The Reverend Msgr. Harry James Jerome: A True Man of the Church
(Saturday, August 10, 1935 - Friday, April 30, 2010)
The Most Reverend Edward K. Braxton, Ph.D., S.T.D.
Bishop of Belleville
From the day of his Ordination to the Priesthood by Bishop Albert R. Zuroweste on Saturday, May 27, 1961 until the day of his death, Friday, April 30, 2010, Msgr. Harry Jerome was always a Churchman, a man of the Church. This was apparent to me from my very first conversations with him during the summer of 2005. I asked him to share his impressions of the strengths and challenges of the Church in the Diocese of Belleville. In a quiet, forthright manner, he shared his insights and his considerable wisdom on Catholic life in southern Illinois. He was generous with his positive observations and unflinchingly frank in his assessments of challenges. His sometimes wry sense of humor was revealing. In the course of our conversations, he never belittled or undermined the reputation of a fellow priest. When I asked him to serve on the College of Consultors and as a member of the Presbyteral Council, Msgr. Jerome’s prompt response was, “I’ll do it, Bishop, if you think it would be good for the Church.”
Msgr. Jerome enjoyed serving as Pastor of his home parish, Sacred Heart in Du Quoin, very much. He knew the people well and he loved and cared for them as a good shepherd. He happily and prayerfully celebrated the traditional Latin Mass each month for his parishioners and for those who came from afar. His heart ached with theirs as he and the parishioners struggled over the future of their beloved school during its final years. During those final years, he had a variety of health problems. This was a source of deep regret because he knew his failing health sometimes diminished his ability to give of himself to his parishioners wholeheartedly. This was disappointing for him because he felt the Church (the People of God) deserved his best.
During one of our many conversations when he was in the hospital, Msgr. Jerome shared stories with me about his years at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where he earned his degree in Canon Law (J.C.L.). This led to his years of service at the Diocesan Tribunal and his distinguished service as Officialis of the Diocese. Working with Canon Law and a sound theology of Christian marriage, he appreciated the opportunity to provide assistance to couples facing challenges in their marriages. Here he was preeminently a Churchman. During these same years he preached at dozens of parishes throughout the Diocese. His neat box of files of homily notes for the three-year cycle of readings was well-known. He became energized simply by talking about his priesthood during those years when his voice was being heard in pulpits throughout southern Illinois. Sensitive, self-effacing, and modest, he would be the last to speak about the enormous good he accomplished in caring for Christ’s faithful.
Msgr. Jerome was not a canonist in the strictly academic sense. He loved the law and studied it because of its unique contribution to many aspects of the daily life of the Church. He was fond of Venerable John Paul II’s words in his Apostolic Constitution that introduces the 1983 edition of the Code of Canon Law. “And in fact a Code of Canon Law is absolutely necessary for the Church. Since the Church is established in the form of a social and visible unit, it needs rules, so that its hierarchical and organic structure may be visible; that its exercise of the functions divinely entrusted to it, particularly of sacred power and of the administration of the sacraments, is properly ordered; that the mutual relationships of Christ’s faithful are reconciled in justice based on charity, with the rights of each safeguarded and defined; and lastly, that the common initiatives which are undertaken so that Christian life may be ever more perfectly carried out, are supported, strengthened and promoted by canonical laws.” After he first pointed out this passage, Harry said, “Bishop, I know some people would think I must be crazy for reading and marking up my copy of the Code. They would say the Church is build upon Jesus Christ and His Word, not upon laws. But I’m not crazy. I’d like to see someone keep a church going for 2000 with just a Bible and no structure!” He also liked to say, “If a priest knows the law, he can help people; if he doesn’t know the law, he can hurt them.” In his forty-nine years as a priest, Msgr. Jerome did all he could to help people and avoid hurting them.
Harry’s last months in retirement were at times made difficult by pain in many forms. One day shortly after learning with great sadness that his successor at Sacred Heart Parish, Father Thomas Stout, had died suddenly, he said, “Sometimes the only escape from the pain comes by sleeping.” In the moments before he finally fell asleep in the Lord in the arms of Bishop Schlarman, who looked out for him at the Hincke-Sense Residence, the Bishop asked if their was anything he could do for him. Though I and others had anointed him in the past, his response was “anointing.” He was a true man of the Church requesting the grace of Christ through the ministry of the Church one last time.
In my last conversation with Harry he was very positive, thanking God that a recently discovered growth was benign and not cancerous as he had feared. I deeply regretted that it turned out not to be possible to arrange for the Liturgy of Christian Burial at a time when I could be the celebrant, as Msgr. Jerome had requested. On the morning of his funeral, I celebrated a special Mass for dear Msgr. Jerome in the historic chapel at the University of Notre Dame. I prayed that Christ the High Priest, who knew Harry’s great suffering and his even greater joys, would embrace this faithful Churchman, heal him, restore him, and show him a place of honor at the heavenly Eucharist. St. Jerome, pray for him!