Words on the Word

St Jerome

Whenever we celebrate a great Doctor of the Church, it is nice to point out some signal virtue that distinguished him, his charity, perhaps, or his gentleness, or his patience. In the case of St Jerome, we are faced with a difficulty. In so many ways, he seems not to have been a very nice man. He is the most acerbic of the Fathers. His awful temperament was proverbial. His vast store of invective would have been a goldmine for Monty Python, had it occurred to John Cleese to look up the Patrologia Latina. The only long-term companion who stuck it in Jerome’s company was a lion. That says something.

Yet here we are, venerating this man as a saint. What’s going on? Of course, Jerome was a fearless champion of truth, a brilliant theologian. His linguistic flair has left its mark on Latin Christendom. No other Christian writer, not even St Augustine, has done more to shape our endeavour to put faith into words. The Church does not canonise anyone, however, on merit alone, as if a mention in the missal were a school prize. Today, it is above all the ascetic St Jerome we remember. He, who had such an eye for eternal truth, saw himself, too, with clarity. He saw the work that needed to be done in his heart. It was immense, yet he did not shy away from it. He knew he needed to be changed. He assumed the battle of his own conversion. Well into his life, he submitted freely to solitude, to the difficult discipline of keeping quiet, to an experience of great poverty.

Today’s memoria celebrates a miracle of grace. It shows us that God can make saints out of the most unpromising raw material. I find that reminder profoundly reassuring. Given sufficient humility, courage, and trust on our part, there is hope for all of us. Amen.