Dec. 4 was once the traditional feast day of an early Christian theological author whose legacy is controversial, but who is cited as a saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and has been described as such in several addresses of Pope Benedict XVI.
The writer in question is Saint Clement of Alexandria, who led the city's famous Catechetical School during the late second century.
Clement is not always referred to as a saint in Church documents, and his feast day was removed from the Western liturgical calendar around the year 1600 due to suspicions about some of his writings. Eastern Christian traditions also seem to regard him with some reluctance. On the other hand, he is called “St. Clement of Alexandria” not only in the Catholic catechism, but also in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
On Oct. 28, 2012, during his homily at the closing Mass for the Synod on the New Evangelization, Pope Benedict XVI made a notable public reference to him as “Saint Clement of Alexandria,” as he has done elsewhere. On that occasion, the Pope concluded his homily with a long quotation from St. Clement. However, the title of “saint” was dropped during the Pope's earlier April 2007 audience talk on his life and writings.
In that general audience, however, Pope Benedict described Clement as a “great theologian” whose Christ-centered intellectual vision “can serve as an example to Christians, catechists and theologians of our time.” Nine years earlier, Blessed John Paul II had cited his pioneering integration of philosophy and theology in his 1998 encyclical “Fides et Ratio.”
Clement's date of birth is not known, though he was most likely born in Athens, and converted to Christianity later in life. His intellectual curiosity prompted him to travel widely and study with a succession of teachers in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Eventually Clement settled in Egypt where he studied under Pantaenus, a teacher at the Catechetical School of Alexandria.
Located in a cultural and commercial center, Alexandria's Catechetical School played an important role in the development of theology during the Church's early centuries. Clement served as an assistant to Pantaenus and eventually became a teacher himself, taking a position of leadership in the school around 190. His theological writings circulated before the century's end, and he may have become a priest.
During the early third century, persecution against the Church prompted Clement to leave Egypt for Cappadocia in Asia Minor. One of his former students in that region, a bishop named Alexander, was jailed for his faith, and Clement stepped in to give direction to the faithful in Caesarea during their bishop's imprisonment. Clement died in Cappadocia in approximately 215.
Clement and other Alexandrian teachers sought to express Catholic doctrines in a philosophically-influenced, intellectually rigorous manner. Later Church Fathers, especially in the Greek tradition, owed much to their work. But the school's legacy is mixed: Origen, one of its main representatives and possibly Clement's student, is associated with doctrines later condemned by an ecumenical council.
Three of St. Clement of Alexandria's works survive: the “Protreptikos” (“Exhortation”), which presents the Christian faith in contrast with paganism; the “Paedagogus” (“The Tutor”), encouraging Christians in the disciplined pursuit of holiness; and the “Stromata” (“Miscellanies” or “Tapestries”), which takes up the topic of faith in its relationship to human reason.
In a passage of the “Protrepikos” quoted by Pope Benedict XVI at the conclusion of the Synod for the New Evangelization, St. Clement encouraged his readers: “Let us put away, then, let us put away all blindness to the truth, all ignorance: and removing the darkness that obscures our vision like fog before the eyes, let us contemplate the true God ... since a light from heaven shone down upon us who were buried in darkness and imprisoned in the shadow of death, (a light) purer than the sun, sweeter than life on this earth.”