Feast Day: November 23rd | Patronage: Mariners, Stone-Cutters| Iconography: Wearing Papal Vestments, Mariner’s Cross, Tied to Anchor, Palm of Martyrdom
So, I’m sitting in Caribou Coffee perusing Pope St. Clement letter to the Corinthians. “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran continues the mellow-pop playlist that has been filling the 72 degree air for the last hour. Off to my left I can see an inordinate variety of packaged snacks stretching out of sight, with the certainty that the Hy-Vee next door has an even more incredible quantity of food for the buying. A fall breeze whips leaves around as cars continue to refill with gas. Almost nothing that now surrounds me existed when Pope Clement led the church in its first century. The only physical commonality that I can find is the cement that makes up the parking lot in front of me. Cement was invented some thousands of years ago, but many consider the Romans to have perfected, with no greater example being the Pantheon which still stands in Rome having had its walls and dome poured into their forms almost 2000 years ago. (I doubt this Hy-Vee will be here in 200 years, much less 2000.)
Just knowing two words about Clement: “pope” and “martyr” tell you most of what we know of his life. A few more descriptors tell you almost everything else: he is an apostolic father (knew the apostles), wrote a Letter to the Corinthians (he called them to repentance), and died under Diocletian (so, around 99 or 101 A.D.). But if he lived in a world so different from ours, what can we learn from him? More provocatively, is the story – the Gospel – that transformed his life and death still applicable to us? Does His Lord still reign? Does His Savior still save? Of course Christianity claims to have application to every era, political-climate, architecture-style, human culture, or culinary surroundings. Our faith stakes itself on the reality that the human heart faces the same chains that it always has, and needs (and desires) the same redemption that it always has. Fundamentally, Jesus still claims to be “the way, and the truth, and the life”.
Yet plenty of people have stopped believing it.
25 years ago, only 5% of Americans would claim to have no religion. Now that number is around 25%. Said differently: when I was a kid and went to the grocery store, one in twenty people would have said they were not religious, now one in four would say that. But, here’s a further eye-opening fact: in the entire Roman Empire in the year 100 A.D., as Clement went to his martyrdom there were probably about 25,000 Christians (thus, using the reasonable estimate that the empire had a population around 60 million, that means 0.04% were Christian). 100 years later those that believed in Christ were up to about 218,000 (0.36%), and a further century on we had boomed up to 6.3 million (still only 10.5%).
It would be several more decades before Christians became a majority of the empire, and though we’ve gotten used to a relatively Christian surroundings in our Western European-American culture, the fact is that the Church has spent a lot of her time as a small community within the larger world. This has been the case from Golgotha on through the early centuries, but also in every mission territory ever since. Rome wasn’t Christian when Clement got there. Ireland wasn’t when St. Patrick arrived. India wasn’t when St. Francis Xavier landed, nor when Mother Teresa came. We shouldn’t be shocked, nor discouraged, either when the Gospel can no longer be assumed as the common operating principle of our neighbors and coworkers. Only rarely has the Church ever been able to presume that, even if until recently we have gotten used to it.
Strangely though, I think that all of this means that as we look out on a world, spiritually (if not physically) it is more similar to the Rome of Clement’s day than we are to Paris of 1221, the Philadelphia of 1776, or even the New York of 2001. Our world today, like Clement’s, offers lots of idols, and demands that we place them above Christ. Our world today, like his, disposes of children and the elderly, and expects us to do the same. Our world today, like his, doesn’t know Jesus, and it’s up to all of us to worship, act, and speak in such a way that they might. When Pope Clement wrote to the Corinthians, he not only assumed to have spiritual authority over them (as the Bishop of Rome always has), but he also speaks to every Christian there to call them to repentance and to live a life directed by Jesus’ words through and through. The Church then, and our Church now, has no professional evangelizers, that’s all of our responsibility.
– Fr. Dominic has to mention another fascinating fact from Clement’s letter. He writes about the Apostle Paul: “Owing to envy, Paul also obtained the reward of patient endurance, after being seven times thrown into captivity, compelled to flee, and stoned. After preaching both in the east and west, he gained the illustrious reputation due to his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world, and come to the extreme limit of the west, and suffered martyrdom under the prefects.” (“Letter to Corinthians”, Chapter 5). Now, it’s only a single reference, but from a man who knew Paul personally, that perhaps between the Apostle to the Gentiles, between his imprisonment and martyrdom in Rome, actually finally preached the Gospel to Spain. We’ll have to get the whole story from them when we are called before Christ ourselves!