Leo the Great, San Clemente, and Cardinals (pt 2)

Lower Basilica of San Clemente (4th c); the ceiling would have been higher

In case you were wondering what Leo the Great has to do with yesterday’s post

The Ballerini edition of Leo’s letters from 1753 (published in Patrologia Latina, vol. 54) includes this reference towards the end of Ep. 28, the ‘Tome’:

fratres nostros Judium [sic PL 54 online] episcopum et Renatum presbyterum tituli sancti Clementis, sed et filium meum Hilarum diaconem vice nostra direximus.

That is to say, ‘we have appointed our brothers Bishop Julian and Renatus, Presbyter of the titulus of St Clement, but also my son, Deacon Hilarus in our place.’ Whether these people were Leo’s official agentes in rebus in Constantinople does not concern us here; Julian is presumably Julian of Cos, who often represents Leo’s interests in the East; Hilarus is the deacon who will represent Leo at Second Ephesus and later become Pope Hilarus, Leo’s successor. Renatus, another of Leo’s usual agents in Constantinople, is listed here as being a presbyter of the titulus, or title, of Saint Clement.

I admit to not being certain of this reading’s veracity, given that it’s not in all the manuscripts and is the sort of thing one would slip in later, either as a gloss or otherwise, if one knew or thought that Renatus was presbyter of St Clement’s.

Be that as it may, this reference to St Clement’s, although I’ve no doubt I’d read it many, many times before, never struck me until this Tuesday, having visited San Clemente. And I realised, ‘Hey, he was priest of San Clemente!’

Renatus, whose name I’ve seen in various of Leo’s letters, was priest in that old, fourth-century basilica that I visited on Sunday. That’s very cool. History comes alive in Rome.

So that was my first excitement. The second is where Cardinals come in.

San Clemente, you see, is one of the titular churches of Rome; according to my little book about San Clemente, there were 25 such ancient churches. It says of these priests:

One of the duties of the priests of these “Titles” was to serve the cemeterial churches, or, later, the major basilicas. Because they were thus incardinated in (or seconded to) a church distinct from that to which they had been ordained, these priests from the Titular Churches were known as “cardinal” priests.

Another possibility, mentioned by a 20-year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica, is that bishops from sees which had fallen to invasion in the 6th century were put into new sees as cardinales — from cardo, pivot or hinge — referring to their method of arrival.

The first etymology is still a bit garbled to me, since cardo means hinge, and cardinalis can mean principal. It srikes me that cardinales presbyteri are such because they are chief and principal presbyters of the church; this option appeals to me more than the other two. In the Early Middle Ages, they referred to the presbyters of the 25 titular churches and the bishops of the seven episcopates nearest Rome.

Regardless of muddle etymologies, the popes have had agentes in rebus and apocrisarii and other allies throughout the centuries, some in Rome, some abroad, all of them to help do their bidding. In the Early Middle Ages, a group of these started to be called cardinals; today, the cardinals are the head honchos of the Curia who elect the Pope, represent him in various countries, and try to keep things from changing.

And back in the 440s, Leo the Great sent a presbyter named Renatus to Constantinople to represent him. We have textual evidence that he was priest of the Titular Church of San Clemente — thus, what would later become a cardinal. And you can visit the remains of San Clemente that existed in Leo and Renatus’ day.

In Rome, history comes to life.


3 thoughts on “Leo the Great, San Clemente, and Cardinals (pt 2)

    • Well, in the deserts of Idaho you can, um, live the heritage of the church like Antony? Glad you’ll be reading the Tome. It’s quite worth reading. 🙂

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