The beginning of the letter makes it very clear that St. Jerome is furious over these accusations.
1. Now that I have received a letter from you, if I do not answer it I shall be guilty of pride, and if I do I shall be guilty of rashness. For the matters concerning which you ask my opinion are such that they cannot either be spoken of or listened to without profanity.
St. Jerome cannot even contain himself in responding to these types of attacks. Keep following, it only gets better. In the next portion of the opening paragraph he explains what is is that he is so upset about.
You tell me that Vigilantius (whose very name "Wakeful" is a contradiction: he ought rather to be described as "Sleepy") has again opened his fetid lips and is pouring forth a torrent of filthy venom upon the relics of the holy martyrs; and that he calls us who cherish them ashmongers and idolaters who pay homage to dead men.s bones.
Now, it is a recognized historical fact that Vigilantius was a Christian from Aquitania (Modern day France) who was recognized as being an opponent to the veneration of the Saints and their relics in particular. So, I find it interesting how Protestants quote Church Fathers like St. Jerome and St. Augustine, claiming that none of them believed in venerating relics, when we have guys like Vigilantius writing against them for this very reason. Saint Jerome counters with the same argument that Catholics counter with. I like the language St. Jerome uses here in his retort to such foolishness, fetid (having a heavy offensive smell) lips that pour forth a torrent of filthy venom, etc. St. Jerome was not playing! He was furious that he was getting a letter from his fellow Christian on this subject. He continues on.
Unhappy wretch! to be wept over by all Christian men, who sees not that in speaking thus he makes himself one with the Samaritans and the Jews who hold dead bodies unclean and regard as defiled even vessels which have been in the same house with them, following the letter that killeth and not the spirit that giveth life, [2 Cor. iii. 6].
"Unhappy wretch!" writes Saint Jerome in addressing Vigilantius. Saint Jerome then continues on to explain that they are not "worshiping" the Saints as if they were God, or deities, which we as Catholics also claim. But he follows up with an explanation.
We, it is true, refuse to worship or adore, I say not the relics of the martyrs, but even the sun and moon, the angels and archangels, the Cherubim and Seraphim and every name that is named, not only in this world but also in that which is to come, [Eph. i. 21]. For we may not serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever, [Rom. i. 25].
Still we honour the relics of the martyrs, that we may adore Him whose martyrs they are.
So here we see that St. Jerome is clearly stating that the veneration or honor they are giving to the Saints and their relics is not the same as worshiping God. I covered this in my first part of this series. We give a high esteem or honor to them, not the worship or adoration that is due to God alone. Yet, like Catholics, St Jerome realizes that when we honor the Saints and their relics, that is leads us to adoration and worship God, whose Saints they are. In other words, we understand that their "saintliness" is not of their own origin, but derives from God. So Saint Jerome clearly endorses the veneration or honor of the Saints' relics, but does not approve of "worshiping" them as if they are God, or "gods".
We honour the servants that their honour may be reflected upon their Lord who Himself says: ..he that receiveth you receiveth me... , [Matt. x. 40]. I ask Vigilantius, "Are the relics of Peter and of Paul unclean? Was the body of Moses unclean, of which we are told (according to the correct Hebrew text, [Deut. xxxiv. 6]) that it was buried by the Lord Himself? And do we, every time that we enter the basilicas of apostles and prophets and martyrs, pay homage to the shrines of idols? Are the tapers which burn before their tombs only the tokens of idolatry?"
Saint Jerome continues and says that their honor reflects the work of the Lord which is in them. Then St. Jerome attacks the mentality of the Jews and the uncleanliness they attributed to the remains of the dead. Vigilantius must have used this reason as an argument against the veneration and use of the relics, and St. Jerome was refuting him on this. What is also telling here is that the basilicas of St. Jerome's time must have had relics in them as well because he makes reference to shrines in which they payed homage to the Saints in basilicas. He also makes reference to the candles or tapers which they burn before their tombs and relics. The Christians of his time must have made pilgrimages to these burial sites of the apostles as well. He clearly states that it is foolish to consider this idolatry. I already made mention of the symbolism of the candles in the second part of my series, in which they represent the light of Christ in the Saints. The next portion, we see St. Jerome calling for the bishop to strike down this guy who is making these false accusations, and he further refutes the accusations of the relics being unclean.
