November 9, 2016

Memorial of Saint Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor

St. Leo the Great
November 10th, is the memorial of Saint Leo the Great, aka Pope St. Leo I, (c. 400 – 461) the 5th century pontiff and Doctor of the Church. He is regarded as one of the best administrative popes of the ancient Church and was a tireless defender of doctrinal orthodoxy. He fought against the heresies of Arianism, Pelagianism, Manichaeism, Priscillianism, Nestorianism and Eutychism. St. Leo’s eloquent homilies (96 of his homilies and 143 of his letters are extant) on Christ’s incarnation, the unity of the Church and the primacy of the papacy as the Vicar of Christ on earth, are a treasure from the Patristic Age.

Little is known about his formative years. Born at the end of the fourth century, the Liber Pontificalis states that he was "of Tuscan nationality from his father Quintian." Since he spent his early years in Rome, St. Leo considered the Eternal City his homeland. As a young man, he joined the Roman clergy and was ordained a deacon. In this capacity, he served Pope Sixtus III for nearly a decade, playing a considerable role in Church affairs. Among the many friends he met at this time were Saint Prosper, Bishop of Aquitania, and Cassian, founder of the Abbey of Saint Victor in Marseilles. Cassian, a fellow defender of the Christian faith, proclaimed him, "the glory of the Church and the sacred ministry."

Pope Sixtus III sent St. Leo to Gaul to resolve a dispute between Aetius and the prefect Albinus. During Leo’s absence, Sixtus III died. Given Leo's unrivaled theological learning and his wisdom in diplomacy and in ecclesiastical affairs, on September 29th, 440, he was consecrated Bishop of Rome, thus beginning his sovereign pontificate. He discharged this office with such ability that today he is acknowledged among the most preeminent of the early pontiffs.

In 451, St. Leo approved the fourth ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon, in which the Church decreed the Chalcedonian Definition, rejecting the idea of a single nature in Christ, and affirming that He possesses two natures in one person. It further insisted on the completeness of His dual natures as God and man. The council issued 27 disciplinary canons concerning Church administration and authority. Canon 28, declared that the See of Constantinople was second to only that of Rome. St. Leo's Epistle to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explains with clarity and precision the dogma of the Incarnation. He writes in part:

"Without detriment, therefore, to the properties of either of the two natures and substances which are joined in the one person, majesty took on humility; strength, weakness; eternity, mortality; and, in order to pay off the debt which attached to our condition, inviolable nature was united with passible nature, so that, as suited the cure of our ills, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Jesus Christ, could die with the one nature and not die with the other. Thus true God was born in the whole and perfect nature of true man; complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours."

In 452, Attila the Hun's armies despoiled various cities in invading northern Italy. St. Leo diverted Attila from pillaging Rome in the following manner: "With God-given eloquence, the Pope persuaded him to turn back, and when the Hun was asked by his servants why, contrary to custom, he had so meekly yielded to the entreaties of a Roman bishop, he answered that he had been alarmed by a figure dressed like a priest that stood at Leo's side; this individual was holding a drawn sword and acted as if he would kill him if he advanced farther. As a result, Attila retreated to Pannonia." (The Church's Year of Grace, Pius Parsch)

St. Leo’s care for the Christian Church and attention to the integrity of doctrine were not his exclusive concerns. One need only survey his works and amazing industry as pastor and writer to realize that he was equally focused on upholding of moral standards and unity of the Church. He died in November, 461, and was buried in the Vatican Church. In 688, by order of Pope St. Sergius I, his remains were removed to "Peter's Citadel" and later, on the building of the new basilica, found a resting-place in the altar bearing his name. O God, who never allow the gates of hell to prevail against your Church, firmly founded on the apostolic rock, grant her, we pray, that through the intercession of Pope Saint Leo the Great, she may stand firm in your truth and know the protection of lasting peace.

Three popes (excluding St. John Paul II) have been designated as great by both popular acclamation on the occasion of their deaths and by history: Pope St. Leo I, Pope St. Gregory I (590–604) and Pope St. Nicholas I (858–67). The rarity of this accolade bespeaks the remarkable efforts and heroic virtue of those so named. Saint John XXIII called Pope St. Leo I, "the greatest among the great."

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