“Let not strong neglect the care of the weak, and let the weak respect the strong. Let the rich distribute to the needs of the poor, and let the poor bless God who gives them people to supply the want. . . . The great can’t subsist without the little, nor the little without the great.”
Imagine the world of ancient first century Rome teeming with people from around the world. Rome, for better or for worse, was the wealthiest and most important city in the world of that time. It was also the home of the Bishop of Rome who was the successor of Saint Peter who was martyred there along with Saint Paul around 65 A.D. After Peter’s death the Church elected someone to take his place starting with St. Linus, St. Anacletus, who preceded our patron San Clemente. There isn’t a lot of information on Saint Clement but what we do have is a letter that he wrote to the Church in Corinth in response to some of the divisions and cliques that were starting to plague that Church. What is interesting about the letter is that Clement wasn’t responding to a request on the part of the Church in Corinth, but was acting in his role as the universal pastor of the Catholic Church. It is clear that he possesses a unique authority by the way he addresses the people of Corinth while he is the bishop of Rome. The letter is more than just an appeal to the people of Corinth to put aside their differences but is a clear teaching on apostolic succession and papal authority. In the midst of the most powerful city in the world the first popes were already residing and guiding the Catholic Church around the world.
Clement’s letter was widely read by many of the Christian communities who preserved it for future generations. We can read translations of it today, on line for nothing. I would like to share some excerpts from a post that I found. By no means is it an exhaustive sample but at least it will give you a taste of this great fathers genius:
The First Epistle - Doctrinal Content
From the beginning of the letter, Clement singles out jealousy and envy as the cause of persecutions as well as of internal discord. He recounts the martyrdoms of St. Peter and St. Paul, and reminds the Corinthians of many others who “received a noble reward” for their endurance amidst torments. He makes special mention of the many women who faced martyrdom bravely. Of historical interest, St. Paul is referred to as having “gone to the extremity of the West,” which supports the tradition of his having journeyed to Spain, according to his intention stated in Romans 15.
Clement urges the Corinthians to faith and good works. While we are justified not by our own virtues and works, “but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men,” this is not an excuse to refrain from good works:
What shall we do, then, brethren? Shall we become slothful in well-doing, and cease from the practice of love? God forbid that any such course should be followed by us! But rather let us hasten with all energy and readiness of mind to perform every good work.
One of the good works most prized by Clement is hospitality; he offers reflections on how this virtue was practiced by Lot and Rahab. He reminds his audience of the eternal reward Christians will receive for their perseverance in good works, which they are enabled to do by the grace of Jesus Christ. One of Clement’s more interesting rhetorical devices is his reference to the ancient phoenix myth, the earliest use of this popular symbol of the general resurrection in early Christian art and literature.
Humility is seen as the antidote to envy and jealousy and the key to Christian unity. Christians are urged to “act the part of soldiers” under the leadership of Christ, and to behave humbly according to one’s position: “The great cannot subsist without the small, nor the small without the great. There is a kind of mixture in all things, and thence arises mutual advantage.” As the feet and head depend on one another, so should Christians “work harmoniously together… under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body.”
If some are great and some small, some strong and some weak, the great are not to lord it over the small, nor are the weak to resent the strong, but all are to give the glory to God in the knowledge of “who and what manner of beings we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulchre, and from utter darkness.”
This leads into Clement’s discussion of church hierarchy and the prerogatives of ministers, whose most important function is the celebration of the liturgy. Urging the Christian community to respect the order set down by God, Clement makes the first use of the word “layman” in Christian literature:
To the high priest, indeed, proper ministrations are allotted, to the priests a proper place is appointed, and upon the Levites their proper services are imposed. The layman is bound by the ordinances for the laity.
Clement lays out clearly the grounds for a hierarchy of Christian ministers based on apostolic succession. Chapter 42 is worth quoting at length:
The Apostles received the gospel for us from the Lord Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ was sent from God. Christ, therefore, is from God, and the Apostles are from Christ. Both of these orderly arrangements, then, are by God’s will.… Through countryside and city they preached; and they appointed their earliest converts [literally first-fruits], testing them by the spirit, to be the bishops and deacons of future believers.
He continues in Chapter 44:
Our apostles also knew, through our Lord Jesus Christ, that there would be strife on account of the office of the episcopate. For this reason, therefore, inasmuch as they had obtained a perfect fore-knowledge of this, they appointed those already mentioned, and afterwards gave instructions, that when these should fall asleep, other approved men should succeed them in their ministry. We are of opinion, therefore, that those appointed by them, or afterwards by other eminent men, with the consent of the whole Church, and who have blamelessly served the flock of Christ in a humble, peaceable, and disinterested spirit, and have for a long time possessed the good opinion of all, cannot be justly dismissed from the ministry. For our sin will not be small, if we eject from the episcopate those who have blamelessly and holily fulfilled its duties.
Clement points out that not only does the uprising in the Corinthian church harm Christians but, because word of it has reached non-Christians, those who foment discord give scandal to them and “heap blasphemies on the name of the Lord.” Those responsible are urged not to harden their hearts but rather to repent, seek the forgiveness that comes through Jesus Christ and “submit to the presbyters…bending your knees in spirit of humility [literally bending the knees of your hearts].”