St. Clement, Our Patron

The patron of our parish, St. Clement of Rome, was a revered figure in the early Church, inspiring fellow Christians with obvious leadership and charity.  While much of St. Clement's life has not been clearly passed down through the centuries, certain items are to be trusted.  St. Clement was a first-century Christian who lived and ministered in Rome.  In many early second-century works, he is called "apostolic," continuing the tradition that St. Clement knew and worked with the apostles, specifically St. Peter.  Therefore, he was a member and leader of the first post-apostolic generation, carrying on the teachings received by the intimate followers of Christ and passing them on to later generations.

St. Clement is believed to have been the fourth bishop of Rome or pope, as the oldest existent list comes from 160.  It is thought that his time as bishop coincided with the last decade of the first century, from the years 90 to 99.  This tradition is found expressed in the First Eucharistic Prayer at Mass -- commonly called the Roman Canon.  After listing the apostles, the text mentions "Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius" – early saints and bishops of Rome.  The text of the Roman Canon evolved with the liturgy from the earliest times of the Church, so even in the year 590 when it was standardized by Pope Gregory the Great it already had a significant pre-history.  If nothing else, St. Clement was held in great esteem by the early church in Rome.

 Fast Facts
  • Acquaintance of the Apostles
  • 1st Century Bishop of Rome
  • Famous Letter to the Corinthians
  • Exiled, Martyred
  • Patron of Mariners, Stone Cutters, and Tanners
  • Feast Day: November 23rd

Other pieces of information are more contextual.  With a life of service in Rome determined, the lack of history as to his place of burial has led many to speculate that St. Clement died in exile.  There developed a story in the Middle Ages, in fact, that St. Clement was sent by Emperor Trajan to Crimea to work in a stone quarry.  There, the old bishop had such success in proclaiming the gospel he was thrown into the Black Sea with an anchor tied to him.  These stories cannot be authenticated, but popular practice has developed around them, as St. Clement is the patron for stone cutters and has had an interesting relationship with Slavic Saints Cyril and Methodius.  The Church recognizes St. Clement as a martyr.

The greatest lasting contribution that St. Clement has left to the Church is his Letter to the Corinthians.  While formally penned by the bishop of Rome, this letter dated around 95 to the Christian community in the Greek city of Corinth was quickly recognized as a work produced by St. Clement.  Around the year 170, the bishop of Corinth Dionysius wrote as much in a letter to Pope Soter, stating simply, "Today we kept the holy day, the Lord's day, and on it we read your letter- and we shall ever have it to give us instruction, even as the former one written through Clement."

The letter itself reveals some information about St. Clement.  Firstly, the text was originally in Greek, the language of the Mediterranean world at that time.  The Greek itself is fairly simply, correct though not classical.  St. Clement, therefore, had some education but could not be considered a scholar.  It is also important to note the many scriptural citations in the letter.  The prominence of the Old Testament texts has led scholars to assume that St. Clement was a convert to Christianity from a Jewish background.  Perhaps even more exciting to the Christian reader is the letter's use of texts that would become the New Testament.  He repeatedly asks his recipients to remember Jesus' words, stating, "[Be] especially mindful of the words of the Lord Jesus which He spoke, teaching us meekness and long-suffering. For thus He spoke: 'Be merciful, that you may obtain mercy; forgive, that it may be forgiven to you; as you do, so shall it be done to you; as you judge, so shall you be judged; as you are kind, so shall kindness be shown to you; with what measure you measure, with the same it shall be measured to you'" (.13).  He also refers the Corinthians to passages from the letters St. Paul sent to the community he founded.  At one point St. Clement instructs, "Take up the epistle of the blessed Apostle Paul. What did he write to you at the time when the Gospel first began to be preached? Truly, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas, and Apollos, because even then parties had been formed among you" (.48).  It is clear that even in the late first century certain texts of the early Christian community were being preserved and circulated, as works fundamental to all believers.

St. Clement's reference to the first chapter of St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians is significant for the context of St. Clement's own letter.  It is unclear what exactly led St. Clement to write the letter, but it is clear that some sort of schism has happened in the Christian community at Corinth.  Based on the concerns of St. Paul over thirty years earlier, this is not surprising.  St. Clement's letter, then, is focused on the need for unity.  That the bishop of Rome would address this issue shows a certain primacy of the church in Rome.  St. Clement had some position of authority vis-a-vis the other churches -- certainly not to the same extent that pope currently possesses but a certain authority nonetheless.  In this call to unity, St. Clement uses two Greek terms that would become more standardized as the Church became more uniformly structured: episkopoi (overseer, bishops) and presbyteroi (elders, presbyters).  Again, it would be too great of a jump to believe that already in the church communities in Rome and Corinth and elsewhere that the formal structure of bishop-priests-deacons could be found, but obviously the form was already beginning to be a part of the Church.

