December 10, 2017

The Church’s "Great" Popes Lived Out Heroic Virtue

Jesus gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom

Three Popes in the history of the Church have been honored with the designation "the Great". Pope St. Leo I (440–61), Pope St. Gregory I (590–604), and Pope St. Nicholas I (858–67). This is not, however, the result of official Church decree. The pontiffs so named have been duly singled out through the popular acclaim of the faithful on the occasion of their deaths and over time by tradition. Since his passing in April 2005, Pope St. John Paul II has been variously accorded the title.

St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo, one of the best-known popes from the 1st millennium, was a native of Tuscany, and initially served as a deacon under Pope St. Celestine I. Leo was a force to be reckoned with in diplomatic proceedings, which is why Pope Sixtus III sent him to resolve various disputes as a deacon. Leo's skills as an administrator enabled him to deal judiciously with the disintegration of the Roman Empire and guide the Church successfully through various consequential doctrinal disputes.

During Leo’s papacy, the universal Church and secular authorities recognized the supreme pontiff as the true leader of Christendom. He ruled on questions ranging from Church discipline to controversies among prelates, and authored numerous theological works. The most popular was the Tome of Leo which greatly shaped the Church’s teaching on Christ’s consubstantial union with God the Father at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Leo died in 461 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. His feast day is celebrated November 10. He is among the Doctors of the Church.

St. Leo the Great on Christ

"He who could not be enclosed in space, willed to be enclosed; continuing to be before times, he began to exist in time; the Lord of the universe allowed his infinite majesty to be overshadowed, and took upon him the form of a servant..."

― Pope St. Leo the Great

When Attila the Hun threatened to invade and conquer Italy, it wasn’t an emperor or a deputy who went and talked Attila out of it. It was Pope Leo. Records show that after meeting with Leo, Attila retreated from Rome. The most plausible cause is that Leo prevailed upon Attila, making so great an impression that Attila left, stories range from Leo offering Attila a sum of gold (unlikely) to Attila suddenly seeing a vision of Christ in priestly robes bearing a drawn sword, threatening to bring death and obliterate the Hun army should they proceed with their attack.

St. Leo in particular contributed tremendously to the Church, including (through a particular devotion to St. Peter) helping to develop our understanding of papal primacy.O God, who never allows the gates of hell to prevail against your Church, firmly founded on the apostolic rock, grant her, we pray, that through the holy intercession of Pope Saint Leo, she may stand firm in your truth and know the protection of lasting peace. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever. Amen.

St. Gregory the Great

Pope St. Gregory the Great

Born to an aristocratic Roman family around the year 540, St. Gregory was a public servant into his thirties, then retired to be a monk. He was a fan of the great St. Benedict, devoting a whole book to the saint's life and miracles, and encouraged the spread of monasticism during his papacy. Pope Pelagius II called Gregory away from his life of solitude to act as papal nuncio in Constantinople. After the pope’s sudden death from the plague, Gregory was elected on February 3, 590. He reluctantly accepted this holy summons to serve as Rome's bishop.

It was Gregory who is owed thanks for spreading the faith in England and Gaul. He sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and companions there as evangelists, and for keeping the faith alive among the Franks (ancestors of the French). He did dispute the emperor on several new laws, but made sure to approach each situation with proper humility: as a loyal subject rather than a man on equal footing. Due to the depleted infrastructure in Rome by that time, Gregory was tasked with handling everything from feeding Rome’s poor, to managing the vast amounts of Church property, to rebuilding aqueducts and discussing the most equitable ways to use Church resources. A meticulous and generous man, he left the Church in vastly better shape than he found it, hence his title, "The Great."

St. Gregory the Great on Repentance

"If we knew at what time we were to depart from this world, we would be able to select a season for pleasure and another for repentance. But God, who has promised pardon to every repentant sinner, has not promised us tomorrow. Therefore we must always dread the final day, which we can never foresee. This very day is a day of truce, a day for conversion."

― Pope St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great was perhaps most known for being a prolific writer and teacher, having authored four books, several sermons, and over 850 letters that survive to this day. He is responsible for several liturgical customs that still exist. The Our Father’s current placement in the Mass, various prayers recited according to liturgical season, and some additions to the Roman Canon all originated from him. Gregorian Chant, though it bears his name, only came from Gregory in seed form; that attribution first appeared nearly three centuries after Gregory’s death.

Pope St. Gregory, now recognized as a Doctor of the Church, died on March 12, 604. He was acclaimed as a saint almost immediately. His feast day is celebrated September 3 in the Latin Church. Almighty God, who cares for your people with gentleness and rule them in love, through the intercession of Pope Saint Gregory, endow, we pray, with a spirit of wisdom those to whom you have given authority to govern, that the flourishing of a holy flock may become the eternal joy of the shepherds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you, together, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

St. Nicholas the Great

Pope St. Nicholas the Great

A Roman from a noble family, Nicholas was well-known, even before becoming pope, for his holiness, goodwill, intelligence, and ability to lead. A subdeacon under Pope Sergius II and a deacon under St. Leo IV, Nicholas was elected to the papacy on April 24, 858. He wasted no time revitalizing the Church. With the Holy Roman Empire in shambles and Christian morality in a deep state of decay, Nicholas the Great led the Church well through a time where things could easily have devolved into anarchy. His enlightened stewardship proved to be a blessing.

Many bishops of the time were living worldly, decadent lives. One of Nicholas’ hallmarks was reforming and renewing those standards to which bishops and priests should be held. He twice excommunicated the archbishop of Ravenna, for being a tyrant who extorted his subordinate bishops and imprisoned his priests, not to mention forging papal documents and abusing the pope’s representatives. Nicholas also battled the archbishop of Reims, over the pope’s supremacy, but fortunately the issue was resolved without the archbishop having to be removed.

St. Nicholas the Great on the Church's Certain Doctrine

"From the time the Christian religion began to be spread, she has held unchangeable and taught uncorrupted throughout the world the doctrines which she has received once and for all from her patron and founder, St. Peter."

― Pope St. Nicholas the Great

Nicholas dealt with an emperor wanting a divorce, a foreshadowing of Henry VIII nearly 700 years later, when Lothair II left his lawful wife, Theutberga, to marry another woman. The area bishops, who were controlled by Lothair, approved of his abandonment, as did a meeting of bishops where papal representatives were bribed. Nicholas, never one to back down, convened his own meeting, wherein he duly reversed the decision and excommunicated his representatives. Even Lothair besieging Rome for two days couldn't discourage Pope Nicholas, despite the pope himself effectively being imprisoned without food in St. Peter’s during that time. Lothair ultimately reconciled to the Church and to the pope, seeking forgiveness.

During his time in office, Pope Nicholas continued to restore churches and was an active proponent of the religious life, considering he himself lived monastically, through and through. He died November 13, 867, and after death was venerated as a saint. Almighty Father, lover of souls, who chose your servant Saint Nicholas to be a bishop in the Church, that he might give freely out of the treasures of your grace: make us mindful of the needs of others and, as we have received, so teach us also to give; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord and Savior. Amen.

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