Father Rutler is Pastor of the Church of Saint Michael in New York City. He is the author of twenty-five books and many essays, and has lectured widely at home and abroad.
On the day after Thanksgiving, the Church rejoices in the intercessions of Pope Saint Clement of Rome. New Yorkers have a special reason to think of him, two millennia later.
Clement probably was made a bishop by Saint Peter himself and became the fourth Bishop of Rome after Linus and Cletus. He was the first after Saint Peter to leave a written record. Like Saint Paul, he wrote to the Christians in Corinth, leaving us a clear exposition of the early Church structure of Holy Orders, with bishops and priests and deacons.
The emperor Trajan exiled Clement and sentenced him to death. Tied to an anchor and tossed off a boat, his body was delivered to Rome several centuries later, still with its anchor, by Saint Cyril of Egypt. About a dozen years after Clement’s martyrdom, Trajan commiserated with the governor of Bithynia in northern Turkey, Pliny the Younger, about how to better control the Christians:
“You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshiping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.”
The foundations of the present church of Saint Clement in Rome are a timeline of the progress of the Faith. The lowest chamber was a second-century shrine for the dark and mysterious cult of Mithras, dear to soldiers. Above that is a secret fourth-century house church. The present upper church was completed before 1100. It contains the relics of Saint Cyril who, along with his brother Saint Methodius, evangelized the Slavs and created the Glagolitic alphabet, precedent to the Cyrillic script that Russians still use.
In the eighteenth century, the church and its friary were given to Irish Dominicans, one of whom, Father Richard Concanen became the first bishop of New York, but never left Italy because of a Napoleonic blockade. Another Dominican from Saint Clement’s,
Father John Connolly, became the first resident bishop of New York, whose diocese covered all of the state and part of New Jersey, with just three churches and four priests. He traveled over one thousand miles on horseback, ministering to his flock.
If the bones of Saint Clement could speak, they’d explain perfectly well why these New Yorkers were bishops and what they were doing in the name of Christ.