Pope Saint Leo I – the Great
Of Leo’s birth and childhood years there is very little reliable information, other than that he was (probably) from Tuscany.
It is known that he was at Rome as a deacon under Pope Celestine I and Pope Sixtus III, whose pontificates ran from 422 to 440. In 440 he was sent to Gaul to try to make peace between the imperial generals, Aetius (the chief military commander of the province) and Albinus (the chief magistrate). It was whilst he was in Gaul that Pope Sixtus died, and a deputation was sent from Rome to inform Leo that he had been elected to the chair of St. Peter. He returned to Rome, and was consecrated on the 29th of September of that year.
The New Pope
As pope, Leo tried to make the Roman Church a pattern for all other churches and to emphasize the unity of the Church. Through his writings, he continuously noted the importance of virtues such as almsgiving, fasting, and prayer, and he also expounded Catholic doctrine with much clarity and conciseness. He tried to get rid of heresy and false teachings (e.g. summoning before a council of clergy and laymen, and consequently banishing, the many Manichaeans who had come to Rome).
Another example of his energetic battle against heresies arising during that time in the West:
Turibius, bishop of Astorga (Spain) had, for some time, been collecting information on the condition of the churches and the spreading heresy of Priscillianism (a sect that had become rather popular in Spain and that some of the Catholic clergy actually favoured at that time). This sect combined elements of astrology and fatalism with a Manichaean theory regarding the evil of matter. The bishop compiled information on the errors of the heresy and sent this document to several African bishops, as well as a copy of this document to Leo. The pope wrote back, refuting the beliefs of the Priscillianists, and describing the measures he had taken against the Manichaeans in Rome. He also ordered that a council of bishops from the neighbouring provinces be convened in order to deal with this matter (e.g. to find out if any of the bishops had been tainted by this heresy). Leo also wrote a similar letter to the bishops of the Spanish provinces, in which he notified them that a universal synod of all the chief pastors was to be summoned (or at least the bishops of Galicia should be assembled). These two synods were subsequently held in Spain in order to deal with the issue.
Difficulties in the East
In the years 448 and 449, Leo received letters from Abbot Eutyches of Constantinople, in which he complained of a revival of the Nestorian heresy at Antioch and his excommunication issued against him by Flavian, patriarch of Constantinople. Eutyches thus asked to be reinstated. His appeal was supported by a letter from the Emperor of the East, Theodosius II. Leo had hitherto not been informed of these proceedings at Constantinople, and thus wrote to Flavian for his version. Flavian replied and sent a report of the synod at which Eutyches had been condemned. Leo determined via the report that Eutyches had fallen into the error of denying the human nature of Christ (thus a heresy).
Theodosius summoned a council at Ephesus in order to inquire into the matter. A council that should have been impartial, ended up being mostly composed of friends of Eutyches and presided over by one of his strongest supporters, Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria. This gathering acquitted Eutyches and condemned Flavian, who was also subjected to physical violence. The Pope's legates at this gathering were even kept from reading a letter from Leo to Flavian. One legate was imprisoned and the other escaped with difficulty. When Leo heard the news regarding the proceedings, he declared the decisions null and void, called the council a “Robber Council” and wrote a bold letter to the Emperor, in which he said: "Leave to the bishops the liberty of defending the faith; neither worldly power nor terror will ever succeed in destroying it. Protect the Church and seek to preserve its peace, that Christ in His turn may protect your empire."
In 451, Marcian (a new emperor) held a greater council at Chalcedon, a city of Bithynia in Asia Minor. At least six hundred bishops were present and Leo sent three legates. The result: Flavian’s memory was vindicated (who had passed away by this time); Dioscorus was convicted of having maliciously suppressed Leo's letters at the “Robber Council” (and of virtually excommunicating the Pope himself) and was subsequently excommunicated. The original letter that Leo had written to Flavian was now read aloud. In it he defined the Catholic doctrine of the Incarnation and the two natures of Christ. "Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo!" exclaimed the bishops. This statement of the two-fold nature of Christ was to be accepted by later ages as the Church's official teaching. Leo, however, refused to confirm the council's canon which recognized the patriarch of Constantinople as primate over the East. One can thus see that, for Leo, the maintenance of strict ecclesiastical discipline and the primacy of the Roman Church was of the utmost importance.
The Defeat of Attila
In 452 Attila ("the scourge of God") and his Huns had overrun Greece and Germany, but were defeated in France at Chalons by the imperial general Aetius. He then fell back, gathered fresh forces, and entered Italy from the northeast, burning Aquileia, sacking Milan and Pavia and generally destroying everything in his path. His next goal: Rome. The following illustrates Leo’s courage and his great faith in God (taken from http://www.doctorsofthecatholicchurch.com/L.html and information from Sister Catherine Goddard Clark, MICM):
All Rome awaited the coming of the Mongol King in hopeless terror. They had no defense left against him. And then, in the darkest hour ¬- as would often be the case through the centuries ahead ¬- the Eternal City was saved, not by its legions, its tribunes, its senators, or its suffering citizens. Rome was saved by its Bishop, the Holy Roman Pontiff.
