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St. Clement of Alexandria

St. Clement of Alexandria

Feast date: Dec 04

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.”

St. John of Damascus

St. John of Damascus

Feast date: Dec 04

Catholics remember and celebrate the life of the great Arab Church Father St. John of Damascus on Dec. 4.

Eastern Orthodox Christians and Eastern Catholics, whose tradition has been particularly shaped by his insights, celebrate the saint's feast on the same day as the Roman Catholic Church.

Among Eastern Christians, St. John (676-749) is best known for his defense of Christian sacred art, particularly in the form of icons. While the churches of Rome and Constantinople were still united during St. John's life, the Byzantine Emperor Leo III broke radically from the ancient tradition of the church, charging that the veneration of Christian icons was a form of idolatry.

John had grown up under Muslim rule in Damascus, as the child of strongly Christian parents. His excellent education – particularly in theology – prepared him well to defend the tradition of sacred iconography, against the heresy of the “iconoclasts,” so-called because they would enter churches and destroy the images therein.

During the 720s, the upstart theologian began publicly opposing the emperor's command against sacred images in a series of writings. The heart of his argument was twofold: first, that Christians did not actually worship images,  but rather, through them they worshiped God, and honored the memory of the saints. Second, he asserted that by taking an incarnate physical form, Christ had given warrant to the Church's depiction of him in images.

By 730, the young public official's persistent defense of Christian artwork had made him a permanent enemy of the emperor, who had a letter forged in John's name offering to betray the Muslim government of Damascus.

The ruling caliph of the city, taken in by the forgery, is said to have cut off John's hand. The saint's sole surviving biography states that the Virgin Mary acted to restore it miraculously. John eventually managed to convince the Muslim ruler of his innocence, before making the decision to become a monk and later a priest.

Although a number of imperially-convened synods condemned John's advocacy of Christian iconography, the Roman church always regarded his position as a defense of apostolic tradition. Years after the priest and monk died, the Seventh Ecumenical Council vindicated his orthodoxy, and ensured the permanent place of holy images in both Eastern and Western Christian piety.

St. John of Damascus' other notable achievements include the “Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith,” a work in which he systematized the earlier Greek Fathers' thinking about theological truths in light of philosophy. The work exerted a profound influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and subsequent scholastic theologians. Centuries later, St. John's sermons on the Virgin Mary's bodily assumption into heaven were cited in Pope Pius XII's dogmatic definition on the subject.

The saint also contributed as an author and editor, to some of the liturgical hymns and poetry that Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics still use in their celebrations of the liturgy.

“Show me the icons that you venerate, that I may be able to understand your faith.” - Saint John of Damascus