November 9, 2017

Saint Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor of the Church

Pope St. Leo I with Attila the Hun

November 10th is the memorial of Pope Saint Leo I. One of only three popes in the history of the Church to be given the title "Great," St. Leo ruled as pontiff when the Roman Empire in the west was falling into ruins. Acknowledged as the best administrative leader of the early Church, his belief that the Bishop of Rome was responsible for the well-being of all Christians, no matter where they lived, enabled him to be an agent of stability at a time when such a vision was needed.

Pope St. Leo’s birthdate is unknown, but by the year 431, he appears in history as a particularly apt and influential deacon in the Church. At the death of Pope Sixtus III in 440, Leo was unanimously elected to succeed him. In his role as the successor of Peter, Pope St. Leo became widely known for his deep spirituality and pastoral care of his people; many of his writings continue to be read today, and one of his sermons is still included in the Office of Readings for Christmas.

During his pontificate, the Church was also baling several heresies which Leo worked to correct. One of the most pernicious was Pelagianism, a belief that denied the existence of Original Sin and contended that people could, through examples of moral living, earn their own salvation without needing the grace of God to do so. Another was Manichaeism, the idea that all matter, including the human body, is inferior to the spirit and therefore intrinsically evil. For a short time, even St. Augustine, before his conversion, held to this heretical teaching.

As the political split between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire widened, so did the conflict between the Eastern and Western Church. One controversy centered on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the union of the human and divine natures of Christ. Pope St. Leo, in a document known as the Tome (or Leer) of Leo, denied the teaching promulgated in the East that Christ possessed only one, divine nature; instead, his doctrine, which described the union of the human and divine natures of Our Lord, (the so-called "hypostatic union") was subsequently confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

Perhaps one of the more dramatic incidents for which Pope St. Leo is known, even among secular historians, concerns the invasion of the Empire by barbarians in the 5th century. When Attila the Hun marched into Italy in 452, he headed straight for the city of Rome with the intention of destroying and plundering it. A delegation of three men, including the Pope, met Attila at the gates of the city and persuaded him to turn back. The Pope was not as successful later when the Vandals, led by Geneseric, successfully invaded Rome, but his influence did limit what could have been the wholesale murder and arson of Rome by the invaders.

Little of what Pope St. Leo was able to accomplish would have been possible had it not been for his efforts to centralize the government of the Church by asserting the universal jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome. Known as the doctrine of Petrine supremacy, this affirmed that while all bishops exercise authority in their own dioceses, the Pope’s care and influence must extend over the entire Church. In a world that was becoming increasingly fragmented socially and politically, Pope St. Leo understood the importance of maintaining unity of faith and Christian belief.

Pope St. Leo the Great died in 461. He was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV in 1754. Leo's letters and sermons are invaluable historical and spiritual treasures. His rhythmic prose style would influence ecclesiastical language for centuries. O God, who never allows the gates of hell to prevail against your Church, founded on the apostolic rock, grant her, we pray, that through the intercession of Pope St. Leo, she may stand firm in your truth and know the sanctity of your lasting peace. Through Jesus Christ your Son. Amen.

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