Little Lives of the Great Saints – Saint Jerome, Priest and Doctor of the Church

detail of a stained glass window of Saint Jerome; 19th century by F X Zettler, Munich, Germany; parish church of Saint Alban, Gutenzell-Hürbel, Biberach, Germany; photographed in January 2015 by Andreas Praefcke; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

Died A.D. 420.

Saint Jerome, one of the very greatest lights in the history of learning and Christian literature, was born in the year 329, at Stridonium, in Pannonia. His good Catholic parents gave him an excellent education – that gift more precious than gold or lands.

“Next to the blessing of Redemption,” says the celebrated Dr. Doyle, “and the graces consequent upon it, there is no gift bestowed by God equal in value to a good education. Other advantages are enjoyed by the body: this belongs entirely to the spirit. Whatever is great or good or glorious in the works of men is the fruit of educated minds. Religion herself loses half her beauty and influence when not attended or assisted by education; and her power, splendor, and majesty are never so exalted as when cultivated genius and refined taste become her heralds or her handmaids.”

Jerome studied under the first professors at Rome, and became master of the Latin and Greek languages. It was the delight of his soul to collect a good library, and to spend his days and nights with the best authors. He was so carried away by the love of his book-friends that sometimes he even forgot to eat or drink. Cicero and Plautus were his favorites. He not only purchased many works, but copied several with his own hand, and had others transcribed by his friends.

Unhappily, however, there was one drawback. Under pagan teachers and the heathen influences of Rome, Jerome nearly forgot the piety of his boyhood, and became full of refined vanity and worldly sentiments. He had acquired knowledge at the expense of virtue.

On arriving at manhood the ardent student resolved to travel with the view of improving his education. One of his points of attraction was Treves, then famous for its schools. It was there that his early piety was revived and his heart entirely converted to God. Henceforward he resolved to devote himself wholly to the service of heaven and to a life of chastity. He also began the study of the sacred sciences, and carefully collected everything that might add to his literary treasures. After visiting various other cities, and contracting friendships with many pious and learned men, he returned to Rome, resolved to give himself with his whole soul to study and retirement

But complete solitude could only be found in some distant country; and our Saint set out for the East, accompanied by a priest of Antioch, who acted as guide. The travelers passed through Asia Minor, visiting the hermits and other persons famous for sanctity. Jerome pushed on to Antioch, stayed awhile in that city, and then retired to a hideous desert between Syria and Arabia. He received a warm welcome, however, in that wild, lonely region from the holy Abbot Theodosius.

It was in such an abode of desolation that Jerome, wasted by sickness, was fiercely assailed by nameless temptations. Truly, this was a hard battle, carried on as it was in “the company of scorpions and wild beasts.”

“I loved solitude,” he exclaims, “that in the bitterness of my soul I might more freely bewail my miseries and call upon my Saviour. My hideous, emaciated limbs were covered with sackcloth. My skin was parched, dry, and black, and my flesh was almost wasted away.

“The days passed in tears and groans, and when, against my will, sleep overpowered me, I cast my weary bones – which barely hung together – upon the hard ground, not so much to give them rest as to torture myself. Of eating and drinking I say nothing. The monks in that desert, even when they are sick, know no other drink than cold water, and look upon it as sensuality ever to taste anything touched by fire.”

Yet, in this dreary den of penitential solitude, Jerome had to battle long and manfully with temptations against the virtue of purity.

“Finding myself,” continues the Saint, “abandoned, as it were, to the power of this enemy, I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and I tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks. I am not ashamed to disclose my temptations; but I grieve that I am not now what I then was.

“I often joined whole nights to the days – weeping, sighing, and beating my breast till the desired calm returned. I feared the very cell in which I lived, because it was a witness to the foul suggestions of my enemy; and being angry and armed with severity against myself, I went alone into the most secret parts of the wilderness, and if I discovered a deep valley or a craggy rock anywhere, that was the place of my prayer – there I threw this miserable sack of my body. The same Lord is my witness that after so many sobs and tears, after having in much sorrow long looked up to heaven, I felt most delightful and interior sweetness.”

It was during this period of severe trial that he began the study of Hebrew. “That I might subdue my flesh,” writes the great Doctor, “I became a scholar to a monk who had been a Jew, to learn of him the Hebrew alphabet; and after I had most diligently studied the judicious rules of Quintilian, the flowing eloquence of Cicero, the grave style of Fronto, and the smoothness of Pliny, I inured myself to hissing and broken-winded words.

“What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and left off, and how I began again to learn, both I myself who felt the burden can witness, and they also who lived with me. But I thank our Lord that I now gather sweet fruit from the bitter seed of those studies.”

Jerome, however, had still a passion for the Latin classics, especially the writings of Cicero. He relates that on one occasion, while prostrated by a burning fever, he fell into a trance or dream, in which he seemed to be summoned before the awful tribunal of Christ. He was asked his profession. “I am a Christian,” answered Jerome.

