St. Leo the Great
At a time when there is widespread criticism of Church structures, we also hear criticism that bishops and priests—indeed, all of us—are too preoccupied with administration of temporal matters. Pope Leo is an example of a great administrator who used his talents in areas where spirit and structure are inseparably combined: doctrine, peace and pastoral care. He avoided an "angelism" that tries to live without the body, as well as the "practicality" that deals only in externals.
SAINT LEO the GREAT
Saint Leo was born in Rome. He embraced the sacred ministry, was made Archdeacon of the Roman Church by Pope Saint Celestine, and under the same Vicar of Christ and Saint Sixtus III, had a large share in governing the Church. On the death of Sixtus, Leo was chosen Pope, and consecrated on Saint Michael’s day, 440, amid great joy.
It was the time of terrible trial which preceded by thirty years the definitive fall of the Roman Empire. Vandals and Huns were wasting the provinces of the empire, and Nestorians, Pelagians, and other heretics wrought still more grievous havoc in souls. While Leo’s zeal was making headway against these perils, there arose the new heresy of Eutyches, who confounded the two natures of Christ. At once the vigilant pastor proclaimed the true doctrine of the Incarnation in his famous “tome”; but fostered by the Byzantine court, the heresy gained a strong hold upon the Eastern monks and bishops. After three years of unceasing toil, Saint Leo brought about its solemn condemnation by the Council of Chalcedon, the Fathers all signing his tome, and exclaiming, “Peter has spoken by Leo.”
Soon after, Attila with his Huns broke into Italy, and marched through its razed cities upon Rome. Leo went out boldly to meet him, and prevailed on him to turn back. His chieftains were astonished to see the terrible Attila, the “Scourge of God,” fresh from the sack of Aquileia, Milan and Pavia and with the rich prize of Rome within his grasp, turn his great host back to the Danube at the Saint’s word. They asked him why he had acted so strangely. He told them he had seen two venerable personages — who are generally supposed to be Saints Peter and Paul — standing behind Saint Leo; and impressed by this vision, he withdrew. Two years later the city fell a prey to the Vandals, but Leo saved it again from total destruction. He died in 461 after having ruled the Church for a little over twenty years.
Reflection. Saint Leo loved to ascribe all the fruits of his unsparing labors to the glorious Head of the Apostles, who, he often declared, lives and governs in his successors. If the perils of the Church are as great now as in Saint Leo’s day, Saint Peter’s solicitude is not less.
Source: Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butler’s Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894).
Feast Day, November 10th
With apparent strong conviction of the importance of the Bishop of Rome in the Church, and of the Church as the ongoing sign of Christ’s presence in the world, Leo the Great displayed endless dedication in his role as pope. Elected in 440, he worked tirelessly as "Peter’s successor," guiding his fellow bishops as "equals in the episcopacy and infirmities."
Leo is known as one of the best administrative popes of the ancient Church. His work branched into four main areas, indicative of his notion of the pope’s total responsibility for the flock of Christ. He worked at length to control the heresies of Pelagianism, Manichaeism and others, placing demands on their followers so as to secure true Christian beliefs. A second major area of his concern was doctrinal controversy in the Church in the East, to which he responded with a classic letter setting down the Church’s teaching on the nature of Christ. With strong faith, he also led the defense of Rome against barbarian attack, taking the role of peacemaker.
In these three areas, Leo’s work has been highly regarded. His growth to sainthood has its basis in the spiritual depth with which he approached the pastoral care of his people, which was the fourth focus of his work. He is known for his spiritually profound sermons. An instrument of the call to holiness, well-versed in Scripture and ecclesiastical awareness, Leo had the ability to reach the everyday needs and interests of his people. One of his Christmas sermons is still famous today.