Jerome’s Letter 60

I’m looking into Apponius’ comments about ordered and disorderly charity/love (charitas ordinata and inordinata), and it turns out that St. Jerome said something about that.

Letter 60 is a condolence letter written to his friend Heliodorus, bishop of Altinum, on the occasion of his nephew Nepotian’s death. Nepotian had been a Roman soldier but spent his pay on charity. When he got out of the army and went to live in Altinum, to learn from his uncle, he “went through the usual stages and was ordained a presbyter.”

Jerome had various things to say about Nepotian. In conversation about Scripture, he “would listen modestly, answer diffidently; support the right and refute the wrong, but both without bitterness; and instruct his opponent rather than vanquish him.” He “would frankly confess from what sources his several arguments came… This, he would say, is the opinion of Tertullian; that, of Cyprian; that of Lactantius, that of Hilary; Minucius Felix speaks to this effect; thus Victorinus; and Arnobius after this manner. Myself, too, he would sometimes quote….”

But here’s the money quote: “By assiduous reading and long-continued meditation, he made his breast a library — of Christ.”

Here it is in Latin: “Lectioneque assidua, et meditatione diuturna, pectus suum bibliothecam fecerat Christi.”

After a lot of hints and outright pleading, Jerome had written one of his letters to Nepotian (Letter 52), and Nepotian loved it so much that he kept it on his person, re-read it to himself and others, and sometimes inadvertently slept with it. Ha! (But you can’t blame him.) The letter was a treatise on the duties of the clergy, and Nepotian took it to heart. He left his priestly tunic to Jerome, as a final gift, while he was dying.

But the memorial letter also talks about a few other things.

Nepotian was a guy who, along with all his charity giving and work, “while he despises himself in the flesh and walks abroad… in his poverty, he still seeks out everything that may adorn the church.”

He was also a guy who “took pains to keep the altar bright, the church walls clean from soot, and the stone floor swept. He saw that the doorkeeper was constantly at his post, that the door curtains were at the doors, the sacristy clean, and the vessels shining. The careful reverence that he showed in every holy ritual led him to neglect no duty, small or great. Whenever you would expect him to be in church, you found him there.”

Furthermore, he was also an artist: “…he adorned both the basilicas of the church and the halls of its martyrs with sketches of flowers, foliage, and vine tendrils; so that everything attractive in church… bore witness to the labor and zeal of the priest set over it.”

Jerome consoles his friend Heliodorus for his loss as uncle and bishop, and hints that Nepotian had been the obvious next candidate for bishop to succeed Heliodorus at his passing. But he advises Heliodorus not to grieve too much, so as not to seem like a disbeliever or give a bad example.

“What is desirable is to appear as if he is absent from you, not dead; as if you await him, not as if you had lost him.”

It’s a good letter, with a lot to chew on.

(Translation slightly altered from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation, over on New Advent. Because I am picky.)

UPDATE: St. Heliodorus of Altino was in fact the first bishop of Altino/Altinum. His relics were translated (ie, moved) to Torcello during a time of barbarian invasion, so you’ll find his remains in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta there. His feast is on July 3.

St. Nepotianus of Altino’s feast is on May 4.

American Catholic highlighted Jerome’s comment about Nepotian, back in 2018.

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