In every stage of history, hell has unleashed onslaughts against the Bride of Christ, but in every period there have also been especially chosen souls whose perseverance and fidelity served as instruments for the accomplishment of the divine promise.

 

A pleasant breeze rustled through the trees which were beginning to lose their leaves, and the fading sunlight delicately bathed the imposing Roman-style mansion situated on sprawling grounds. However, inside the house the climate was quite different from the fresh and crisp late afternoon. It was easy to note that its occupant was on the horns of a dilemma. The man paced the floor with evident impatience, seemingly unable to decide on a course of action. With pursed lips, he uttered these almost inaudible words:

— What is the best way?… What should be done?…

He mopped his brow, recalling the events of the morning. His eyes smouldered with reignited hatred as these thoughts came back to him and he resumed his restless pacing. Ausidian was his name. He had been sent by the Emperor Trajan from the world’s capital to Tauric Chersonese, present-day Crimea. Why?

There was a quarry in the region where marble was mined. To provide the manpower, a large contingent had just been sent there, made up of people found guilty of what was considered a serious crime in that age – being Christians. It was one such “criminal” that beleaguered Ausidian’s mind that afternoon. This exile was none other than the Supreme Pontiff, later known as St. Clement of Rome.

St. Clement of Rome

Imbued with the spirit of Christ

The origin of this holy man is shrouded in mystery. According to some authors, he was of noble birth, the son of the Senator Faustinian, related to the Emperors Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. Others say he was born into a family of slaves, and later liberated. Seen from a supernatural slant, his natural origins are of little consequence, for both versions merge: he was the Pontiff of the Holy Church, the greatest dignity to which one can rise, having been previously freed from slavery to sin by the Redemption of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Irenaeus affirms of him that he knew the Apostles personally, and “kept alive their preaching in his ears and their tradition always before his eyes.”1 Other chroniclers identify him as the one extolled by St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians: “For they have laboured side by side with me in the Gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (4:3).

Thus, before ascending to the Throne of Peter, he conducted himself as a worthy successor of the Apostle of the Gentiles by his zeal and dedication to the Christian cause. He was so imbued with the Christian spirit, and so let himself be assumed by Christ that his conviction and example acted as a constant appeal to follow the Saviour. Consequently, innumerable pagans embraced the Faith and Christians generously set out on the narrow road of perfection.

One of these souls was the noble Flavia Domitilla who, through the intercession of Saints Nereus and Achilleus, received the sacred veil of virginity from him, later sealing this courageous consecration with her blood.

While the glory of St. Clement has crossed the centuries, many details of his life have been lost. But this does not prevent us from attempting to sketch it by imagining some scenes of his life based on the facts that have come down to us through history, such at that related at the opening of this article.

Successor of Peter in the Church of Rome

Those taking their first look at the life of this Saint, might, upon learning that he was one of the first successors of St. Peter, wonder how he was elected. To respond to this query, it may be helpful to turn our attention to the figure of the Fisherman, as the Gospels describe him.

While casting his nets into the Sea of Galilee, Simon considered things from the common viewpoint of his time. The Lord unexpectedly calls him and makes him the Prince of the Apostles, the rock upon which the Holy Church would be built. Our Lord ascends to Heaven and remains somehow present on earth in the person of His Vicar, who undertakes the great work of the conversion of the world.

The years passed and he lived to see the fulfilment of the Saviour’s words, for he became a fisher of men (cf. Mt 4:19) and fed the sheep of the Lord (cf. Jn 21:17). But, in so doing, how many obstacles, persecutions, heresies – how much adversity he had to courageously confront!

Over time, he felt that the accomplishment of the final prophecy of Jesus was drawing near: “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21:18).
The day of his martyrdom approached and St. Peter was not concerned with himself, for he knew that he would go to join Him whom he loved and longed for. But what would become of the Church? With his departure, who would preserve it from error, protect it from dangers, and strengthen it in times of trial? Who would guide it toward the perfection which God had reserved for it?

His eyes, filled with concern, scanned the faithful one by one and finally rested on Clement. Contemplating his soul, Peter could make the words of Simeon his own – “Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace” (Lk 2:29) –, for he had found an answer to this anxiety. This man’s ardent love of God would inflame the entire Church, his prudence and wisdom would guard it and, in him, Our Lord would continue to guide it. The sanctity of the chosen one was a great support for the first Pontiff in his holocaust, the assurance of the perpetuity of the Mystical Bride of Christ. This conjecture is corroborated by the narrative of Tertullian2 who affirms that it was St. Peter who, at the hour of death, elected St. Clement as his successor to the Roman Episcopate.

