Born at Stridon in Dalmatia in 347, Jerome was one of the major representatives of monastic asceticism as well as a Doctor of the Church. His education, initially through his family of Christian faith, led him to study in Milan and then in Rome at the school of the celebrated rhetoricians Aelius Donatus and Rufino di Aquileia.
The fascination of the Eternal City attracted him for its life of study and also for its worldly life. But in search of a profound conversion and an ascetic life dedicated to contemplation, following his baptism at the age of nineteen he began his withdrawn life. Upon completion of his studies he went to Trier in Germany where he discovered the beauty of monastic life. Against the wishes of his family he withdrew to Aquileia along with his friend Rufino.
There he decided to go to the East, to the cradle of monasticism, in search of an even more ascetic life, and his first stop was in Antioch with Bishop Evagrius to whom he taught Greek. During this period Jerome underwent an intense ascetic and spiritual experience, due both to his assiduous reading of the Word of God and to illness. After this intense and profound experience Jerome decided to go into the Desert of Chalcis along the Syrian border and begin the hard life of a hermit.
It was during this period that he taught himself Hebrew, in order to be able to read the Old Testament in its original language. Following his experience in the desert, which left a profound mark on him, Jerome was entrusted with the responsibility for translating the Holy Scripture. His work, through which flows all of his talents, turned out to be a precious gift for the Western Church: his Bible, known as the Vulgate, remains even today the official text, guaranteed by the authority of the Church.
After a brief pre-cenobitic experience on the Aventine Hill in Rome, Jerome withdrew to Bethlehem where he spent the last years of his life, and where he was able to complete his work on translating the Bible.
In Bethlehem he was joined by Paula and her daughter Eustochium, two Roman patricians, who pledged a large sum that was used for building two monasteries, one for men, the other for women, a hospice for pilgrims and a monastic school. This was the first monastic settlement in the surroundings of the Grotto of the Nativity.
Although the precise location of the monastic complex is not clear, it is known with certainty that Jerome went into the caves near the Holy Grotto to pray and meditate. Emblematic of his spirituality are his reflections on the manger of the Grotto of the Nativity which, in order to provide it with a more dignified setting, had been replaced some time before by a silver basin:
“O, if only I were permitted to see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as an honor to Christ, we have taken away the manger of clay and have replaced it with crib of silver, but more precious to me is the one that has been removed. Silver and gold are appropriate for unbelievers; Christian faith is worthy of the manger that is made of clay. He who was born in that manger cared nothing for gold and silver. I do not find fault with those who made the change in the cause of honor (nor do I look with disfavor upon those in the Temple who made vessels of gold), but I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay.”
(Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord - late 4th c. AD)
[" O si mihi licere illud praesepe videre, in quo Dominus iacuit! Nunc nos Xpisti quasi pro honore tulimus luteum, et posuimus argenteum: sed mihi pretiosius illud est quod ablatum est. Argentum et aurum meretur gentilitas: Xpistiana fides meretur luteum illud presaepe. Qui in isto presaepe natus est, aurum condempnat et argentum. Non condempno eos qui honoris causa fecerunt (neque enim illos condempno qui in templo fecerunt vasa aurea): sed admiror Dominum, qui creator mundi non inter aurum et argentum, sed in luto nascitur."]
This passage highlights the desire to recognize the humbleness and simplicity of the Incarnation of Christ, which had taken place in a simple manger and not one made of precious materials, in order to draw attention to the grandeur of the Incarnation itself. After the deaths of Paula and Eustochium, and after the arrival of the news of the sack of Rome by Alaric, Jerome suffered a moral collapse and a worsening of his state of health.
He remained alone in his monastery that was falling down and menaced by continuous plundering, dedicating himself to welcoming those who arrived to the place and were in need of refuge and hospitality.
On 30 September 420 he died after a period of intense physical suffering, bequeathing to the Church the priceless treasure of his writings.