Practically alone, Pope Leo went out to meet the wanton murderer who was the terror of the world. He climbed steadily northward, this holy and august Vicar of Christ, and over the mountains, an arduous journey indeed in those days. He found the Mongolian chief below Mantua, at the point where the Mincio River, flowing down from its Alpine source - the beautiful Lago Garda - emptied itself in the Po. Attila's troops, hardened veterans seasoned in plunder and sack and rape, were ready and waiting to cross the Po when Saint Leo, in his papal robes, entered the disordered camp and stood before the King of the Huns.
The glorious Pope threatened Attila with the power which was his from Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, if he did not turn back and leave Italy unmolested. And it is one of the most dramatic, of all the dramatic facts with which the story of the Church is so enchantingly full, that Attila, the Hun, yielded before Leo, the Pope. The ‘Scourge of God’ agreed to turn back. He gave up Rome. And Leo, absorbed in thanksgiving, returned to his See.
Attila's servants, so the story is told, asked him why he had reversed his custom and capitulated so easily to the Bishop of Rome. The brigand chief answered that all the while the Pope was speaking, he, Attila, the generator of terror in others, was himself consumed in fear, for there had appeared in the air above the Pope's head a figure in the dress of a priest, holding in his hand a drawn sword with which he made as if to kill him unless he consented to do as Leo asked. The figure was that of Peter!"
Another example of Leo’s courage, faith and high moral authority was when the Vandal king, Genseric, came from Africa a few years later (455) in order to attack Rome (then almost defenseless). Although he did not turn back, Leo was able to procure a promise from Genseric that he would restrain his troops from arson and carnage. The city was pillaged for 10 days. The Vandals then withdrew, taking captives and booty with them, but sparing the churches of St Peter and St Paul. It must be added that Leo then repaired the damage, e.g. sending priests, alms and aid to the Italian captives in Africa.
Death and Burial
Leo’s pontificate lasted for 21 years, and he passed away on November 10, 461. He was buried in the vestibule of St Peter’s on the Vatican. In 688 his remains were transferred to the basilica itself (by Pope Sergius) and a special altar was erected over them. Today, his tomb may still be seen (beneath the altar specially dedicated to St Leo).
A Saintly Example
Pope Leo I strongly advocated the below works of mercy toward others to show true Christianity:
Corporal Works of Mercy:
- To feed the hungry;
- Give drink to the thirsty;
- Clothe the naked;
- Shelter the homeless;
- Visit the sick;
- Visit the imprisoned;
- Bury the dead.
SPIRITUAL WORKS OF MERCY:
- To counsel the doubtful;
- Instruct the ignorant;
- Admonish sinners;
- Comfort the afflicted;
- Forgive offenses;
- Bear wrongs patiently;
- Pray for the living and the dead.
Leo’s courage and wisdom elevated the prestige of the Holy See, and earned for him the title of "The Great". The Church has also honoured Leo with the title of Doctor because of his expositions of Christian doctrine.
Pope Leo I was a resolute champion of the faith – an example to us to always be courageous in our faith: we are children of GOD – take great comfort and gain courage from that!
Also Known As
ca. 391 (other sources say 400)
Tuscany, Western Roman Empire
November 10, 461 (other sources say April 11)
Rome, Western Roman Empire
Papacy Began and Ended
Began September 29, 440
Ended November 10, 461 (other sources say April 11)
Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife.
Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still, in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists as an integral whole, just as the Apostle says: “We are all one in Christ,” nor is anyone separated from the office of another in such a way that a lower group has no connection with the head. In the unity of faith and baptism, our community is then undivided. There is a common dignity as the apostle Peter says in these words: “And you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And again: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of election.” For all, regenerated in Christ, as made kings by the sign of the cross. They are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood. For what is more king-like than to find yourself ruler over your body after having surrendered your soul to God? And what is more priestly than to promise the Lord a pure conscience and to offer him in love unblemished victims on the altar of one’s heart? - from a sermon
God decreed that all nations should be saved in Christ. Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God‘s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles. Let us give thanks to the merciful God, “who has made us worthy,” in the words of the Apostle, “to share the position of the saints in light; who has rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of this beloved Son.” This came to be fulfilled, as we know, from the time when the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ. - from a sermon.
Examples of Hymns
Troparion (Tone 3)
You were the Church's instrument
in strengthening the teaching of true doctrine;
you shone forth from the West like a sun dispelling the errors of the heretics.
Righteous Leo, entreat Christ God to grant us His great mercy.
Troparion (Tone 8)
O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,
The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.
O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!
Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!
Kontakion (Tone 3)
Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo,
you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions.
With divinely inspired teachings of the honored Trinity,
you shed the light of the knowledge of God up-on your flock.
Therefore, you are glorified as a divine initiate of the grace of God.