat of our brow, we gain our food each day."[6] "Thanks to the Lord we have here in abundance manuscripts of the sacred books."[7] Always avid for the knowledge that saves, Jerome studied Hebrew at the feet of a rabbi near by: "What labor this cost me I alone know and those who were my companions." There were days full of light when the ardent novice hymns for sheer joy:

"O desert new-springing with the flowers of Christ! O place of hermits rejoicing in the close friendship of God! The light I look upon, believe me, is strangely brighter. Here it is my joy to shake off the burden of flesh and fly up to the pure radiance of heaven."[8] But the life of an ascetic with its glimpses of timeless beauty, has its dark side also, days full of inner trial. "Even to the desert," Jerome declared, "the enemy has obstinately pursued me, so that now in solitude, I have to suffer wars still more terrible. Oh, how often in that desert solitude, burnt dry by the heat of the sun, a forbidding habitation for monks, I fancied I was back again amidst the delights of Rome... My rebellious flesh I tried to conquer by weeks of fastings. Enraged with my self, I rushed along deep into the desert... I, the companion of scorpions and wild beasts.. weary to death." By this time Jerome had become acutely aware of another misery which took the very heart out of the young ascetic.. He discovered many troublesome monks prone to quarrelling, bickering and religious strife. "On one side," he cried, "rages the frenzy of the Arians, supported by the powers of the world. On the other are the three factions of a Church cloven by schism, which seek to draw me to themselves. And against me is ranged the ancient authority of the monks of the neighborhood."

Heart Speaks to Heart

Caves in the desert no longer held their aura for Jerome. The hermit of three years, weary of strife with his fellow-monks, decided it was time to leave. In 377, he packed up his library and made off for Antioch, intent on pursuing some other path heavenwards. A few years later, having been ordained to the priesthood by Paulinus, he followed the impulse of his heart and took his way towards Constantinople. Long had Jerome hoped that some day he might visit Gregory Nazianzen, whom the Catholics of Constantinople had demanded for their pastor after the death of Basil, founder of Eastern Monasticism. True enough their new bishop, gentle and peace-loving, lacked the heroic spirit of Basil, yet he was an illustrious theologian as well as a literary genius of the highest order. One can imagine the meeting of the restless Jerome and the retiring Gregory; as scholars and brother ascetics they must have bad much in common, besides many worthwhile experiences to relate. Few men of that day could more clearly visualize the dark doings of the Arians; and no two were better able to tell from bitter experience what the faithful had suffered in the East and the West. "When I frequented the schools of Grammar," Jerome declares, "Rome was reeking with the blood of idolatrous sacrifices, and the death of Julian the Apostate was announced at the height of the sacrifice." In turn, the bishop enlightened his guest about the Apostate Emperor’s attempt (blanda persecutlo, Jerome called it) to restore the pagan priesthood; it was the same gentle Gregory who courageously branded the whole thing "a senseless mimicry of Christianity," much as Athanasius scorned the tyrant’s bitter persecution as "a little cloud which would soon pass."

Naturally they fell to discussing the heroic deeds of unnamed Christian boys and girls, the simple moral greatness of old unlettered people, the courage and self-sacrifice of priests and monks under torture for their faith. Nor did the reminiscent bishop fail to enthrall his eager visitor with many school-day stories about his friend Basil, who had only recently gone to his reward. The Great Bishop of Caesarea had been to Gregory all that Jerome was to Bonosus; in fact the schoolmates had dwelt together as hermits near the Black Sea. Yet never were two holy men more unlike, for Basil was a born battler and Gregory a lover of peace. You can almost hear Gregory describing his friend, as a man not only ready to fight to the last ditch, but a great orator and commentator on the Bible as well, the very type of saint that would appeal to Jerome. And when they talked of the stout defenders of the faith, a never tiresome topic, the bishop could tell with a twinkle in his eye how his compatriot fearlessly withstood the Vicar of Pontus to his face. Here is the story:

