Friday, July 3rd, 2020

‘Towards God and Peter’: St Jerome, St Anselm, and the Prince of the Apostles

{An essay prepared for a community of religious sisters for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul} 

I. INTRODUCTION: Sts Jerome and Anselm, The Pope’s Men

We do not have a biography of St Peter in the way we would like to. Whether this is a purely modern phenomenon or not I do not know,—but we like a biography to include the little human details as much as we like narratives about happenings and doings. Certainly the Tradition supplies us with a little bit of what we might hope for, but by no means a surfeit. Thus, when a priest has to appear before you and say something about St Peter, he has to go hunting for sources.

Today at Matins, St Jerome makes an appearance in the third nocturne. Straightforwardly enough, he’ll be one of our sources. We may also look to St Anselm of Canterbury, who wrote one of his devotional prayers to St Peter. These two Fathers, as well as today’s Gospel, will help us to view the person and mystery of St Peter the Apostle.

But the following may be worth noting before we begin. Both St Jerome and St Anselm had close ties with the reigning Supreme Pontiff of their days, that is, with the successors of St Peter. St Jerome was in the service of Pope Damasus I from 382-385. This explains the anachronism of his often being depicted in vesture of a cardinal. (This may be all the more anachronistic on account of the rather poor favor in which he was held by the secular clergy of Rome.[1]) Most notably, St Jerome undertook the revision of the Vulgate Bible under the direction of Damasus I—though he served in other advisory capacities as well.

St Anselm spent the year 1098 to 1099 in or around Rome with Urban II. St Anselm was there, first and foremost, to seek counsel and aid during his conflict with William II (1056-1100)—he, Anselm, was on the correct side of the investiture controversies. However, during his association with Urban II, he became involved with various matters touching the Holy See, especially at the Council of Bari. At this council, at the request of the Holy Father, St Anselm intervened rather decisively on the controversy over the procession of the Holy Ghost.

All that is to say—if with very scant detail—that both St Jerome and St Anselm showed themselves servants of Peter. And both men of God suffered much on account of it.



As we said at the beginning, the writings of St Jerome appear in today’s texts of the Divine Office. The third nocturne at Matins contains an excerpt from his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.[2] Here, St Jerome gives a brief but dense explanation about the person and office of St Peter. He discourses for a moment about the identity of Christ; and then, setting aside what he believes to be needless controversy,[3] gets down to St Peter’s reply to Our Lord’s question, ‘But whom do you say that I am?’[4]

We ought to beware of generalizations: but it nevertheless seems true that any number of scripture scholars and the average parish homilist so often to treat St Peter in a certain, rather monochromatic way. Namely, that he is sincere, bold, but somewhat of a buffoon, or at least awkward and fumbling in his discipleship. He speaks and acts before he thinks; but just happens, sometimes, to say and do the right things. On this analysis, Our Lord admires and chooses St Peter, not so much for any outstanding or noble qualities that he might possess, but because of his guileless ineptitude.

I confess, that I don’t find such a portrait to be accurate; it may even border on the blasphemous.

In contrast, St Jerome has a number of important points to offer us. First, he draws our attention to a distinction that St Peter makes when giving his witness to Christ’s divinity. Writes St Jerome:

Peter declared in the name of all the Apostles, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ He calls Him the living God to distinguish Him from those who are thought to be gods but are dead.[5]

The distinction St Peter makes is a basic one, but important. He leaves no room for a relativism and equivocation; he is precise; he knows just what he is saying.

Though of course, that does not make him any less inspired by the Holy Ghost, which is just what St Jerome goes on to say: ‘The Apostle had borne witness to Him [Christ]; now He bears witness to the Apostle.’[6] We learn from Our Lord how indeed it was the Father Himself who taught St Peter to witness as he did: ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.’[7] Our Lord is telling us about the identity and office of St Peter, and St Jerome does not miss the point.

The first thing to note is that St Peter’s witness transcends merely human opinion. Prince-like, he stands above the erroneous opinions of man. Furthermore, he does not he merely keep this opinion to himself: he tells it. Here would be an appropriate place to speak of the nature and function of the office of Peter. When the pope teaches in accord with his office, that teaching will stand over merely natural ways of thinking. What is more, he has not only the right to speak how he does, but the duty.

But St Jerome says more:

By his profession also he earns the right to his name: receiving a revelation from the Holy Spirit, he should be called the son of the Holy Spirit; and indeed Bar-Jona means in our language ‘Son of the Dove.’[8]

Which is exactly what, eleven hundred years later,[9] the Catechism of the Council of Trent will teach about the apostolicity of the Church:

For the Holy Ghost, who presides over the Church, governs her by no other ministers than those of Apostolic succession. This Spirit, first imparted to the Apostles, has by the infinite goodness of God always continued in the Church.[10]

St Peter is himself an eminent work of the Holy Ghost. Well, then, did our Lord call him blessed; and well did he name him Petrus. Rightly, then, could St Peter himself later write, ‘But you are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people.’[11] All this could be true of the Church because it was first true of Peter.


III. ST ANSELM: Of Power & Mercy

Which brings us to St Anselm’s treatment of St Peter. It should be noted at the outset that, when dealing with the private prayers of St Anselm, we have to handle them with asbestos gloves: they are words of fire. These prayers are not playful or sedate meditations; they are desperate and intense. For St Anselm is a man beset—with his own weakness and with the dangers of his office.[12] Nevertheless, a number of lines from his ‘Prayer to St Peter’ will shed light on the mystery of the saint.

