Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Pope St. Clement

Reading N°31 in the History of the Catholic Church

 Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

Pope St. Clement (92-99)
The Church is more than a society guided by a common inspiration: it is a hierarchical organization with a supreme authority to regulate its operation and to decide disputes. At the very hour when persecution and heresy were increasing their ravages, a painful quarrel broke out in the Christian community at Corinth. Following certain troubles, the precise cause of which we do not know, some members of the councilor presbyters were deposed. In a city like Corinth, disorder may assume very serious proportions. The Greek spirit, naturally particularistic and fickle, found it hard to submit to the fundamental law of Christianity, which established its hierarchy on the unity of doctrine and government. Thirty years earlier, St. Paul was obliged to administer a sharp reprimand to the Corinthians, who were saying: "I am of Paul; and I am of Apollo; and I am of Cephas,"[1] as they might have said: "I belong to the Porch, or to the Lyceum, or to the Academy." The schism threatened to rend the Church. To prevent this, there was need for something besides the exhortations of a doctor or prophet; the situation called for the decision of a supreme chief and sovereign judge. This is why recourse was had to the successor of the Apostle Peter, to Clement of Rome.

The Roman Pontiff wrote them a letter wherein, along with an admirable spirit of prudence, there appears the consciousness of undeniable authority. He begins by excusing himself for not having intervened sooner. He says:
Owing to the sudden and repeated misfortunes and calamities which have befallen us, we consider that our attention has been somewhat delayed in turning to the questions disputed among you.[2]
This is evidently a reference to the persecution of Domitian. Then the head of the Roman Church enters clearly upon the capital question: the necessity of humble submission to the order established by God in all things, and principally in His Church.
Let us be humble-minded, brethren, putting aside all arrogance and conceit. [...] Let not the wise man boast himself in his wisdom. Let him boast in the Lord, to seek Him out and to do judgment and righteousness.[3]
But to be just and righteous is to bow before the order and harmony that God has establislled in all things.
The ocean and the worlds beyond it are ruled by the same injunctions of the Master. The seasons of spring, summer, autumn, and winter give place to one another in peace. [...] All these things did the great Creator and Master of the universe ordain to be in peace and concord.[4]
This comparison, taken from the harmony of the physical world, which the Greeks called the Kosmos, or order par excellence, was particularly well chosen. Clement pushes his argument farther. He takes his analogies from the human body and the social organization.
Let us take our body; the head is nothing without the feet; likewise the feet are nothing without the head.[5]
He recalls that, in the Old Testament, God, the direct author of the Law, instituted a hierarchy composed of four degrees: the laity, the Levites, the priests, and the high priest.[6]
The Apostles received the gospel from the Lord Jesus Christ, who was sent from God. They appointed their first converts to be bishops and deacons.[7]
The bishop of Rome in fine compares the ecclesiastical discipline to military discipline.
Let us consider those who serve our generals. [...] Not all are prefects nor tribunes nor centurions nor in charge of fifty men, or the like, but each carries out in his own rank the commands of the emperor and of the generals.[8]
We know how inclined St. Paul was to use these military comparisons.[9] But Christians are something more than an army. Clement says they are also "the flock of Christ,"[10] or, better still, "the members of Christ."[11] The flock should be at peace under the safekeeping of the presbyters;[12] the members of Christ's body should not be torn asunder.[13] The consequences that follow from these principles are solid and clear:
Let no one rebel against correction.[14] [...] Let all submit to the presbyters.[15] [...] Let the offerings be made and the ceremonies be performed, not according to each one's pleasure and without order, but as the Master commands and at fixed hours.[16]
The pontiff sums up the whole instruction, saying:
Let us put aside empty and vain cares, and let us come to the glorious and venerable rule of our tradition.[17]
The letter closes with these lines, in a spirit of calm but firm authority:
You will give us joy and gladness if you are obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit, and root out the wicked passion of your jealousy. [...] We have sent faithful and prudent men, who have lived among us without blame from youth to old age, and they shall be witnesses between you and us. We have done this that you may know that our whole care has been and is directed to your speedy attainment of peace.[18]
Whether we consider this spontaneous act of Rome in itself or whether we weigh the terms of the letter, we cannot escape the impression that, as early as the end of the first century of the Christian era, i.e., about fifty years after her foundation, the Roman Church was conscious of possessing supreme and exceptional authority, which she will never cease hereafter to claim. But how did the Corinthians receive the exhortations and the messengers of the Church of Rome? So well, that St. Clement's Epistle was placed by them almost on a level with the Holy Scriptures. Seventy years later,[19] it was still read on Sundays in the assemblies of the faithful.[20]

