HOMILY for St Jerome
Every semester the chaplains devise a programme of catechesis, faith formation and study for the students who come to St Albert’s. And what we present is not arbitrary but based on prayer and an assessment on what we believe, as your pastors, would help you grow in faith and love for Jesus Christ. This semester, we have in mind Pope Francis’ frequent reminders that we should read and become familiar with the Scriptures: Bible study for Catholics! For through the Scriptures, read in and with the Church, we encounter Jesus Christ. Surely this should be a priority for us? As today’s saint, Jerome, wondered: “How could one live without the knowledge of Scripture, by which we come to know Christ himself, who is the life of believers?” Hence, St Jerome is the patron of Scripture scholars – of all who would study and read the Bible and not just academic scholars. And my hope is that many of us this semester would become scholars, readers of God’s written Word. Hence we have a Bible Study group every Monday and a Faith Talk on the Bible and its theology every Tuesday, both at 8pm. Today, then, is the feast day of the saint who we ask to guide and help us this semester, and throughout our lives, I hope.
But he guides and inspires us, not mainly by teaching us the meaning of Scripture, but by his reverence for the Bible, and his desire to read and learn from the Scriptures. And this was something he came to appreciate, you might say, in his university years – although, of course universities didn’t exist in the 5th-century. But he didn’t start off as a Scripture swot.
Around the 450s, Jerome was studying rhetoric and classical literature in Rome. He was from a rich Croatian family, well-educated, and his family were Christians although he wasn’t yet baptized. And during his time in Rome, Jerome lived what we might call a typical student life. He writes that he was tempted by the worldly ways of the big city, by a plethora of ideas, and by the so-called good times that tempt and distract us all in cosmopolitan cities. But there was another side to him.
While in Rome, Jerome would also go with his friends to the catacombs just outside the city walls. There, Christian martyrs are buried, and there in the hush he could reflect on the faith of his family, a living faith that empowered the martyrs to give up their lives as a witness to the truth of the Resurrection. As a student in Rome, Jerome had learnt Latin and Greek, and so, apart from reading the classics, he began to be fascinated by the Gospels which were written in Greek. For a while Jerome was torn between committing to Christ as a disciple, or remaining in the world but distant from Christ. It is a choice that every Christian faces, and it first comes to prominence when one is a student. St Jerome, too, underwent the struggle that so many of you and your peers may be facing, and we ask him to pray for us that we can choose Christ above all others.
For at last, by God’s grace, Jerome chose to be baptised in Rome, and so, he committed to the Christian life. A passionate man (his writings, some of which are very hot-tempered, make this apparent), St Jerome was not one to do things by halves. He changed his entire life. He left Rome and his family and headed East to study the Scriptures with other scholars. He improved his Greek, learnt Hebrew, and finally went to live as a hermit in the desert so that he could read, fast, study, and pray the Bible. And then he translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin, a translation called the Vulgate. He would eventually return to Rome, but his dream was to head for the Holy Land, and he would eventually die in Bethlehem, the place where the Word of God took flesh.
Whenever we come to Mass, we come to a Bethlehem for here the Word is made flesh for us both in the Scriptures that are read, and in the Eucharist. For as St Jerome says: “for me, the Gospel is the Body of Christ; for me, the holy Scriptures are his teaching… When we approach the [Eucharist], if a crumb falls to the ground we are troubled [because it is the Body and Blood of Christ]. Yet when we are listening to the word of God, and God’s Word and Christ’s flesh and blood are being poured into our ears yet we pay no heed…” Hence, St Jerome calls us to reverence both the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist; to come to Mass recollected and prepared to receive Jesus Christ in both the Gospel and the Blessed Sacrament. The people of Samaria “would not receive him” (Lk 9:53). Let it not be so for us but let the Holy Spirit be the true fire from heaven that comes down to inflame us with a desire to know and love Christ, with the same grace that St Jerome had.