‘I have no words,’ he begins, ‘to express my need as it really is, and my love is not great enough to reach up from such a depth as mine to such a height as yours.’ Thus, St Peter is a lofty mediator. This is the function of all the saints; but it seems the function of St Peter especially. ‘O great Peter, if the cry of my trouble does not come up as far as you, let the care of your goodness come down as far as me!’

Later in the prayer—it is a total of 186 lines long—St Anselm begins to remind Peter of that lakeside conversation after the first Easter: ‘Remember that Christ asked you three times if you loved him . . . . He is indeed a lover of the sheep who thus sifts the love of the shepherd.’ And there is no pretense with St Anselm: he has no difficulty thinking of himself as a sheep, and even a lamb: ‘Peter, shepherd of Christ, gather up the lamb of Christ.’ It is all very pastoral (in both senses of the term) and it makes one think of St Patrick and the pastoral images in many prayers of the Celtic saints. He, Anselm, is the lost sheep, borne back on the shoulders of the shepherd, which causes him to ask, ‘Alas, how long shall I not know that I am received, healed, and cherished?’

Then St Anselm shifts the image, admitting that he thinks he hasn’t expressed well enough all that he set out to say: ‘I will repeat my story from the beginning, and begin my prayers over again.’ Having lingered long enough with St Peter the shepherd, he turns to St Peter ‘the door-keeper of the kingdom of heaven.’ Here it would be especially nice to have the Latin text. At least two words are possible for the English door-keeperostiarius or ianitor. The Vespers hymn for today’s feast uses the latter word. Ostiarius is an interesting word choice, given its place among the rank of the minor clergy: it is the first order after tonsure. Porter, as we say in English. Interesting to note here, then, that the title is at once lofty and humble at the same time. When a man is ordained a porter, the ordaining prelate entrusts him with a key to open and close the gate to the sanctuary. In that, we have an image of St Peter receiving the keys from our Blessed Lord. St Peter is indeed the porter par excellence.

St Anselm continues his penitential tone: he has long enough been in the kingdom of sin; turning from all that, he begs St Peter to admit him into the kingdom of heaven. But then the image shifts slightly again: he will ask St Peter to use his keys, but this time to loosen the chains that bind him. Keys, after all, can be used in both ways. And at this point we come across the line used for the title for this talk: ‘This soul, weighed down for so long by its misery, looks toward God and Peter; will it see now the mercy of God and Peter?’ With St Peter in the same glance as God himself, St Anselm will not let us dispense with the unique place that St Peter has among the saints.—That God’s mercy is intimately bound up with the person of St Peter.


IV. CONCLUSION: O Roma felix! 

Which brings us to where we ought to end. If we follow St Anselm, we can sum up the office and person of St Peter in two words: mercy and power. In in this rather terse statement, we have worlds of theology—particularly that of the Sacraments; but, dare we say, even about the nature and function of canon law. God has entrusted to his Church both power and mercy; better said, power for the sake of mercy. And, following St Jerome, this powerful mercy and merciful power is under the special work of the Holy Ghost in Peter.

All this ought to be especially clear for the Roman Catholic. Because, despite the efforts of her enemies—within and without—the Roman Church does have a preeminent place in God’s Providence. Talking about what that means is outside our purpose here. But the matter centers on the person of St Peter. The good God does not, primarily, use ideas, abstractions, and procedures to save the human race; he uses persons. Today and always we give thanks for all that God has done in the person of St Peter, which is why we can sing at Vespers:

O happy Rome! Consecrated as you are by the glorious blood of these two princes: that royal blood makes you the one city that far excels the rest of all that is fair! 


[1] St Jerome does not seem to have been formally associated with any division of the clergy of Rome, whereas the designation cardinalis indicates just that: a permanent (and prominent) association with one of the titular churches of the Roman See. Nevertheless, the anachronism should hardly be criticized: St Jerome’s red mozzetta and galero are hardly meant to make a canonical statement, but indicate his informal but nonetheless real association with the papacy of Damasus I.

[2] Lib. II, cap. 16.

[3] Ad lectionem vii: ‘Miror quosdam interpretes . . . et disputationem longissimam.

[4] Matthew 16, 15.

[5] Ad lectionem viii, English translation from The Roman Breviary: in English and Latin, vol 2, (London: Baronius Press, 2011), p 1905.

[6] The Roman Breviary, ad lectionem ix, p 1906.

[7] Matthew 16, 17.

[8] The Roman Breviary, p 1906. ‘Siquidem Bar-Jona in nostra lingua sonat Filius columbae.’

[9] St Jerome’s commentary on Matthew dates 398, the Tridentine catechism 1566: thus, 1, 168 years.

[10] The Catechism of the Council of Trent, pars 1, art 9, trans John A McHugh OP and Charles J Callan OP (London: Baronius Press, 2020), p 100.

[11] 1 Peter 2, 9.

[12] Both as abbot and, later, as archbishop. The prayers were composed during his abbacy at Bec.

{Art Credit: Detail, El Greco, St Peter in Tears (1587-1596), El Greco Museum, Toledo.}