The earliest lists of the men who succeeded St. Peter as bishops of Rome tell us that the first was named Linus; the second, Cletus; and the third, Clement. Little is known for sure about Clement’s life and death. Was the Clement that St. Paul refers to as assisting him the future pope? Not likely. But St. Irenaeus (2nd century) says that St. Clement was a friend of both SS. Peter and Paul.
If we do not know his dates, we know something of the man himself from the letter he wrote to the Christians of Corinth, Greece, in the period 95-100 A.D. It is not a long letter, but it gives precious information about how Christians thought and acted in the later apostolic age. (When Clement reigned as pope, St. John the Evangelist was probably still alive.)
For one thing, St. Clement gives us valuable information about the presence and death in Rome of Saints Peter and Paul. He calls these apostles “the greatest and most holy pillars” of the Church, who were “persecuted and fought to the death.” In the same period, he says, many other Christians, a “multitude of the elect”, men and women alike, were tortured and executed out of “jealousy”. This was the Roman phase of the first Roman persecution, begun by Emperor Nero in A.D. 65-67.
The New Testament does not specify how Jesus commanded the apostles to continue a hierarchy in the church, but St. Clement describes the apostolic practice. Our Lord, he says, sent the apostles out to preach to the whole world with authority to name some of their disciples to rule the churches that they founded. Then, following Christ’s instructions, “they laid down a rule once for all to this effect: when these men die, other approved men shall succeed to their sacred ministry.” Therefore, it is wrong, he concludes, for a given church to oust from office any man properly chosen for that office. (Here we have an indication of the origin and importance of “apostolic succession” that gives the Church the note of “apostolic”).
Clement also teaches, implicitly yet clearly, the doctrine of the popes’ primacy over the whole Church. The purpose of his letter was to warn the Corinthian Christians to settle their intramural bickerings. If the Corinthians had thought Clement was thus intruding into their local church affairs, they would surely have protested. Actually they held his letter in almost as great reverence as they did the two letters written to them by St. Paul.
I find it thrilling to read the writings of Clement and the other early Church Fathers. They use the same scriptures we use. They teach the same doctrines that we believe.
Thus at one point, St. Clement speaks of the doctrine of love that Jesus taught and the New Testament authors passed on.
“Love unites us to God,” says St. Peter’s friend and third successor. “Love covers a multitude of sins (I Peter, 4:8). Love endures all things, is longsuffering in everything. There is nothing vulgar in love, nothing haughty. Love makes no schism; love does not quarrel; love does everything in unity (I Cor. 13,4-7). In love we’re all the elect of God perfected; without love nothing is pleasing to God. In love did the Master take hold of us. For the sake of the love which He had for us did Jesus Christ our Lord, by the will of God, give His blood for us, His flesh for our flesh, and His life for our lives.”
This was the faith of Pope St. Clement I. This is our faith. The centuries change it not.
–Father Robert F. McNamara