The Pope Who Helped Anchor the Early Church…Literally!

"Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity" by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
“Pope St. Clement Adoring the Trinity” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Going with the recent theme, we’re on to the fourth pope of the Church, Pope St. Clement I, who served as Bishop of Rome from 92 to 99 AD. He is an Apostolic Father, meaning that he knew St. Peter and St. Paul, well enough to be mentioned by Paul in Philippians 4:3 and to be ordained a bishop by Peter.

Like St. Paul, he was a bit of a writer, but his most important (and most authentic) letter was to the Corinthians. It’s not part of Scripture by only a few years, but it’s incredibly important! The letter gives us a glimpse of what the Church was like just 60 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. The people of Corinth were getting in trouble again, this time for starting to think they didn’t really want their bishop or priests. So St. Clement wrote the community to teach them about what the apostles intended (he knew them, by the way) and what was the right thing to do.

One reason why the letter is so important is that it distinguishes very clearly the different, but important roles of the presbyters (what we call priests today), bishops, deacons, and laity. Think about that – it’s 96 AD! Vatican II wouldn’t happen for another 1800+ years! Sometimes people think that priests, deacons, and bishops were invented later on as the Church got bigger, but as this letter shows us, things got very organized, very quickly. Clement tells us that it’s because people get into fights (you know…like YOU CORINTHIANS) that the apostles provided for the succession of authority in the Church.

saintc48The other interesting thing goes back to why the letter was written. Clement makes reference that the Corinthians actually sought him out for his attention and teaching. Now why would the Corinthians, all the way over in Greece, write some guy in Rome? Because he’s the pope, of course! The idea and role of the papacy was still very primitive in the 1st century, but already, the Churches all over the world were looking to him as an authority! That’s pretty cool!

The Church celebrates St. Clement as a martyr, although we’re not really sure how his death came about. Legends were written about his death, and they’re probably based on at least a little truth, so let’s just go with it. The legends say that when Trajan came to power in Rome in 98 AD, Clement was imprisoned and sent to work in a rock quarry near present-day Crimea. When he arrived at the work camp, he found the prisoners starving from lack of water, so he knelt down in prayer, got up, and struck the ground with his pickaxe, releasing a stream of clean water. I guess the Romans didn’t like that much, because he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea (ouch!). Today, his relics are housed in the Basilica di San Clemente in Rome, named in his honor.

It’s neat and sometimes surprising to see how alive and organized the Church was in these early times. But wait! There’s more popes to come!