How Do You Lose a Saint?

It’s hard to find a saint who’s “bigger” than Saint Jerome (347-420). Jerome isn’t merely a Doctor of the Church; he’s considered one of the Four Latin Fathers of the Church as well. (By the way, who are the other three? We can tell you…) Not only was Jerome a fantastic scriptural scholar who wrote prolifically, but he was also a monk who took very seriously the concepts of poverty, chastity, and obedience–and didn’t hesitate to call out those lukewarm monks who didn’t.

Jerome is best known for his Latin translation of the entire Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Known as the Vulgate, it is still the “official” text of the Bible that the Church uses today. Jerome spent long years working on this project in a cave in Bethlehem, living the ascetic life of a monk. He did his translating on his knees, convinced that any task that involved the Word of God was holy.

St Mary Major JeromeAt his death, Jerome was buried in Bethlehem. In the Middle Ages the Pope had his body brought to Rome, where he was entombed in the basilica of St. Mary Major. If you’ve visited this great basilica with us, you already know that over the centuries it was repeatedly expanded, renovated and repaired… and nobody is exactly sure how it used to look, because poor records were kept (if any were kept at all!).

It was during one of these big renovation-projects that St. Jerome’s tomb somehow got IMG_5059lost. It is assumed to be in this side chapel, whether under the altar, inside the altar, in the floor near the altar… it’s most likely in here somewhere. Since it’s impossible to do any serious searching without completely dismantling the marble floors and the altar itself, we have to content ourselves with this assumption.

Meanwhile, across town, Rome’s museum for decorative arts is home to four sculpted marble panels which once upon a time adorned Jerome’s tomb. They are, as you can see, rather clumsily displayed, and since most visitors are unaware IMG_5060of their history, they tend to get ignored. It’s a shame, because they all contain splendid scenes from the story of St. Jerome’s life–including the marvelous account of a lion which came limping one day out of the desert and into Jerome’s monastery. While most of the other monks panicked and fled, Jerome realized that the lion had a thorn in his paw (sounds suspiciously like the Greek myth of Androcles and the Lion, doesn’t it?). He calmly pulled out the thorn and put onto the wound some healing ointment which the monks had made from the herbs growing in the region. The lion recovered and wouldn’t leave, assuming ever after the role of the monastery’s docile, obedient housecat.

A great story, great sculpture, and a great saint–but few tourists ever manage to piece it together. You’ll get so much more out of a visit to Rome in the company of a knowledgeable guide!