Posted March 13, 2007
Pope Benedict and his lessons from the early Fathers of the Church, especially St. Clement.
"The Church Has a Sacramental,
Not Political Structure"
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 7, 2007 - Here is a translation of Benedict XVI's address at today's general audience. The Pope is beginning a new cycle of catecheses on the Apostolic Fathers, starting with St. Clement of Rome.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
During the past few months we have meditated upon the figures of each individual apostle and the first witnesses of the Christian faith, those mentioned in the New Testament writings. Now, we will turn our attention to the Apostolic Fathers, that is, to the first and second generation of the Church after the apostles. This way we can see how the Church's path started in history.
St. Clement, Bishop of Rome during the last years of the first century, is the third successor of Peter, after Linus and Anacletus. The most important testimonial of his life is that written by St. Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon until 202. He asserts that Clement "had seen the apostles … had met with them," and "still had their preaching in his ears, and their tradition before his eyes" (Adv. Haer. 3,3,3). Later testimonials, between the fourth and sixth centuries, give Clement the title of martyr.
This Bishop of Rome's authority and prestige were such that various writings were attributed to him, but the only certain one is the Letter to the Corinthians.
Eusebius of Caesarea, the great "archivist" of Christian origins, presents it with these words: "One letter by Clement has been sent down to us recognized as authentic, great and admirable. It was written by him on behalf of the Church of Rome to the Church of Corinth. … We know that for a long time, and still today, this letter is read publicly during the reunions of the faithful" (Hist. Eccl. 3,16).
An almost canonical characteristic was attributed to this letter. At the beginning of the text, written in Greek, Clement is sorry if "the multiple and calamitous events" (1,1), made for a tardy intervention. These "events" can be identified with the persecution of Domitian; therefore, the date this letter was written goes back to a time directly after the death of the emperor and toward the end of the persecution, that is to say just after 96.
Clement's intervention -- we are still in the first century -- was called upon because of the serious problems the Church of Corinth was undergoing; the priests of the community, in fact, had been deposed by some young upstarts. The painful event is remembered, once again by St. Irenaeus who writes, "Under Clement, having given rise to a rather serious contrast between the Corinthian brothers, the Church of Rome sent the Corinthians a very important letter to reconcile them in peace to renew their faith and to announce the tradition, a tradition they had so newly received from the apostles" (Adv. Haer. 3,3,3).
Therefore, we could say that this letter is a first exercise of a Primate of Rome after the death of St. Peter. Clement's letter touches upon topics dear to St. Paul who had written two great letters to the Corinthians, in particular the theological dialectic, always pertinent, between the indicative of salvation and the imperative of moral commitment.
First, there is the proclamation of saving grace. The Lord foresees us and gives us forgiveness, gives us his love, the grace of being Christians, his brothers and sisters. This is an announcement that fills our life with joy and gives certitude to our actions. The Lord always foresees our acts with his goodness and the goodness of the Lord is always greater than all of our sins.
We must, however, commit ourselves in a coherent way to this gift that we have received and answer the proclamation of salvation with a generous and courageous path toward conversion. Looking at the Pauline model, the novelty is that Clement follows the doctrinal part and the practical part with a "great prayer," which practically concludes the letter.
The immediate occasion of the letter opened to the Bishop of Rome the possibility for vast intervention on the identity of the Church and its mission. If there were abuses in Corinth, Clement notes, the reason should be looked for in the weakening of charity and the necessary Christian virtues. This is why he calls all the faithful to humility and brotherly love, two virtues, truly the basis for being part of the Church. "We are the portion of the Holy One," he says, "let us do all those things which pertain to holiness" (30,1).
In particular, the Bishop of Rome recalls that the Lord himself, "where and by whom he desires these things to be done, he himself has fixed by his own supreme will, in order that all things, being piously done according to his good pleasure, may be acceptable unto him. … For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layman is bound by the laws that pertain to the laymen" (40,1-5: note that here, in this letter from the end of the first century, for the first time in Christian literature the Greek term "laikós" appears which means "member of the laos," that is "the people of God").