When Basil had presented himself the magistrate gave orders to pull off his outer garment. His inner garment which remained, did not conceal his emaciated body. The brutal persecutor threatened to tear out his liver. Basil smiled and answered, "Thanks for your intention: where it is at present, it has been no slight annoyance." However, the Vicar got the worst of it. The City rose, the people swarmed about the court as bees smoked out of their home. The armourers, for whom the place was famous, the weavers, nay the women, with any weapon which came to hand, with clubs, stones, firebrands, spindles, besieged the Vicar, who was only saved from immediate death by the interposition of his prisoner.[10]

News like that, so vivid and vital, no less than the personal holiness of Gregory inspired Jerome in years to come; more valuable still was the solid learning he acquired at the feet of the great theologian. The ready student during his visit succeeded in mastering the Greek tongue, drank deep of the fonts of revelation, and became widely versed in Holy Writ.

Back to Rome

With great reluctance the wandering Italian bade farewell to his host, the humble bishop and kindly gentleman. But part they must, for his mind had been fully made up to go to Rome where Damasus occupied the Chair of Peter. Need it be said that the great Pope cordially received his visitor, knowing Jerome to be not only a widely travelled observer but also a scholar deeply read in Latin literature and master of other useful languages. No one, certainly, could be more valuable in the Vatican, and Damasus presently made Jerome his secretary. At this time the imperial center was a hot-bed of heresy and strife, torn apart by corrupt politics, many of its parishes ill-shepherded by a time-serving priesthood. The papal secretary, nothing daunted, set to work with an eye to improving conditions by opening a library and founding a school of piety. Such a move, one may be sure, won little support from the worldly Catholics; no help at all from mammonites out for power. None the less Jerome carried on, taking over a palace on the Aventine where holy women, many of them noble ladies like Paula and her two daughters, studied the word of God and the rules of the higher life; also at the Pope’s request he began a revision of the Book of Psalms, which was to serve the Church for eleven centuries. In the meantime, the vigorous reformer learned many things about local conditions and had to admit there was little change for the better since his own school days. Rome, still a half-pagan city, offered a wretched pattern of the Kingdom of God; its Christian children were only half instructed in their faith, their parents for the most part dwelt in error and dealt in falsehood. The more this zealous priest saw in his talks and walks the greater his sorrow, the deeper his indignation. And he lost no time in bringing the Romans to bar because of their sins and follies. Not since the days of Justin Martyr had Rome heard such devastating comment or read such scathing charges as came from this stranger within its walls. For the man once roused, was wont to dip his pen in acid.

It is to Jerome’s eternal credit that he could make the force of his bitter blows felt by those who deserved them. In return they hit back, both clergy and laity, and shortly the Pope’s secretary became "the most unpopular man in Rome." Damasus stood behind him, however, and God’s battler was afforded powerful protection. But the good cause suffered a double loss when the Pope died in the year 384. Now that Jerome’s great friend was gone, his enemies poured out the vials of their wrath, making it so hot for the reformer that he was obliged to quit the city. Swept into unmerited retirement, call it exile if you wish, Jerome was overwhelmed with grief and tears: "Yet I thank God," he could protest, "that I am counted worthy of the world’s hatred. I was a fool wishing to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land, and in leaving Mount Sinai to seek the help of Egypt. I forgot that the gospel warns us that he who goes down from Jerusalem, immediately falls among robbers, is spoiled, is wounded, is left for dead. But although priest and Levite may disregard me, there is still the Good Samaritan. . . Who, when men said to Him, ‘Thou art a Samaritan and hast a devil,’ disclaimed having a devil, but did not disclaim being a Samaritan, this being the Hebrew equivalent for our word guardian. Men call me a mischief-maker, and I take the title as a recognition of my faith for I am but a servant.. . but I know I must enter the Kingdom of Heaven through evil report as well as through good."

