In the article “To Know History Is to Cease to Be Protestant,” we presented the comprehensive list of both the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church. The Church Fathers were “saintly writers of the early centuries whom the Church recognizes as her special witnesses of the faith. Antiquity, orthodoxy, sanctity, and approval by the Church are their four main prerogatives.” A subset of that group is St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna, who are collectively referred to as the Apostolic Fathers. All three personally knew at least some of the Apostles.
St. Clement of Rome
Pope St. Clement I was the fourth pope of the Catholic Church, who reigned from 92 – 99 AD. There is evidence that Pope St. Clement I was a disciple of St. Peter. According to Eusebius, St. Jerome, and Origen, St. Clement I is the man mentioned by St. Paul in Philippians 4:3.
The words of St. Clement are quoted in The Catechism of the Council of Trent in reference to the existence of Confirmation as a true Sacrament instituted by Our Lord distinct from Baptism:
“All should hasten without delay to be born again unto God, and afterwards to be signed by the Bishop, that is, to receive the seven-fold grace of the Holy Ghost; for, as has been handed down to us from St. Peter, and as the other Apostles taught in obedience to the command of our Lord, he who culpably and voluntarily, and not from necessity, neglects to receive this Sacrament, cannot possibly be a perfect Christian.”
According to Tradition, under the persecution of Emperor Trajan, Pope St. Clement I was exiled to Cherson (a remote city near the Black Sea). There he was forced to work in a quarry where all were nearly dying of thirst. Our Lord appeared to St. Clement as a Lamb atop a hill. The Lamb struck the rock with its hoof and out poured flowing water. The workers gratefully slated their thirst and then, having heard the faith proclaimed by the Pope, requested baptism through the same water. Infuriated by the report of many converts, Trajan ordered Clement sentenced to death. So, an anchor was wrapped around his feet, and he was thrown into the sea and drowned.
After his death, two of his disciples prayed that they could find his remains. In an answer to their prayers, the sea retreated three miles and the two found an angel-built chapel that contained his remains in a chest of stone by the anchor. The sea retreated to reveal the chapel each year, and his remains were kept dry for seven days.
He is remembered for his Clementine Literature as well as a letter to the Church in Corinth, often called “1 Clement,” and a second epistle, although scholars are not sure he actually wrote the second epistle. This first epistle is particularly noteworthy as it demonstrates that, already in the First Century, the Christian churches of the East accepted the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Today, his remains have been moved and are kept in the Basilica of St. Clement. His feast day is November 23rd.
St. Ignatius of Antioch
St. Ignatius of Antioch was martyred by ravenous beasts in the Roman Coliseum (c. 107 AD). He was a convert from paganism and lived a life of holiness. Legend says that St. Ignatius of Antioch was the child that Jesus held in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 9, verse 35. Like St. Polycarp, he was a disciple of St. John the Evangelist. Saint Ignatius of Antioch succeeded St. Peter as the Bishop of Antioch (the largest Roman city in the East).
As an aged bishop he refused to offer incense to idols or denounce the Faith. For this he was put in chains, guarded by a cohort of Roman soldiers, and taken to Rome by boat. As was customary, the ship made various stops along the journey. Saint Ignatius took the opportunity to meet with the local Christians and to embolden them in the faith. He wrote letters to various communities, a number of them also having received a letter from St. John (preserved in the Book of the Apocalypse).
His seven extant epistles – the final testimony of a great bishop condemned to death –provide a powerful insight into the nascent Catholic Church. Already he was using the term “Catholic Church” to describe the universal Church established by Jesus Christ. He insists upon the proper Church hierarchy, even detailing how Christ is present to the flock through the bishop. Most memorably, he zealously speaks of the Holy Eucharist, recognizing that the sacrifice of his own life will unite him more perfectly with Christ’s Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. His feast day is February 1st.
St. Polycarp of Smyrna
St. Polycarp was a 2nd-century bishop of Smyrna. Saint Jerome wrote that Polycarp was a disciple of John the Apostle and that St. John had ordained him Bishop of Smyrna. The sole surviving work attributed to his authorship is his Epistle to the Philippians. The churches of Asia Minor recognized Polycarp’s leadership and chose him as representative to Pope St. Anicetus on the question of the date of the Easter celebration.
Pope St. Anicetus was the 11th pope, who reigned from c. 154 – c. 167 AD. Saint Anicetus’ papacy was marked by a conflict with the Christians under St. Polycarp, who wanted to celebrate Easter three days after Passover. Since the time of St. Peter, the Roman Church had instead always ensured that the celebration of Easter would be on a Sunday. To alleviate the situation, Pope St. Anicetus allowed these Christians in the East to celebrate Easter according to their date, which they asserted was an apostolic tradition from St. John himself. They continued to do so until the Council of Nicea (325 A.D.), which suppressed such practices.
According to the Martyrdom of Polycarp, he died a martyr, bound and burned at the stake, then stabbed when the fire failed to touch him. The holy bishop’s adamant refusal to offer incense before idols reminds one of Mattathias’ defense of True Religion (1 Maccabees 2). As the flames were lit at his feet, Polycarp offered a beautiful prayer, which has many structural parallels to the Roman Canon (the prayer used at Holy Mass to transubstantiate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ). Following his death, witnesses declared his body emitted a sweet fragrance
The Acts of Polycarp’s martyrdom are the earliest preserved reliable account of a Christian martyr’s death. Both this work and Polycarp’s epistle are filled with unmistakably Catholic imagery and doctrines. His feast day is January 26th.
Why They Matter
Each of these three Apostolic Fathers show without a doubt in their writings that the only true Church established by Our Lord was the Catholic Church. The Protestant notion that the Catholic Church was a creation of Constantine or the Medieval Church – and that the true Church beforehand was a disjointed fragment of different groups like today’s Protestants – is unequivocally disproved, even condemned, by their writings.
Anyone serious about reading what early Christianity was from the writings of those who were directly influenced by the Apostles must read their writings. The Christian Classics Ethereal Library has their works and others like those of St. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD) available for viewing freely online.