Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Pope St. Leo the Great

Pope St. Leo the Great is the first of only four popes in Church history to be called "the Great." He reigned 21 years from 440-461 A.D. Of the 265 Popes, he is also one of only two popes to be proclaimed a doctor of the church. His feast day is celebrated on November 10. (April 11 in the 1962 calendar.)

His chief aim was to preserve the unity of the Church, the unity of Christendom. He is thus known to us as the "Doctor of the Unity of the Church."

In his epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul exhorts the Church to "stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not (to be) frightened in anything by your opponents." (Philippians 1:27-28)

Leo, a true lion, was unafraid to strongly use papal power to preserve the unity of Christendom. He rightly understood that the glue that holds the unity of Christendom is obedience and allegiance to the Pope. Here are some of his last words from a letter, "the same medicine must be applied to all wounds in all places, in order that the Lord's flock may all be restored in all churches through the zeal of the shepherds, and so that through concern for charity, all Christ's sheep may feel that they have one shepherd."

Papal Primacy and Unity in Christ

Pope St. Leo the Great understood well his mission and authority in holding the office of St. Peter, the first pope.

It can be argued that the greatest thing Pope Leo did was to strengthen papal power by making a bold claim to the legitimacy of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as the inheritance of the office that St. Peter himself was given by Christ. Leo took seriously Christ's words, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16: 19)

The concern for unity is what motivated Leo to frequently expound the traditional position that the Bishop of Rome is the successor of St. Peter who is the visible head of the Universal Church. He saw the the bishop of Rome as a "symbol of faith in unity, a sacramental representation of the Church's being one in Christ."

For this reason, Leo strongly fought against the heresies in his day: Priscillianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manicheanism, and Monophysitism.

"Peter has spoken through Leo!:" Leo's Tome and the Monophysite Heresy

About 10 years prior to Leo's election to the throne of St. Peter, the third ecumenical council of the Church, the Council of Ephesus, had defeated the Nestorian heresy which claimed that in Christ were two persons and that Mary was the "Christokos" (Christ-bearer in Greek) and not the "Theotokos" (God-bearer in Greek). This means that she is only the mother of the human person, not the divine person. However, Jesus is one person, with both human and divine natures. The council defeated this heresy on Christ and thus rightly proclaimed Mary to be the Mother of God, since Jesus is God. (Mother of the Word made flesh, not Mother of God the Father, Creator of the Universe.)

During Leo's pontificate, another attack on orthodox Christology came through the Monophysite heresy. Monophysitism denies the two natures (human and divine) in the one person of Jesus Christ. They believed Christ had only one divine nature. In 449 A.D., the monk Eutyches and his Monophysite followers held the 2nd Council of Ephesus which affirmed this heresy. Pope Leo deemed the council a "Robber Synod," and called the true third general council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. At the council, Leo's Tome (his book on the Monophysite heresy)was finally read (it had been ignored at the "Robber Synod") and the heresy was defeated. The bishops (only four came from the West, most were from the East) cheered, "Peter has spoken through Leo!" This cry from the (remember, largely Eastern!) bishops should be instructive for those who accuse the papacy of being a man-made or medieval invention. Four centuries after Peter: "Peter has spoken through Leo!"

Powerful words, indeed.

Leo's Tome is called, "the plain man's guide to the doctrine of the Incarnation."

Leo's role in defeating this terrible heresy was integral to preserving the traditional understanding Christ's personhood and nature. His leadership and strength also reaffirmed the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. At this council, Leo rejected the passing of Canon 28 which tried to make the Patriarch of Constantinople equal in authority with Rome.

The Lion versus Attila the Hun, the "scourge of God"

In history, the Huns are remembered as the savages they were. Attila, their leader, was known as "the scourge of God." Interestingly enough, Attila was also a learned man and was fluent in Latin. In 452 A.D., General Orestes was a Roman politician at the time and had conspired with Attila to attack Rome. Pope St. Leo persuaded Attila not to sack the great city. So impressive was this encounter with Attila, that art has preserved its memory and legacy through Raphael's work.

Another impressive, diplomatic encounter occurred when Genseric the Vandal was persuaded by Leo to spare the lives of the Romans by not burning the city. Genseric agreed and he and his men only looted the city.

It is said of Leo that during his time, "he was the only truly great historical figure in either the Church or the civil order...Pope St. Leo the Great was the one man who, by the clarity and vision of the Church as one and universal, and by the force of his own administration, did much to fashion the framework on which European civilization could grow in an essential unity."

Leo the Saint

As Pope, Leo was as fierce as a lion in proclaiming orthodox doctrines and uniformity in disciplines according to canon law. As pastor, he was as gentle as a lamb when dealing with his sheep. In a letter to Anastasius, the Bishop of Thessalonica, he writes, "Although men of priestly rank sometimes do things that are to be reprimanded, yet kindness may have more effect on those who are to be corrected than severity: exhortation than perturbation, love than power."

Like all holy and saintly men, Leo was also humble. On one of his pontifical anniversaries he expressed, "St. Peter rejoices over your good feeling and welcomes your respect for the Lord's own institution as shown towards the partners of His honor, commending the well-ordered love of the whole Church which ever finds Peter in Peter's See, and from affection for so great a shepherd grows not lukewarm over even so inferior a successor as myself."

Pope St. Leo the Great, pray for us. +

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