I will go farther still and ask a question which will make this theory recoil upon the head of its inventor and which will either kill or cure that frenzied brain of his, so that simple souls shall be no more subverted by his sacrilegious reasonings. Let him answer me this: Was the Lord.s body unclean when it was placed in the sepulchre? And did the angels clothed in white raiment merely watch over a corpse dead and defiled, that ages afterwards this sleepy fellow might indulge in dreams and vomit forth his filthy surfeit, so as, like the persecutor Julian, either to destroy the basilicas of the saints or to convert them into heathen temples?
2. I am surprised that the reverend bishop in whose diocese he is said to be a presbyter [probably Exuperius of Toulouse] acquiesces in this his mad preaching, and that he does not rather with apostolic rod, nay with a rod of iron [Ps. ii. 9], shatter this useless vessel and deliver him for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved, [1 Cor. v. 5]. He should remember the words that are said: When thou sawest a thief, then thou consentedst unto him; and hast been partaker with adulterers, [Ps. l. 18]; and in another place, I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the Lord, [Ps. ci. 8]; and again Do not I hate them, O Lord, that hate thee? and am not I grieved with those that rise up against thee? I hate them with perfect hatred ... , [Ps. cxxxix. 21, 22].
I thought that was pretty sharp and to the point no? Again the language used is direct and blunt. He wants this heretic to be struck down by the rod of iron! He considers Vigilantius' position to be an invention. If only we had people in the Church today like St. Jerome who were not afraid to openly challenge false accusations like these. Then Saint Jerome asks an important question.
If the relics of the martyrs are not worthy of honour, how comes it that we read Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints, [Ps. cxvi. 15]?
It is quite clear here that St. Jerome believes that the relics are to be honored by all Christians. St. Jerome seems to quote psalm 116:15 to point out that the veneration of the martyrs corresponds to the same glory and honor given to them in the Scriptures. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."
If dead men's bones defile those that touch them, how came it that the dead Elisha raised another man also dead, and that life came to this latter from the body of the prophet which according to Vigilantius must have been unclean? In that case every encampment of the host of Israel and the people of God was unclean; for they carried the bodies of Joseph and of the patriarchs with them in the wilderness, and carried their unclean ashes even into the holy land. In that case Joseph, who was a type of our Lord and Saviour, was a wicked man; for he carried up Jacob's bones with great pomp to Hebron merely to put his unclean father beside his unclean grandfather and great-grandfather, that is, one dead body along with others.
Here Saint Jerome continues to rail against the "uncleanliness" of the relics by looking to the Old Testament. What comes next is quite shocking and gives us an idea at how upset St. Jerome really is by these types of false accusations.
The wretch's tongue should be cut out, or he should be put under treatment for insanity. As he does not know how to speak, he should learn to be silent. I have myself before now seen the monster, and have done my best to bind the maniac with texts of scripture, as Hippocrates binds his patients with chains; but "he went away, he departed, he escaped, he broke out," [as Cicero says of Catiline, Cat. ii. l], and taking refuge between the Adriatic and the Alps of King Cotius declaimed in his turn against me. For all that a fool says must be regarded as mere noise and mouthing.
I think this passage says it all concerning this false attack. Cut out his tongue! The man is insane! And so too we view those Protestants who falsely attack the Catholic faith as being insane and fools who must be regarded as nothing more than mere noise and mouthing. Of course the tongue thing may be a bit extreme, I am not sure if St. Jerome would have followed through or not, maybe he would have. One thing is certain, he justifies himself in the next passage.
3. You may perhaps in your secret thoughts find fault with me for thus assailing a man behind his back. I will frankly admit that my indignation overpowers me; I cannot listen with patience to such sacrilegious opinions.
It seems that St. Jerome at the point of writing this letter was at the end of his rope. He must have been dealing with these types of heretics for quite awhile. It is apparent that he has lost his patience with the matter, and considers such men who oppose the honor of the Saints and their relics to be sacrilegious! We as Catholics also view those who oppose the honor and veneration of the Saints and their relics as a spit in the face of Jesus Christ.
