Monday, February 18, 2008

Stational Church: San Clemente

Little is known of Pope Saint Clement (ca. 91- ca. 101), though the Roman Canon at Mass traditionally places him third in succession after St. Peter. It is thought that he was a slave in the household of the martyr Titus Flavius Clemens, Roman consul and cousin of the Emperor Domitian. Clement authored the famous Letter to the Corinthians (ca. 96), one of the earliest witnesses to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome and the authority of the Roman See. Legend has Clement banished to the Crimea by Trajan, where he was thrown into the sea with an anchor tied around his neck. Every year, an exceptionally low tide allowed pilgrims to visit the site, where a little chapel was built. One year a child was accidentally left behind, and thought to perish as the water rose. The next year, he was alive in the chapel, in good health. This is one of the stories depicted in the narthex of the lower ancient church.

The Basilica of San Clemente is one of the original twenty-five parish churches (tituli) of Rome. Not only is it one of the most ancient churches, recorded by St. Jerome (347-419) as already existing, but at its location is a group of different buildings constructed one above another on four levels. At the lowest level, where the first-century palazzo of Flavius Clemens is thought to be found, Clement himself probably gathered with the early Christians for the sacred liturgy.

Probably during the reign of Constantine, Christians built the first basilica over the old oratory of St. Clement with its apse right above the shrine of Mithras. Saint Servulus begged for alms in the 6th century in the atrium of this church, where Pope St. Gregory the Great met him and preached a sermon about him after his death. Servulus is buried beneath the altar of the Blessed Sacrament, to the left of the high altar. In 1084 Robert Guiscard and his Norman soldiers burned down the old church. Paschal II (1099-1118) filled in the ruins and used them for the foundation of the church we see today. These ruins were forgotten until 1857 when Fr. Mulhooly, the Prior of the Irish Dominicans, rediscovered them. Irish Domincans have cared for the church since 1677, when the Church was banned in Ireland.

Be sure to take a good tour of the excellent scavi beneath the church, but do not forget the upper, 12th century church. Among its chief treasures are its cosmatesque pavement, 12th century paschal candlestick and adjoining pulpit, and the schola cantorum which came from the ancient church and was a gift of Pope John II (533-535). The mosaic in the apse is in a wonderful state of preservation after nine centuries. It was inspired by the words of Our Lord, “I am the true vine” (Jn 15:1), bearing foliage that symbolizes the living Church with its roots in the Garden of Paradise and its fruit, the Cross of Christ. The church preserves the relics of St. Clement (+ ca. 97), St. Sixtus (+ 258), St. Flavius Clement, St. Ignatius of Antioch (50-107), and St. Cyril (827-869). There is also a chapel here dedicated to Sts. Cyril and Methodius, apostles to the Slavs. St. Cyril’s remains probably rest in the church below.

The first two Archbishops of New York, former rectors of this basilica, are commemorated on a plaque inside the postcard shop – Richard Luke Concanen and John Francis Connolly. William Henry Cardinal O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston and fifth Rector of the Pontifical North American College (1895-1901), was Titular of San Clemente from 1911 to 1944.

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