Peace in Bethlehem

Imagine the great man again in retreat. It was August of 385 when be left Rome forever. The desert again called and he yearned for a life of inner peace. At Antioch he met Paula and Eustochium eager to pray at the places made sacred by the feet of their Savior. They visited Egypt, Alexandria too, and the monastic city in the Nitrian hills. Arrived in Jerusalem, the wiry pilgrim makes use of his hands as well as mind and heart at one task after another. And what magnificent achievements resulted! In no time a monastery was built for men, another for women, near the manger in which Christ was born; next the tireless worker saw to the erection of pilgrim shelters along the imperial highway. An eye-witness, Suplicius Severus, speaks of Jerome ever immersed in his studies and his books, occupied day and night with reading or writing and taking scarcely any rest. All who knew him marvelled at the spiritual dynamism of the man whom they hailed the foremost scholar of Christendom. Was not this tribute richly deserved, since Jerome, single-handed, revised the old Italic versions of the New Testament, and at the request of the Holy See translated the Scriptures? Add to these monumental tasks his enormous correspondence — more than a hundred letters, brilliant but often violent, are still extant. Day after day messages reached his post from the most distant countries; visitors followed in time, coming from afar to consult the great authority. The Bishop of Hippo wrote him from Africa and the two discussed their difficulties, scriptural and theological. In fact, the Abbot of Bethlehem, found himself willy-nilly in the thick of problems, conferences, controversies, translations and what not. Heavy his tasks might be and were, but he was happy as never before, for the wandering fighter had at last found a haven of peace close to the Crib of Christ.

Before leaving the century let us attempt to clarify the closing scene. No student who has any acquaintance with history can fail to be impressed by the progress of the Church. Two hundred years earlier the brilliant but erratic Tertullian had remarked the impossibility of a Roman Emperor’s becoming a Christian. Now all the Emperors were Christians and their domains in the process of conversion, Pope and ruler working hand in hand. None the less a double peril faced Church and Empire. The Arians, like evil birds of prey, hovered everywhere, darkening the sky and threatening the peace of the Church. Then there were the barbarian Goths, asking leave in 376 to cross the Danube and enter Roman territory. Great hopes, however, centered in Theodosius whose law of the Empire enjoined all his subjects to hold "the religion which the divine Apostle Peter delivered to the Romans and which is followed by the Pontiff Damasus.. ." In 391 the same Emperor closed the temples of the old gods; in 392 he prohibited pagan worship, and his successors sought to complete the work of coercion. The great Ascetics —Anthony, Pacomius and Epbrem — had long since gone to their reward. Gone too were the indomitable champions, Athanasius and Hilary, Basil and Gregory; Pope Damasus had been succeeded by Siricius and Gregory of Nyssa, youngest of the Greek Fathers, still lived. Valiantly the great Triumvirate of Western Fathers carried on for the cause of Christ. See how they fought the good fight, kept the faith, ran their course. In his busy monastery the Abbot of Bethlehem, absorbed in many plans, found time to flay the clergy for their laxity and castigate skin-deep Christians. At Milan, Ambrose ruling his diocese with flaming justice, forced the Emperor himself to his knees .in public penance for his brutal murder of the townsfolk of Thessalonica. In Africa, Augustine was deeply engaged in the Donatist and Arian controversies, proving beyond cavil that he was the greatest personality of them all, and one of the most prolific geniuses the world has ever known. Truly, then, can it be said that the Bark of Peter in this troubled century had met and weathered the most difficult tempests.

Notes:

  1. Eusebius, History, book VIII, chap. 14
  2. Eusebius, History, chap. 28
  3. Epist. 3, 3
  4. Epist. 3, 3
  5. Epist. 22, 30
  6. Epist. 17, 2
  7. Epist. 5, 2
  8. Epist. 14, 10
  9. Epist. 15, 2; 16, 2; 17, 2—3; 22, 7; 16, 2
  10. Newman, Historical Studies vol. II, p. 13. Church History in the Light of the Saints, Joseph A. Dunney.
Source: 
  • Catholic Information Network, Catholic Saints and Martyrs - Joseph A. Dunney, Church History in the Light of the Saints, Saint Jerome - God's Battler - Saint Jerome and the Fourth Century". All rights reserved -  http://www.cin.org/books/dunney4.html

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