May 29, 2015

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Early Church: We honor some of our first popes

John F. Fink(Eighth in a series of columns)

Admittedly, the First Eucharistic Prayer during Mass is seldom used in many parishes these days, but when it is the priest says that we honor Mary, Joseph, the Apostles, and then “Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus,” and eight others. Who are these four guys?

They were our second, third, fourth and seventh popes, four men who succeeded St. Peter as Bishop of Rome.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about most of our first popes. Even the succession list of bishops of Rome didn’t appear until Irenaeus compiled one around the year 180.

It’s believed that St. Peter entrusted Linus with his office before his death, and that he served in it from 66 to 78. Linus was a companion of St. Paul in Rome and, in his Second Letter to Timothy, Paul sent greetings from him.

Cletus’ full name was Anacletus (or Anencletus). The historian Eusebius says that he died in the 12th year of the reign of Emperor Domitian, which was 91. There’s a tradition that he appointed 25 presbyters for Rome and erected a monument over St. Peter’s tomb, but we don’t know that for sure.

We know more about Clement, pope from 91 to 101. He wrote one and possibly a second letter to the Church in Corinth, Greece, where dissension had broken out and some priests had been deposed, setting out the principle on which the orderly succession of bishops and deacons rests and tracing it back to Jesus. The letter is the first instance of the Church in Rome intervening in the affairs of another Church. Parts of the first letter are still read in the Office of Readings, part of the Liturgy of the Hours.

One of my favorite churches in Rome, the Basilica of St. Clement, is almost certainly built on the site of Pope Clement’s home. Within walking distance of both the Coliseum and St. John Lateran Cathedral, there are three levels: the present basilica built in the 11th century over a fourth-century basilica, which was built over the first century home that was the site of clandestine Christian worship. It appears to have later been used sometime in the third century for worship in the pagan cult of Mithra before the fourth-century basilica dedicated to Clement was built over it.

Frescoes in the basilica show the legend of St. Clement, that he was exiled to the Crimea where he preached the Gospel and was killed by drowning after having an anchor tied around his neck. Then, supposedly, Sts. Cyril and Methodius found his body seven centuries later and translated it (the formal Church term for moving it), and the anchor, to Rome in 868. We don’t have to believe such accounts, but churches dedicated to St. Clement usually have an anchor somewhere.

For reasons unknown to me, the Eucharistic Prayer skips over Popes Evaristus and Alexander I to reach Sixtus I. He was pope from about 116 to 125. We don’t know any more about him than we know about his two predecessors, or, for that matter, about his two successors: Telesphorus and Hyginus.

Although we don’t know much about the specific duties of these early popes, we do know that they led the first Christians in Rome during a time of persecution. They certainly are due the honor we give them when we pray the First Eucharistic Prayer. †

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