I have read of the javelin of Phinehas, of the harshness of Elijah, of the jealous anger of Simon the zealot, of the severity of Peter in putting to death Ananias and Sapphira, and of the firmness of Paul who, when Elymas the sorcerer withstood the ways of the Lord, doomed him to lifelong blindness. There is no cruelty in regard for God's honour. Wherefore also in the Law it is said: If thy brother or thy friend or the wife of thy bosom entice thee from the truth, thine hand shall be upon them and thou shalt shed their blood, and so shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of Israel.. , [Deut. xiii. 5-9].
Once more I ask: Are the relics of the martyrs unclean? If so, why did the apostles allow themselves to walk in that funeral procession before the body -- the unclean body -- of Stephen, [Acts viii. 2]? Why did they make great lamentation over him, that their grief might be turned into our joy?
Here the great Saint continues to defend the veneration of the relics specifically and refers to the apostles who walked in the funeral procession with the body of St Stephen. Again, Vigilantius must have been using this argument to object to the veneration and procession of the relics, which apparently were taking place not only at their funerals, but that were processed with for veneration and as St. Augustine points out in Book 22, chapters 8-10 of "The City of God" many were healed by this veneration. St. Augustine also makes mention of prayers being made to the martyrs for their intercession as well. In the next passage it seems that St. Jerome is taking issue with Vigilantius' attitude towards prayer vigils. Of course we as Catholics understand the vigil prayers of the Church.
You tell me farther that Vigilantius execrates vigils. In this surely he goes contrary to his name. The "Wakeful One" wishes to sleep and will not hearken to the Saviour's words, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.. , [Matt. xxvi. 40, 41]. And in another place a prophet sings: At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto thee because of thy righteous judgments.. , [Ps. cxix. 62]. We read also in the gospel [Luke vi. 12] how the Lord spent whole nights in prayer, and how the apostles when they were shut up in prison kept vigil all night long, singing their psalms until the earth quaked, and the keeper of the prison believed, and the magistrates and citizens were filled with terror, [Acts xvi. 25-38]. Paul says: Continue in prayer and watch in the same.. , [Col. iv. 2], and in another place he speaks of himself as in watchings often.., [2 Cor. xi. 27].
Vigilantius may sleep if he pleases, and may choke in his sleep, destroyed by the destroyer of Egypt and of the Egyptians.
Here Saint Jerome again exhibits his aggravation with Vigilantius. Apparently Vigilantius slept during the vigils in his contempt for it, and St. Jerome rails in after him saying, "and may choke in his sleep." What is telling here is that once one part of the true faith is abandoned it leads to other rejections of the faith. Here Vigilantius not only has decided that the veneration and honor of relics is wrong, but he also has decided that he will reject the prayers of the Church as well. Does this sound familiar? Yes, Vigilantius sounds like the prototype for Luther and the Reformers doesn't he?
But let us say with David: Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.. So will the Holy One and the 'Iyr [Hebrew for "Watcher"] come to us, [Ps. cxxi. 4 combined with Dan. iv. 13]. And if ever by reason of our sins He fall asleep, let us say to Him: Awake, why sleepest thou, O Lord, [Ps. xliv. 23]; and when our ship is tossed by the waves let us rouse Him and say, Master, save us: we perish, [Matt. viii. 25; Luke viii. 24].
4. I would dictate more were it not that the limits of a letter impose upon me a modest silence. I might have gone on, had you sent me the books which contain this man's rhapsodies, for in that case I should have known what points I had to refute. As it is I am only beating the air and revealing not so much his infidelity (for this is patent to all) as my own faith. But if you wish me to write against him at greater length, send me those wretched dronings of his and in my answer he shall hear an echo of John the Baptist's words Now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire..
Saint Jerome closes the letter by letting his recipient know that he will be glad to write more on the matter if he wishes, and that Vigilantius and those like him are akin to trees who do not bring forth good fruit which will be cast into the fire. This issue should therefore should be taken seriously by Catholics of good faith, and we should regard the writings of the Protestants who rail against the veneration of the Saints as wretched droning as well.