November 23: Saint Clement I, Pope and Martyr

First Century
Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of sailors and marble workers


<<<      Primacy more than infallibility, service more than authority.      >>>

Our loving maternal Church expresses herself through a paternal structure which makes decisions, resolves conflicts, intercedes in disputes, and governs the people who voluntarily gather in her strong embrace. The Marian Church of discipleship is without sin, like the Virgin herself, but the Petrine Church of authority is founded on a heroic, but flawed, man. Because it is rooted in the life of Saint Peter, Church governance is, by its nature, as imperfect as it is necessary. So while the pure Church of Mary awaits discovery in heaven, her pristine beauty is disfigured in this world by her commingling with the oh-so-human Church of Peter. The highest expression of the Church’s authority is the sole office built over the words of Christ Himself—the papacy.

Today’s Memorial commemorates the third successor of Saint Peter, who served as the Bishop of Rome in the last years of the first century. Pope Clement I and his two predecessors are named in Eucharistic Prayer I just after the list of the Twelve Apostles: “Linus, Cletus, Clement…” Though few details of Clement’s life are known, what is known is surpassingly important.

Clement is the very first Apostolic Father and may have been ordained by Saint Peter himself. In about the year 96 A.D., Clement wrote from Rome to the Church in Corinth to resolve some undefined disputes over authority tearing at that congregation. Clement’s letter is one of the most ancient Christian documents after the New Testament itself. It was so significant that in the second century it was read at Mass in Corinth and, in other regions, was considered part of the New Testament Canon!

The tone of Clement’s long letter is fraternal rather than domineering, more like an encyclical than a decree. Pope Clement encourages the faithful to be obedient to their priests and bishops, to be inspired by the example of the martyrs, and to lead lives of high moral virtue. The Church of Corinth could have looked to Saint John the Evangelist for guidance. In the late first century, he was an old man living in Ephesus, a city much closer to Corinth than Rome. But it was the long-dead Peter whose shadow towered over Corinth, not the living John.

Clement’s letter reveals an even-tempered soul, a shepherd eager to preserve the tenuous unity of his flock. The letter is invaluable as a proof of the centrality of the Bishop of Rome from the first chapter of the Christian story. The service of apostolic authority, of an interior organizing principle, is intrinsic to the Gospel itself, not a later addition. The primitive papal primacy exercised by Clement is not the imposition of a foreign power structure on an otherwise dreamy and innocent Church. The proto-Christians of Corinth needed clear, fatherly, instruction as they struggled to implement the Christian revolution in their homes, villages, shops, and town squares. Saint Paul had to write to them twice using strong language. It was evidently not enough, hence Clement’s letter a few decades later.

As the first generations of Christians realized that Christ was not going to return before they died, their understanding of the Church matured. Personal prophecies, individual teachings, and private spiritual gifts had to be incorporated into the broader life of the quickly expanding church. These personal gifts thus became subject to Church approval and to conformity with Scripture and previous teachings. In Clement’s time, the Church, rather than individuals, slowly became the repository of the accumulated wisdom of Christianity. And this early Church was not merely a society of learned men, an association of the perfect, or a cultural enrichment club. It was, and still is, a real Church, and so did what a real church does. The Corinthians, with Clement’s help, knew this essential fact—that to be a Christian and to be a member of the Church was one and the same thing.

Saint Clement, you spoke with fatherly authority to faithful men and women struggling to preserve Christian unity. May your balanced example inspire all in Holy Orders to gather, not scatter, to encourage, not scold, as they teach, preach, and govern in the name of Christ. Amen.

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