During the past few months, we have been meditating on each one of the apostles as well as the first witnesses of the Christian faith that are mentioned in the New Testament.
Now we will devote our attention to the Apostolic Fathers — the first and second generation of the Church after the apostles. By doing so, we will be able to see how the Church’s journey through history began.
St. Clement, the bishop of Rome at the end of the first century, was the third successor of Peter, after Linus and Anacletus.
The most important testimony about his life is that of St. Irenaeus, the bishop of Lyon until 202. He tells us that Clement “had seen the apostles,” that he “had met with them,” and that “their preaching still resounded in his ears and their tradition was still before his eyes.”
Letter to the Corinthians
The authority and prestige of this bishop of Rome was such that various writings have been attributed to him, but the only work of which we are certain is his Letter to the Corinthians. Eusebius of Caesarea, the famous “archivist” of early Christianity, presents him in the following terms: “A letter from Clement has been handed down to us, which is recognized as being authentic, noteworthy and admirable. He himself wrote it on behalf of the church in Rome to the church in Corinth. … We know that for a long time, and even to this day, it has been read publicly during gatherings of the faithful” (Historia Ecclesiastica, 3:16).
An almost canonical character was attributed to this letter. At the beginning of this text, which is written in Greek, Clement regrets that “unforeseen adversities that occurred one after the other” (Letter to the Corinthians 1:1) had prevented him from intervening at a more opportune time. These “adversities” are associated with [Roman emperor] Domitian’s persecution. Thus, the date when this letter was composed can be traced back to the time immediately after the emperor’s death and the end of his persecution around the year 96. At the end of the first century, Clement was asked to intervene because the church of Corinth was confronting a serious problem: The elders of the community had been deposed by some younger men who had challenged them. St. Irenaeus also wrote about this painful event: “When a major disagreement among the brethren in Corinth came up under Clement, the church in Rome sent a very important letter to the Corinthians in order to bring peace among them, renew their faith and proclaim the tradition that they had received from the apostles only a short time before” (Adv. Haer. 3,3,3). We might say that this letter was one of the first times that the primacy of Rome was exercised after the death of St. Peter.
Clement’s letter takes up some of the favorite themes of St. Paul, who wrote two important letters to the Corinthians, particularly the ever relevant theological interplay between salvation (expressed grammatically in the indicative mood) and moral commitment (expressed in the imperative).
First of all, there is the joyful proclamation of grace that saves. The Lord goes before us with his forgiveness and grants it to us; he gives us the love and the grace to be Christians — his brothers and sisters.
This proclamation fills our lives with joy and gives us a security in what we do. The Lord always goes before us with his goodness, and the goodness of the Lord is always greater than all our sins. However, we need to be committed in a consistent way to the gift we have received, and we need to respond to this proclamation of salvation by journeying on the road to conversion in a generous and courageous way.
Regarding the model that Paul proposes, the novelty of Clement’s teaching is the “great prayer” that concludes his letter in a very practical way following the doctrinal and practical sections that both were elements of Paul’s letters.
Mission of the Church
The immediate need for this letter made it possible for the bishop of Rome to dwell at length on the identity of the Church and its mission. If there were abuses in Corinth, Clement notes, the reason should be sought in the fact that charity and the other indispensable Christian virtues have been weakened. For this reason, he calls all the faithful to humility and brotherly love, two virtues that are truly the basis for being part of the Church.
“We are a holy portion,” he admonishes, “so let us do all that holiness requires” (Letter to the Corinthians, 30:1). In particular, the bishop of Rome recalls that the Lord himself “has established where and by whom he desires the liturgical services to be carried out, so that all things, being piously done according to his good pleasure, may be acceptable to him. … Indeed, the high priest has been entrusted with liturgical functions that are proper to his office, priests have been prescribed to a place that is fitting to them, and the Levites have been given their own special functions. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to the laymen” (Letter to the Corinthians, 40:1-5: Note that it is here, in this letter from the end of the first century, that the Greek term laikós appears for the first time in Christian literature, meaning a “member of the laos,” that is, “the people of God.”).
By referring to the liturgy of ancient Israel in this way, Clement reveals his ideal of the Church. It has been gathered together by the “one Spirit of grace that has been poured upon us,” which is blowing among the various members of the body of Christ, all of whom are united together without barriers, “members of each other” (46:6-7).
The clear distinction between laymen and the hierarchy does not signify in any way an opposition but rather an organic interconnection within the body, an organism with different functions. Indeed, the Church is not a place for confusion and anarchy where someone can do whatever he wants at any time; each person within this organism, with a defined structure, carries out his ministry according to the vocation he has received.
Regarding the leaders of communities, Clement clearly defines a doctrine of apostolic succession. The laws that regulate it are, in the last analysis, derived from God himself. The Father sent Jesus Christ, who in turn sent out the apostles. These, in turn, sent out the first leaders of the communities and established that they would be followed by other worthy men. Therefore, all proceeds in “an orderly way, according to the will of God” (42).
With these words and phrases, St. Clement emphasizes that the Church has a sacramental and not a political structure. God’s work, which we encounter in the liturgy, has precedence over our decisions and ideas. The Church is, above all, a gift of God and not something we have created. Therefore, this sacramental structure not only guarantees a common order but also the fact that this gift of God, which we all need, takes precedence.
The Great Prayer
Finally, the “great prayer” confers an almost cosmic breath to the discussion that precedes it. Clement gives praise and thanks to God for his marvelous providence of love, to him who created the world and continues to save it and bless it. His prayer for those who govern is particularly relevant.
After the New Testament texts, it is the oldest prayer for any political institution. Thus, the day after the persecution, Christians, well aware that the persecutions would continue, did not cease to pray for those very authorities that had condemned them unjustly. The reason is, above all, one that is very Christ-centered: We need to pray for our persecutors just as Jesus did on the cross.
But this prayer also contains a teaching that has guided the Christian attitude vis-à-vis politics and the state throughout the ages. By praying for the authorities, Clement recognizes the legitimacy of the political institutions in the order that God has established.
At the same time, he expresses his concern that the authorities be docile to God and “exercise the power that God has given them in peace and gentleness and with compassion” (61:2). Caesar is not everything. Another sovereignty emerges, whose origin and essence are not of this world but are “from above. It is that of Truth, which claims, also when it affects the state, the right to be heard.”
Thus, Clement’s letter deals with a number of themes that are relevant at any given time. This is even more significant inasmuch as it represents — at the end of the first century — the caring oversight of the church of Rome, which presides in charity over all other churches.
With the same spirit, we make these petitions of the “great prayer” our own, where the bishop of Rome becomes the voice for the entire world: “Yes, Lord, make your face shine on us in goodness and peace. Shield us by your mighty hand. ... We give thanks to you, through Jesus Christ, the high priest and guardian of our souls, through whom be glory and majesty to you both now and from generation to generation and for ever and ever. Amen” (60-61).