However, God demanded of Clement a proof of disinterested love, for, as the history of the Popes records – without giving the reasons – it was Linus who assumed the Chair of Peter. Neither ambition, nor desire for prestige or power reigned in Clement’s heart. Rather, he put into practice what he would later counsel: “Who among you is generous, compassionate or filled with love? Tell him: ‘If there is rebellion, quarrels and divisions on my account, I will leave. I will go where you please, and I will do what the multitude ordains, so that the flock of Christ may live in peace with the established priests.’”3

Linus was followed by Anacletus, and only with the latter’s death, did Clement finally ascend to the Pontifical Throne, around the year 88 of the Christian Era.

First exercise of the Roman primacy

As a good shepherd and father, he fed the flock of the Lord, healing and also admonishing, fulfilling the teaching of Scripture: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prv 13:24).

Around the year 95, news reached him that members of the Christian community of Corinth, who had been the object of St. Paul’s concerns, continued to involve themselves in constant conflicts and division. Accordingly he addressed to them the famous letter that “was a first exercise of the Roman primacy after St. Peter’s death.”4

In the opening lines he clearly states the reason for his missive: “You do not follow the guidelines of His precepts, nor act in a manner worthy of Christ. On the contrary, each one follows the passions of his wicked desires.”5

With marked respect and tact, St. Clement proceeds to unite himself to the efforts of the Corinthians along the way of perfection: “We are in the same arena, and the same conflict awaits us. Thus, let us give up vain and useless concerns, and follow the glorious and venerable rule of our tradition. Let us look to what is good, pleasing and acceptable in the sight of Him who created us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on the Blood of Christ, and we will understand how precious it is to His Father. Poured out for our salvation, it has brought the grace of repentance to the whole world.”6

Once the error had been identified, he seeks to elevate their thoughts, showing them the grandeur of God’s call to us; he provides counsel and practical explanations and exhorts them to persevere in adversity.

St. Peter and St. Clement – Basilica of St. Clement, Rome; previous page, illumination from the
                                                              Gradual of Santa Maria degli Angeli – The British Library

Beautiful description of the Church’s identity

The Letter to the Corinthians, however, is more than just a solution to a concrete problem. It is a wide-ranging and beautiful description of the identity of the nascent Church and its mission. For, “If there were abuses in Corinth, Clement observed, the reason should be sought in the weakening of charity and of the other indispensable Christian virtues.”7

To attain his goal, the Pontiff “underlined that the Church’s structure was sacramental and not political. The action of God who comes to meet us in the Liturgy precedes our decisions and our ideas. The Church is, above all, a gift of God and not something we ourselves created; consequently, this sacramental structure does not only guarantee the common order but also this precedence of God’s gift which we all need.”8

St. Clement also shows “how we form one Body in Christ and in this Body, unity, not disorder, should reign.”9 He reveals himself to be a defender of hierarchy and of the fulfilment of duty, one who “not only admires military discipline, but proposes it as an example to be followed within the community.”10

Exiled by order of the Emperor

In considering the dedication and the care that this Pope lavished on the community of Corinth, one might tend to imagine that the Barque of Peter sailed on a tranquil sea at that time, and that the Vicar of Christ had no other concern than the spiritual progress of his sheep.

However, reality was quite different! Immediately following the greeting, in the previously cited Letter to the Corinthians, he recalls the difficult times they faced: “Brethren, owing to the unforeseen calamities and hardships which have befallen us one after another”…11

After the death of the Emperor Nero, in the year 68, there had, in fact, been a time of peace, lasting through the reigns of Vespasian and Titus. But when Domitian ascended to the throne in 81, a new storm was unleashed, for the emperor demanded to be adored as a god by his subjects, to which the Christians could not submit… This denial, in addition to a financial issue, aroused a vigorous rebirth of pagan hatred, and the climate of terror, persecution and death was re-established. Notwithstanding “the strictest prohibition of Christianity,”12 it continued to grow in strength.

In the year 98, Trajan began to rule the empire, continuing the persecution of his predecessor. Brought before those who considered perseverance in the Faith a crime, St. Clement was accused of “sacrilege, impiety, disobedience to imperial edicts and blasphemy against the gods.”13 The antipathy fomented for common Christians was great, but its full potential was unleashed upon the one who was seen as the soul and head of Christianity.

