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Marcellino D’Ambrosio in his book When the Church was Young poses two questions for the letter of Clement to answer:

#1 Was such a move by the young Christian upstarts legitimate to remove the established leaders of the church of Corinth?

#2 Is the leadership in the Christian community simply a function of popularity, talent, or political power?[1]

At this point, I’ll turn to those here who may have examined the material on how Clement answered these questions.

D’Ambrosio articulates that “in the letter, Clement insisted that the Apostles had intended an orderly succession of authority in the Church…this process of succession from the apostles was to be presented unbroken. This provides us (the faithful) with the earliest written reference to the idea of apostolic succession”[2] that was conveyed quite possible at the time by the active Bishop of Rome, depending on where one dates the letter, who would have known the teachings of the first Bishop of Rome and St. Paul on a personal level.

The Letter of Clement reads:

The apostles have preached the gospel to us from the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus12 Christ [has done so] from God. Christ therefore was sent forth by God, and the apostles by Christ. Both these appointments,14 then, were made in an orderly way, according to the will of God. Having therefore received their orders, and being fully assured by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, and established in the word of God, with full assurance of the Holy Ghost, they went forth proclaiming that the kingdom of God was at hand. And thus preaching through countries and cities, they appointed the first fruits [of their labours], having first proved them by the Spirit,16 to be bishops and deacons of those who should afterwards believe. Nor was this any new thing, since indeed many ages before it was written concerning bishops and deacons. For thus saith the Scripture in a certain place, “I will appoint their bishops in righteousness, and their deacons2 in faith.”[3]

 The Letter of Clement gives us from a disciple of Peter and Paul the foundational premises of two Catholic doctrines namely, Primacy of the Pope and Apostolic Succession. At this point, I’d like to pivot directly to Apostolic succession. I believe it to be important to understand this idea as a way for us to grow even deeper in our faith together. On a personal note, I arrive at my faith by two means, the first, is being a combination of St. Thomas Aquinas’ 3rd way “Why is there something instead of nothing?” and his 1st way a “Prime mover.” At this point, I’ve reasoned that there is God, the necessary being, but now I ask, “Who is this God and what can I know about him.” Apostolic Succession, teaching, authority, etc. are vital to me to answer these questions. If you listen to Podcasts, Bishop Robert Barron has one, and he regularly explains that Jesus’ teachings are great, but the most important aspect of Christianity is not what Jesus said but who Jesus claims to be. He claims to be God by the way. So How do we know if Jesus is who says is? Well, he called twelve apostles and appointed them to be fishers of men. Those same men were invested into the priesthood of Christ and bearing the same message that Christ is God they “laid hands” on those to succeed them, and those men did the same until our present day.

Now, stop, and ask yourself, Do you believe that Jesus Christ is God? I say, yes, and the reason why is that I have assented to this truth because a Risen Lord appeared to the Apostles, they chose to die for this truth, and their disciples chose to die for it as well. And that message, as well as the priesthood through unbroken succession, is with us today.

This truth has been preserved for us by Clement of Rome and by the Holy Spirit. Not convinced?

We can discover by reading his Apologia Pro Vita Sua that it was the Church Fathers and Apostolic Succession that convinced one of the towering intellectuals of the 19th century, Blessed John Henry Newman, to convert from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism. No big deal, right? For Newman to convert to Catholicism was a social death sentence to arguably the brightest mind in England at the time.

Newman writes, far more elegantly than I, “All sects think it necessary that their Ministers should be ordained by other Ministers. Now, if this be the case, then the validity of ordination even with them, rest on a succession; and is it not plain that they ought to trace that succession to the Apostles?”[4] Furthermore, “A body of doctrine had been delivered by the Apostles to their first successors, and by them in turn to the next generation, and then to the next.”[5] “We say, ‘therefore the Apostles live in their successors.’ Christ implies, ‘therefore the body never died, and therefore it will rise again.’[6]

The unity of the Body of Christ rests on Apostolic Succession, this is what Clement of Rome means to explain to the young Christians in Corinth, this is what is at the heart of Jesus’ priestly prayer in the Gospel of John chapter 17.

Jesus says,

20 “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. 22 And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may be brought to perfection as one, that the world may know that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me.[7]

So, how was Clement of Rome’s letter received? The Corinthians had a most grateful response to the “fatherly” correction[8] as they continued to read his letter as part of their Sunday worship for the next several hundred years.”[9]

The letter of Pope St. Clement I has survived to us today initially because it has been translated from Greek into many different languages. However, during some point in the history of the Western Church the letter was lost until in 1623 when the Patriarch of Constantinople gave the King of England a 5th century Bible called the Codex Alexandrinus which contained Clements letter calling for unity through Apostolic Succession. [10]

D’Ambrosio makes an interesting observation that “unfortunately, Clement’s letter was not available during the prior century when great arguments shattered the Christian unity in the West.”[11]

 

[1] D’Ambrosio, 6.

[2] Ibid, 6-7 Some scholars believe Clement to be referenced in scripture in Philippians 4:3 “Yes, and I ask you also, my true yokemate, to help them, for they have struggled at my side in promoting the gospel, along with Clement and my other co-workers, whose names are in the book of life[2]

[3] Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Gospel of Peter, the Diatessaron of Tatian, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Visio Pauli, the Apocalypses of the Virgil and Sedrach, the Testament of Abraham, the Acts of Xanthippe and Polyxena, the Narrative of Zosimus, the Apology of Aristides, the Epistles of Clement (Complete Text), Origen’s Commentary on John, Books I-X, and Commentary on Matthew, Books I, II, and X-XIV, ed. Allan Menzies, trans. John Keith, vol. 9, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1897), 241–242.

[4] Dave Armstrong, The Quotable Newman (Sophia Press: Manchester, 2012,) 37.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 38.

[7] New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Jn 17:20–23.

[8] D’Ambrosio, 8.

[9] Ibid, 9.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

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