By the fullness and reliability of its teaching, St. Clement's letter deserved the honors given it in the first centuries. Although it recalls the truths of the faith only in passing and insofar as they are related to the practical purpose of the letter, those truths are a sort of portrayal of the Christian beliefs in their main lines. The author appeals in turn to God's supreme authority and His creative power, to His providence, and to His love.[21] The last judgment, Heaven, and the resurrection of the dead are presented as the final end of man;[22] Christ, as man's divine model. The Son of God, equal to the Father and the Spirit by His divine nature, became man like us to save us by His death.[23] Through Him, our high priest and our advocate with God the Father, man, aided by grace and making his faith fruitful by his works, has hope of being saved.[24]

In testimony of the bonds, which in the Church have ever united the law of belief and the law of prayer,[25] dogma and liturgy, the Pontiff inserts in his letter a solemn formula of prayer which we may regard, if not as the official formula of liturgical prayer of that time, at least as a specimen of the way the celebrants developed the subject of Eucharistic prayer:
Thou dost humble the pride of the haughty, thou dost destroy the imaginings of nations [...] thou dost slay and make alive [...] and art God of all flesh [...] thou dost multiply nations upon earth and hast chosen out from them all those that love thee through Jesus Christ thy beloved child. [...] We beseech thee, Master, to be our help and succor. [...] Feed the hungry, ransom our prisoners, raise up the weak. [...] O merciful and compassionate, forgive us our iniquities and unrighteousness, and transgressions and shortcomings. Reckon not every sin of thy servants and handmaids. [...] Give concord and peace to us and to all that dwell on the earth. [...] Thou, Master, hast given the power of sovereignty to them [our rulers and governors]. [...] And to them, Lord, grant health, peace, concord, firmness. [...] Direct their counsels according to that which is good and pleasing before thee. [...] O thou who alone art able to do these things and far better things for us, we praise thee through Jesus Christ, the high priest and guardian of our souls, through whom be glory and majesty to thee, both now and for all generations and for ever and ever. Amen.[26]
Such is the beautiful prayer that ascended to God from the Christian assemblies of Rome, like a hymn of serene peace and unspeakable purity, after Domitian's persecution, in the midst of that "corrupted and corruptive" society, whose baseness and cruelty are recounted by the pens of Tacitus and Suetonius.[27]


[1] Cf. 1 Cor. 1:12.
[2] Clement, First Epistle, 1:1.
[3] Ibidem, 13:1.
[4] Ibidem, 20:8-11.
[5] Ibidem, 37:5.
[6] Ibidem, 40:5.
[7] Ibidem, 62:1, 4.
[8] Ibidem, 37:2 f.
[9] Cf. 2 Cor. 10:3-6; Ephes. 6:10-18; 1 Tim. 1:18; 2 TIm. 2:3.
[10] Clement, First Epistle, 54:2.
[11] Ibidem, 46:7.
[12] Ibidem, 54:2.
[13] Ibidem, 46:7.
[14] Ibidem, 56:2.
[15] Ibidem, 57:1.
[16] Ibidem, 40:2.
[17] Ibidem, 7:2.
[18] Ibidem, 63:2-4.
[19] Cf. Dionysius of Corinth, in Eusebius, H. E., IV, xxiii.
[20] Cf. Duchesne, The Churches Separated from Rome, p. 85.
[21] Clement, First Epistle, Chapters 19, 23, 29, 35.
[22] Cf. Chapters 5, 24, 25, 26, 50.
[23] Cf. Chapters 2, 7, 12, 31, 32, 35, 49.
[24] Cf. Chapters 7, 8, 16, 18, 32, 33, 35.
[25] According to the well-known formula: lex orandi, lex credendi.
[26] Clement, First Epistle, Chapters 59 to 61. This letter was widely known and greatly venerated in Christian antiquity. But it seems to have been neglected in the West from the fourth century onward. In the Middle Ages, it was altogether unknown. In the seventeenth century, it was partly recovered in the famous Codex Alexandrinus. Bryennios, in 1875, reconstructed the entire text. The beautiful prayer quoted above forms a part of recently discovered fragments.
[27] "Corrumpere et corrumpi saeculum vocatur." (Tacitus, Germania, 19.)


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