Clement of Rome (23 November)

Today in the Martyrology we find:

Natalis sancti Clementis Primi, Papae et Martyris, qui, tertius post beatum Petrum Apostolum, Pontificatum tenuit, et, in persecutione Trajani, apud Chersonesum relegatus, ibi, alligata ad ejus collum anchora, praecipitatus in mare, martyrio coronatur. Ipsius autem corpus, Hadriano Secundo Summo Pontifice, a sanctis Cyrillo et Methodio fratribus Romam translatum, in Ecclesia quae ejus nomine antea fuerat exstructa, honorifice reconditum est.

The death of Saint Clement I, pope and martyr, who, third after the blessed Apostle Peter, held the Pontificate, and in the persecution of Trajan was exiled to Crimea, where, wrung at the neck to an anchor, he was thrown into the sea and received the crown of martyrdom. His body, under the Supreme Pontiff Adrian II, transferred to Rome by the brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, was placed with great honor in the church previously dedicated to his name.

Unlike some of the more legendary narratives of early saints in the Martyrology (for example: Lucy, Agatha, Cecilia), Clement’s story is more historical than hagiographical.

Perhaps Clement provides us with perhaps the earliest evidence of the Roman Primacy in the post-Apostolic era. The famous epistle πρὸς Κορινθίους (to the Corinthians), written around 96 AD, is a remarkable example of the Roman Church admonishing and correcting another Church across the seas. The letter is remarkable not only for its stylistic coherence and theological depth, but especially for the time in which it was written. The letter itself refers to the “misfortunes which have befallen us”, meaning the increased persecutions under the emperor Trajan. In other words, the epistle does not constitute some naked, worldly power grab by the Roman Church; even as the bodies of Christians were crushed under imperial heel, there was the implicit recognition, both at Rome and at Corinth, that the Apostolic See possessed a sacred trust to preside over and guide all other Churches. All major figures in the Church at this time had known the Apostles: the works of Peter and Paul remained within living memory of the surviving Christians. Clement himself was a companion of Peter and perhaps also of Paul, since there is mention of a “Clement” in the letter to the Philippians (Origen, Jerome, and Eusebius of Caesarea hold this latter attribution).

The letter itself is anonymous, with no personal name or signature attached to it. The salutation simply reads, “Church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning at Corinth,” and the lack of any personal attribution has given rise to various authorship theories. Yet, whomever may be the scribe who put pen to paper, this much is clear: it was, in those days, unthinkable that a local Church should compose such an authoritative, lengthy exhortation without the blessing of the bishop. The local Church is constituted precisely though the presence of the episcopus, who oversees the flock of the Lord and is a guarantor of communio with every other Church. Furthermore, the letter’s closing lists the messengers (legates!) sent from Rome to carry the message to Corinth– Claudius Ephebus, Valerius Bito, Fortunatus– bidding the Corinthians to send their reply quickly through these same messengers, “that they may the sooner announce to us the peace and harmony we so earnestly desire and long for, and that we may the more quickly rejoice over the good order re-established among you.”

The issue brought to Rome’s judgment concerned the deposition of older presbyters (priests) by younger members of the community. Of course, this touches upon the very nature of the Church. Clement exhorts the Corinthians to obey the old priests, who were instituted by the Apostles themselves. Just as he heard the preaching of Peter and now presides over the Church at Rome, so too do the priests at Corinth, chosen by Paul, preside over that Church. Clement’s letter is, therefore, not only an apologia pro primatu pontificis romani, but also a proof for apostolic succession!

Other theorists argue that this letter constitutes an example of “fraternal correction” rather than a proof of Roman primacy. Yet one cannot read the epistle and deny that it uses the language of a superior Church conscious of its right to correct.

If, however, any shall disobey the words spoken by Him through us, let them know that they will involve themselves in transgression and serious danger; but we shall be innocent of this sin, and, instant in prayer and supplication, shall desire that the Creator of all preserve unbroken the computed number of His elect in the whole world through His beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom He called us from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge of the glory of His name…

and also,

Joy and gladness will ye afford us, if ye become obedient to the words written by us and through the Holy Spirit root out the lawless wrath of your jealousy according to the intercession which we have made for peace and unity in this letter. We have sent men faithful and discreet, whose conversation from youth to old age has been blameless amongst us,—the same shall be witnesses between you and us.

Furthermore, Clement’s letter is a response to a plea from Corinth itself! That Greek church did not write to the apostolic sees in Antioch, Alexandria, or even Jerusalem for help. Corinth exhorted not any apostolic see, but the Apostolic See. Clement, knowing himself Peter’s successor, replied with a letter so eloquent and profound to rival the best epistles of the New Testament.

Sometime around the year 100, Clement was captured by the Romans, and was exiled by the emperor Trajan to Crimea, where in captivity he worked as a slave quarryman. Through his ministry to the prisoners, he won many converts to the faith; his captors, jealous of his success and fearing an uprising, tied Clement to an anchor and threw him overboard. His body was buried close to the shore. In the ninth century, St. Cyril discovered a tomb exposed during low tide near the old prison. He exhumed the tomb and found the bones of a man and an anchor; with the certainty of faith, he knew that Clement had at last been found. With his brother Methodius, Cyril went to Rome and consigned the pontiff’s remains to Pope Adrian II, who amidst great fanfare reinterred Clement beneath the high altar in the Roman basilica bearing his name.

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