While unity is pleaded for based on a respect for those in leadership positions, St. Clement's clearest call is for unity in love.  As he beautifully notes in language similar to what is found in St. Paul's 1 Corinthians 13:

The height, where unto love exalts, is unspeakable. Love joins us to God; love covers a multitude of sins; love endures all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing coarse, nothing arrogant in love. Love has no divisions, love makes no seditions, love does all things in concord. In love were all the elect of God made perfect; without love nothing is well pleasing to God;  in love the Master took us to Himself; for the love which He had toward us, Jesus Christ our Lord has given His blood for us by the will of God, and His flesh for our flesh and His life for our lives. 49.4-6

Also of significance is the basilica in Rome dedicated to the patronage of St. Clement.  It is not only the home away from home from those traveling from Richland to Rome, it also is a stunning piece of architecture, history, and faith.  The church of St. Clement at Rome lies in the valley between the Esquiline and Coelian hills in Rome, on the direct road from the Coliseum to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  It is now cared for by the Irish Province of Dominicans.

The basilica of St. Clement is really a three-layered structure.  The church that immediately greets pilgrims today is the last editionof the church, dated around the year 1100.  The upper structure is in classical basilica form.  Before becoming a designation of prominent churches (St. Louis Cathedral, for instance, was designated a minor basilica in 1964), "basilica" was a term used to designate a style of architecture -- a style that predates Christianity.  A basilica is a long rectangular building with two rows of columns running down its sides.  In Rome these structures became very popular because they were fairly simple to construct and could be used for a variety of purposes.  Usually these buildings were market places, with the columns used to section off different vendors.  As the Church grew and inherited some of these basilicas that had fallen into disrepair, these buildings became the first big, public churches and, thus, typical of church architecture.  The basilica of St. Clement follows the basilica pattern, one deeply inscribed in its history.

Before delving deeper into the pre-1100 structure, it is important to note the most striking element of the upper church: its mosaic apse above the sanctuary.  In the mosaic which dates from around 1200, Christ is depicted on the cross in a realistic yet theological way.  From the root of the cross springs a vine that grows and gives life to the world.  The crucifixion, a revolting form of capital punishment, is seen in its reality.  In the death of Jesus, life is paradoxically found.  Found is an obvious reference to John 12:32, in which Jesus states: "And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all things to myself."  Deers being refreshed in the living stream, peacocks being the sign of the resurrection's transformative reality, twelve doves that gather on the cross as symbols of the apostles, twelve lambs that surround one hallowed lamb -- all rich images within the Christian tradition.  It is rare to observe such theological insight in such a beautiful display.

The current 12th century basilica has a significant history in its own right.  Around the time of Constantine a significant structure was built upon a 1st century house of a certain Clemens of Rome.  The commitment of Constantine in the early 300s -- at a similar time when campaigns were begun at the sites of St. Peter's Basilica and the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls -- shows the importance of the site and the saint.  Being located so close to the Coliseum, it was certainly a quite a statement to the change of relationship between Christianity and the culture.

The 4th century site, however, had its own precursor.  Located atop an ancient Christian house-church and a Greek temple to the god Mithras, a church dedicated to St. Clement has a history almost as long as Christianity itself -- an a mixed history, at that.  The 1st century layer is now visible to pilgrims, giving a glimpse of society 2000 years past.  While the church of St. Clement certainly did not resemble the current street-level masterpiece, it was a place of real worship, a site where our earliest mothers and fathers in the faith gathered to share scriptures and the Eucharist.  Being positioned so closely to a pagan temple undoubtedly caused difficulties, making the commitment to continue to follow Christ amid humble and even dangerous circumstances even more notable.

In our remembrance of St. Clement, all of these various elements are at play: the man of faith, the "apostolic" father, the leader, the unifier, the humble Christian.  As we celebrate St. Clement on his November 23rd feast day and throughout our normal parish activities, we can draw on his inspiration and ask for his intercession.  Though living many centuries ago, in very different times, with specific concerns and challenges, St. Clement of Rome still speaks to our own parish community in 21st century Metairie, LA.  May our lives indicate a listening ear to our patron.  St. Clement of Rome, pray for us.

Read more about St. Clement from Pope Benedict XVI's General Audience reflection of March 7, 2007.