Before that tribunal, there was a sole condition for freedom: deny the Faith and sacrifice to the gods! The Holy Pontiff refused. Many attempts were made to persuade him, for his apostasy would draw a large part of Christianity with it, but all efforts were in vain. He remained immovable! By imperial decree, he was deported to Tauric Chersonese to work in the stone quarry. Many members of the faithful voluntarily accompanied him in this hardship.

When evil seems to have won…

Far from being daunted, he made sagacious use of his exile in benefit of Christianity, for the miracles he worked attracted flocks of people to him. Preaching Jesus Christ to the barbarians, he converted hundreds of people and administered Baptism to them. “Idols were overthrown, their temples demolished, the forests dedicated to them were cut down, and within a year, seventy-five churches were erected in honour of the true God.”14

This was the reason that Ausidian was sent there, with the order to put an end to this situation by execution. It was in these circumstances that we found him at the beginning of this article, brooding over what type of death he would inflict upon the Roman Pontiff…

He finally devised a means, or so he thought, by which even the memory of the Holy Father would be extinguished: cast him into the high seas with an anchor tied to his neck, so that the Christians could not conserve his relics and would eventually forget him.

Evil seemed to have won… but in reality, the opposite was true! Shortly after his death, Clement’s disciples gathered to beseech God to reveal the location of their holy shepherd’s body. While they prayed, the sea receded and, following the retreating waters, dry-shod, they came upon “a small marble shrine, of admirable design, built by angelic hands, where the body of the holy martyr rested, and beside it was the anchor, the instrument of his execution.”15

At left, St. Clement before Ausidian – Basilica of St. Clement, Rome. At right, finding of the body of St. Clement
                                                                – Illumination from the Menologium of Basil II, Vatican Library

Accomplishment of the divine promise

“Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18). With these words, the Divine Redeemer decreed the immortality of His Mystical Spouse and the promise of her victory in face of the countless battles, trials and opposition she would confront.

In every historical period, hell has unleashed its attacks against the Church, by turns subtle or violent, set in motion by particular circumstances; however, in each period there have also been especially chosen souls, whose perseverance and fidelity have served as instruments for the accomplishment of the divine promise.

The third successor of Peter was one of these bulwarks that marked the history of the Church. Soaring above the bloody persecutions, he was a faithful transmitter of the spirit of Christ, which he absorbed with ardent fervour from St. Peter and St. Paul. He corrected error, taught true doctrine, encouraged and strengthened virginity, and made order and hierarchy shine.

In sum, St. Clement of Rome led the Church to triumph and grow admirably during his pontificate. “Hateful people, full of every form of wickedness, were roused to such a pitch of fury” that they handed him over to torture. But “the Most High is the defender and shield of all those who venerate His most excellent name with a pure conscience. […] Those who endured such things with confidence are now heirs of glory and honour; they were exalted and God inscribed them in His memorial for ever and ever.”16 Perhaps humility prevented the Holy Pontiff from realizing how fittingly these words applied to the one who wrote them!

 

Notes


1 ST. IRENAEUS OF LYON. Adversus hæreses. L.III, c.3, n.3: PG 7, 849.
2 Cf. TERTULLIAN. De præscriptionibus adversus hæreticos, c.XXXII: PL 2, 45.
3 ST. CLEMENT OF ROME. First Letter to the Corinthians, n.54. In: PADRES APOSTÓLICOS, op. cit., p.40.
4 BENEDICT XVI. General Audience, 7/3/2007.
5 ST. CLEMENT OF ROME, op. cit., n.3, p.20.
6 Idem, n.7, p.21-22.
7 BENEDICT XVI, op. cit.
8 Idem, ibidem.
9 PADRES APOSTÓLICOS, op. cit., p.16.
10 Idem, ibidem.
11 ST. CLEMENT OF ROME, op. cit, n.1, p.19.
12 LLORCA, Bernardino. Historia de la Iglesia Católica. Edad Antigua. 7.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1996, v.I, p.187.
13 GUÉRIN, Paul. Les petits bollandistes. Vies des Saints. 7.ed. Paris: Bloud et Barral, 1876, t.XIII, p.565.
14 Idem, p.566.
15 Idem, p.566-567. The relics of the Holy Pontiff were transferred by St. Cyril to Rome, during the pontificate of St. Nicholas I (858-867), and deposited in the Roman Basilica named after him.
16 ST. CLEMENT OF ROME, op. cit., n.45, p.37.
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