St. Clement of Rome is honored in an ancient church near the Colosseum, probably built over his home. A wonderful place to visit when in Rome. He wrote an important letter around the year 95 to the church at Corinth, which was having troubles with its leadership.
After the death of the apostles there was no blueprint for church administration; the change from apostles like Paul and charismatic preachers like Apollo to bishops was not an easy one for early communities like the Corinthians. It was not an easy change for the church in Rome either.
New structures were evolving, and Clement is an important witness in their evolution. In his letter he appeals to the Corinthians to do what Jesus told his followers to do: follow him as one flock follows its shepherd. They must walk together.
Using the the Roman legions as an analogy, Clement urges them to be like soldiers who depend on one another. They must be a community to be the church of Jesus Christ.
“Think of the soldiers who serve under our generals, and with what order, obedience, and submissiveness they perform the things which are commanded them. Not all are prefects, nor commanders of a thousand, nor of a hundred, nor of fifty, nor the like, but each one in his own rank performs the things commanded by the king and the generals. 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.
“Let us take our body for an example. The head is nothing without the feet, and the feet are nothing without the head. The very smallest members of our body are necessary and useful to the whole body. All work harmoniously together and they are under one common rule for the preservation of the whole body.
“In Christ Jesus let our whole body be preserved intact. Let every one of us be subject to his neighbor, according to the special gift bestowed upon him.
“Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor bless God, who has given them what they need. Let the wise display their wisdom, not by mere words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to themselves, but leave witness to be borne to them by others. Let those who are pure in the flesh not grow proud of it and boast, knowing another has bestowed the gift of continence on them.
“Let us consider, then, brothers and sisters, of what matter we were made. Let us consider how we came into this world, as it were out of a grave, and from utter darkness: who and what manner of beings we were. God who made us and fashioned us, having prepared bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into this world.
“Since we receive all these things from God, we ought for everything to give God thanks; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Evidently, the problem of church leadership Clement addressed was not limited to Corinth. His letter was read in a number of other Christian communities at the time. The transition from apostles to bishops was not an easy one; the Roman church faced it as well.
Historians like Eamon Duffy see the Roman church originating in the large, thriving Jewish community in Rome which was concentrated in Trastevere and spread out to found numerous synagogues in the city– some of which evolved into early Christian house churches. Peter and Paul, who came to the city and were put to death there in the Neronian persecution ( 62-63 AD), were acknowledged and celebrated by these house churches as their leaders in faith.
“The Roman synagogues,” Duffy writes, “unlike their counterparts in Antioch, had no central organization. Each one conducted its own worship, appointed its own leaders and cared for its own members. The same way, the ordering of the early Christian community in Rome seems to have reflected the organization of the synagogues which had originally sheltered it, and to have consisted of a constellation of independent churches, meeting in the houses of the wealthy members of the community. Each of these house churches had its own leaders, the elders or ‘presbyters’. They were mostly made up of immigrants, with a high proportion of slaves or freedman among them–the name of Pope Eleutherius means ‘freedman’.”(Saints and Sinners. A History of the Popes. Eamon Duffy, Yale University Press, 1997 p 6)
Rome was slow to recognize a chief bishop, Duffy and other historians claim. Clement was later recognized in the list of popes, but more likely he was spokesman for the Roman house churches, representing an eminent church whose leaders were apostles, Peter and Paul. He was designated to write to the Corinthians urging them to unity under their bishop.
The papacy as we know it emerged slowly. San Clemente and Saints John and Paul nearby are two Roman house churches from the early Christian period. Visit them if you’re in Rome.