This way, referring to the liturgy of ancient Israel, Clement reveals his ideal of the Church. This is gathered by his "one spirit of grace poured down upon us," which shows through the different members of the Body of Christ, in which all, joined without division are "members one of the other" (46,6-7).
The clear distinction between the "laymen" and the hierarchy does not mean, in any way, a contraposition but only the organic connection of a body, of an organism with different functions. In fact, the Church is not a place for confusion and anarchy, where someone can do whatever he wants at any time; each one in this organism with an articulated structure practices his ministry according to the vocation received.
As pertains to the heads of the communities, Clement specifies clearly the doctrine of apostolic succession. The laws that regulate this derive from God himself in an ultimate analysis. The Father sent Jesus Christ, who in turn sent the apostles. These then sent out the first heads of the communities, and established that they would be followed by worthy men. Therefore, all proceeds in "an orderly way, according to the will of the word of God" (42).
With these words, with these phrases, St. Clement underlines that the Church has a sacramental structure, not a political structure. God's actions that come to us in the liturgy precede our decisions and our ideas. The Church is above all a gift of God and not a creature of ours and therefore this sacramental structure not only guarantees the common order but also the precedence of the gift of God that we all need.
Finally, the "great prayer" confers a cosmic breath to the preceding discussion. Clement praises and thanks God for his great providence of love, who created the world and continued to save it and bless it. Particular relevance is given to the invocation for the governing body. After the New Testament texts, this represents the oldest prayer for political institutions. Thus, on the morrow of the persecution, Christians, well aware that the persecutions would continue, did not cease to pray for those very authorities that had condemned them unjustly.
The motive is above all Christological: One must pray for persecutors, as Jesus did on the cross. But this prayer also contains a teaching that guides, in the course of the centuries, the attitude of Christians in the face of politics and the state.
In praying for the authorities, Clement recognizes the legitimacy of the political institutions in the order established by God. At the same time, he manifests his concern that the authorities be docile to God and "exercise the power that God has given them in peace and gentleness with compassion" (61,2).
Caesar is not all. Another sovereignty emerges, whose origin and essence are not of this world, but "from above": It is that of Truth, which merits the right to be heard also in confrontations with the state."
Thus Clement's letter faces numerous themes of continuous actuality. This is more significant inasmuch as it represents, since the first century, solicitude of the Church of Rome, which presides in charity over all other churches.
With the same spirit we make our invocations as the "great prayer," where the Bishop of Rome becomes the voice for the entire world, "Yea, Lord, make your face to shine upon us for good in peace, that we may be shielded by your mighty hand ... we praise you through the high priest and guardian of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be glory and majesty to you both now and from generation to generation and for evermore. Amen" (60-61).
[At the end of the audience, the Pope greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the early Church, we now turn to the Apostolic Fathers. Saint Clement, Bishop of Rome and third successor of Peter, lived in the last years of the first century. He had met the apostles personally. Clement wrote an important letter to the Church in Corinth at a time when the Christian community was deeply divided. He encourages them to renew their faith in the message received from the apostles and to be reconciled with one another. In this way, he shows the essential connection between the content of the Gospel and the way we live. This connection is essential to Clement's ideal for the Church, in which the hierarchical structure is intrinsically ordered to the service of charity. Laity and hierarchy are not opposed, but organically connected in the mystery of the one body. According to Clement, not only the Church, but also the entire cosmos reflects God's providential love and mercy. Clement concludes his letter by praising God for this marvelous order. Let us join him as we beg the Lord to "make his face shine upon us in goodness and peace. Amen."
I offer a warm welcome to all the English-speaking visitors and pilgrims present at today's audience, especially the groups from Scotland, Denmark, Japan, Canada and the United States of America. May your pilgrimage renew your love for the Lord and his Church, and may God bless you all!