“It is a lie,” said the Judge. “You are a Ciceronian. The works of that author possess your heart.” And the Saint was condemned to be scourged by angels. The remembrance of that dream – for dream it was – made a vivid impression on his imagination. He looked upon it as a divine admonition. “From that time,” he says, “I gave myself to the reading of divine things with greater diligence and attention than I had ever read other authors.”

As an unhappy schism divided the church of Antioch, Saint Jerome wrote to Pope Damasus, about the year 376, asking for advice in relation to the delicate state of affairs. “I am joined in communion with your Holiness,” he writes, “that is, with the Chair of Peter. I know the Church is built upon that rock. Whoever eats the lamb out of that house is a profane person. Whoever is not in the ark shall perish in the flood. . . . Whoever gathers not with you, scatters. He who is not Christ’s belongs to Antichrist.”

The Pope’s reply is not extant.

In 377 Saint Jerome, at the age of forty-eight, was raised to the sacred dignity of the priesthood by Paulinus, Patriarch of Antioch. He consented to this promotion, however, only on the express condition that he would not be obliged to serve any church in the office of his ministry.

Soon after this he passed into Palestine, perfected himself in the Hebrew language, and visited and carefully examined all the places made sacred by the presence of Jesus Christ.

We find our admirable Saint, always a student, at Constantinople, about the year 380, making a profound study of Holy Scripture under Saint Gregory Nazianzen. He considered it a great honor and happiness to have this celebrated doctor for his master.

On visiting Rome in 381, Jerome was detained by Pope Damasus as his secretary. But the light of his life could not be hidden. He was soon loved and esteemed by all. Priests, monks, and nobles sought his instruction and asked his guidance in the way of Christian virtue. He had likewise the charge of many devout ladies whose names have since adorned the calendar of the saints.

Saint Jerome wrote his work On the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary” in the year 383. It was composed in answer to the blasphemies of a malignant heretic named Helvidius, a man of coarse and brutal instincts. The holy Doctor placed his iron grip on this vile assailant of the Immaculate Mother, in order, as he says, “to teach one who had never learned to speak the art and wisdom of silence.”

We need not say how well the task was accomplished. Saint Jerome never did anything by halves, and his pen was like a mighty battle-axe that clove the toughest and most obstinate skulls. “Having thus worsted you in argument,” he says in taking leave of the foul Helvidius, “I know full well that you will seek to decry my life and to soil my character; but I glory therein beforehand, since such abuse will proceed from lips that have blasphemed Mary, and I, a servant of the Lord, will, even as His Mother, be the butt of your brawling insolence.”

After the death of Pope Damasus our illustrious Doctor retired to Palestine and journeyed through Egypt to improve himself still more in the sacred sciences. On returning to the Holy Land he made his abode at Bethlehem. Here the noble lady, Saint Paula, followed him from Rome, built him a monastery, and placed under his wise direction a convent of nuns which she founded and governed.

It was at this period that Saint Jerome, living on the spot where Christ came into our sin-dimmed world, and where the angels sang “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” began those vast critical labors on the Holy Scriptures which have rendered his name so celebrated.

“For this,” says Butler, “the Church acknowledges him to have been raised by God through a special providence and particularly assisted from above; and she styles him the greatest of all her doctors in expounding the Divine Oracles. Pope Clement VIII. scruples not to call him a man, in translating the Holy Scriptures, divinely assisted and inspired.”

He defended the faith against the vain Pelagius with his usual vigor and success. “I never spared heretics,” he writes, “and have done my utmost endeavors that the enemies of the Church should be my enemies.” Nor did the Pelagians ever forgive Saint Jerome. Their blind and headstrong leader became so infuriated that he excited his followers to a high pitch against the holy Doctor. A troop of these ruffians plundered and burned his monastery; and the Saint only escaped their fury by a timely flight.

After this storm blew over the great old Doctor – veteran soldier of Jesus Christ – still continued his precious labors. He toiled on to the last, a lover of God and truth and books. Some remarkable sayings are attributed to him “Whether I eat or drink,” he observed, “or whatever else I do, the dreadful trnmpet of the last day seems always sounding in my ears: Arise, ye dead and come to judgment!”

His boldness and manly vigor in defending the sacred cause of truth did not fail to make many bitter enemies. “You are deceived,” he would say, “if you think that a Christian can live without persecution. He suffers the greatest who lives under none. Nothing is more to be feared than too long a peace. A storm puts a man upon his guard, and obliges him to exert his utmost efforts to escape shipwreck.”

On his deathbed he said to his dear disciples, who had mournfully gathered around: “My children, I am at the point of death; and I declare to you that it is my firm, unwavering conviction – a conviction strengthened by a long experience of over fifty years – that out of a hundred thousand persons who continue in sin till the hour of death scarcely one is saved.”

Having manfully subdued himself, and triumphed over vice, heresy, and ignorance, the illustrious Saint Jerome, who had used all his splendid genius in promoting the glory of God, passed from toil to reward at the ripe age of ninety-one, on the 30th of September, 420.°

MLA Citation

  • John O’Kane Murray, M.A., M.D. “Saint Jerome, Priest and Doctor of the Church”. Little Lives of the Great Saints, 1879. CatholicSaints.Info. 24 September 2018. Web. 15 October 2018. <>