If Jerome had lived after the 12th century, when a formal process for canonization was introduced, he might never have been regarded as a saint. He was irascible, rude and intemperate in his language, and his menagerie of women friends would surely raise eyebrows. He would hardly have passed the test of living the moral virtues heroically (patience? gentleness? prudence?).
It is true for others of the early centuries also, honoured in the Church as saints but tough cookies and not necessarily nice people. Think of the stubbornness and cunning of Saint Athanasius, for example, or the single-minded, even cruel, defence of what he judged to be the truth on the part of Cyril of Alexandria.
One of the reasons such saints are puzzling is because we tend to go at the gospels with a romantic, perhaps still Victorian, picture, of Jesus as simply ‘gentle, meek and mild’. Well we are in for a bit of a shock if we manage to read the gospels attentively, because more often he is not like that at all. When we think of his many strange sayings and his unpredictable reactions, Jesus of Nazareth seems to have been a much stranger person than we might have been comfortable with had we met him during his lifetime on this earth.
In the gospels, for example, he is the one who has most to say about hell. This comes as a bit of a surprise, especially if we like to see John the Baptist as the preacher of judgement who fades away with the coming of Jesus, the preacher of love. This just won’t work because we hear far more about judgement and hell from Jesus than we do from anybody else in the New Testament. We hear more about love from him also but the two are not exclusive: in fact they go together.
If our account of the gospel becomes too sweet, too inoffensive, then of course it becomes incredible, something for children and not for adults who must live in a world of betrayal and injustice, cleverness and deception, indifference, violence and fear. Something really is at stake in our decisions about justice and honesty, about generosity and truth. Something really is at stake in the defence of orthodoxy in which so many of the Fathers of the Church were engaged, and for the sake of which they accepted persecution, exile, and even death.
To stay on the way of Jesus is to stay on the way that leads to life. To stray from the way of Jesus is to taste the bitterness of death and gives us a glimpse of hell, the opposite of love. When we watch the TV news, and hear what is happening to people around the world, how can we deny that human beings continue to construct hell for others? And who can ultimately save us from that if not the one whose Word is a two-edged sword, love and mercy on one side, truth and integrity on the other? And who are the servants of that Word except the ones who preach it effectively, in season and out of season, welcome or unwelcome? Of course it is a message of love, reconciliation and joy, but these desirable things can only be effectively established where there is justice, truth and repentance.
The abrasiveness of saints like Jerome remind us that the Word is a thorn in our side, a stone in our shoe, the pricking of our conscience, a call to turn and repent.