There are many transcription and memory mistakes made when a group of people are writing to one another in the middle of a war. The “war” was the intermittent persecution of Christians from Nero to Domitian to Marcus Aurelius and onward until the early 300s. The transcriptions were the chronological order of Roman bishops, who are now seen as popes. The term “pope” was not original to Peter.
We all know Peter came first. He was martyred around 64 AD. Linus was the first successor. Cletus was either the second or third successor, depending on which historian you follow, Clement being the other option.
Cletus has often been referred to as Anacletus or Anencletus (Greek for “blameless”, a common name for a slave). So, he may have been a slave, or the son of one, at one time. “Cletus” would be the Romanized (more Christian) way of saying his name.
It appears that Cletus reigned somewhere between 76 and 88 AD. There was persecution at the time, under the Emperor Domitian, who ruled 81 to 96 AD. The historian Pliny, writing in 110, called Domitian “the beast from hell”. An obviously troubled man, who killed and banished people for multiple reasons, Domitian was the first emperor to declare himself “God the Lord”. One law he had passed read thus: “That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion.” Most of Domitian’s persecution is based on his fear of the Jews, or sons of David, from whom would come the Redeemer, according to Isaiah. This Redeemer would be Domitian’s nemesis. So, killing Jews, or at least punishing them with taxes, would be in his best interests. Christians, then, were still seen to be a subset of the Jewish religion.
We cannot be sure if Cletus was martyred or died naturally. There is one common belief that all of the first forty popes died as martyrs, with no historical backing for it. But, Domitian’s ego-based rulings certainly may have caused his death.
However, we can be fairly sure that Cletus must have been often on the run. And, surely, he could have built no churches which would have been like a spotlight focused on the congregants. These Christians were obligated to meet secretly in homes or in the catacombs, caves dug from the soft limestone on the outskirts of Rome. Some stories were fabricated against the Christians during this period. It was their fault if there was famine, flood or disease. They were the scapegoats of their era.
Outside of Rome, Cletus had many Christian followers, John the Evangelist being one of the more prominent members. Communications being what they were at the time, John could only write to a select few of his fellow Christians, telling them of his sufferings under Domitian. However, his Book of Revelation, written at this time, tells of his own banishment to Patmos and his suffering there. One chapter describes a beast, which many presume to be a literary description of the Emperor Domitian.
Over hundreds of years, Cletus was reported to have accomplished much during his papacy. He was said to have developed liturgical vestments. This is probably not true, since no one wore them for several hundred more years. However, he may have divided Rome into parishes, although whether it was twenty-five parishes, as stated in some places, may or may not be true. The most likely accomplishments were probably the ordaining of more priests, and the increase in the number of believing Christians, despite the fear of the persecutions. Only a man of wisdom, constancy and True Faith could have done that.
St. Cletus, pray for us!