Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Jerome, one of the most renowned Doctors of the Church. As a writer and scholar, St. Jerome is best known for his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. This is the Vulgate version of the Bible, which has been used in the Catholic Church for more than a millennium. Few people, however, know that the Vulgate has undergone numerous changes over the last several centuries. In fact, the Vulgate translation of the Psalms that so many people know is a revision of St. Jerome’s work.
By the mid-sixteenth century, there was a great need to re-examine the books of the Bible and their translation. During this period, the Pope called on one of the greatest scholars of the Catholic Church to re-translate significant portions of the Bible. This scholar was none other than St. Robert Bellarmine and he undertook this onerous work with great trepidation since he was going to be working from St. Jerome’s translation.
The work produced by Bellarmine has often come under criticism during the last several centuries. In fact, the Sixto-Clementine Vulgate (the name by which this version is most commonly known) was in circulation in the Catholic Church until 1948. During that year another reform took place of the Vulgate Bible, this time it was under the auspices of Pope Pius XII.
The psalms in this verison were different from those in the Sixto-Clementine version. For example, the psalms use newer vocabulary and are no longer poetic. There is a sense of something that has disappeared from them. I know this for a fact because I have a breviary from before the reform and one that was published after. The differences are astounding to me although many people would consider them to be very minimal.
Yet the thin that is most astounding about St. Jerome’s work and that of St. Robert Bellarmine is that both of them worked alone on their work. When so many things throughout the world are done through committee these days, it is difficult for us sometimes to remember that many great moves forward in history were performed by individuals working on their own. St. Jerome worked alone and St. Robert Bellarmine did as well although both of them had secretaries to help them with their translations.
If nothing else is remembered about St. Jerome centuries from now, his work on translation should be thought of as a miraculous feat. For one man to translate the whole of the Bible over a number of years is something that can take an entire lifetime. It was the same thing for Jerome. Yet we should not only remember him for this, but also for his erudite letters and sermons. It is through them as well that we are able to see a heart that was beating with an extreme love for God that sometimes exploded when confronted with heresies and other problems in the Church.
Our Lady of the Angels, pray for us!
St. Jerome, pray for us!
St. Robert Bellarmine, pray for us!