Saturday, November 10, 2012

Saint Leo the Great, pope and doctor of the Church

St. Leo is a patron saint that few people really know or appreciate in comparison to other better known saints. However, he is not some dusty artifact of the past to be explored only in a moment of idle curiosity. St. Leo is a saint whose importance may well yet be achieved. The ancient world of the early Fifth century reflects the life of our own century. The troubles of the world in a complex tangle of politics and the controversies that consume so much energy of the faith are similar in both his world and our own.

The world of St. Leo was one of peace and solidity based upon the seemingly unstoppable Roman Empire. It had existed for centuries and most people assumed it would continue to exist. However, it was a world torn by outside threats of invasions, weakened by infighting and civil wars. The gap between the wealthy and the poor was extreme. The political situation was explosive and the inability of the government to provide a unity and moral direction was a serious weakness. For the common people, however, they focused on their daily needs and tried to raise their families the best they could. Sounds like the world of our own century where there are so many wars, and now that we have peace with communism, the world seems more unstable and volatile. Who can forecast where the next fifty years will take us. In this country, most people simply assume that our nation will continue as it is forever.

The church was also filled with controversy and infighting. Different beliefs had polarized many within the church into opposing camps. Their arguments centered on the identity of Jesus with each possible belief leading to tremendous implications and applications of faith. Note the following description;

"From the very beginning of his pontificate the strength of Leo the Great was tested and proved. Heresies rose from every direction: Persia, Spain, Constantinople, Greece--the names continue like a roll call of nations. There were Marcian, Pelagianism, Priscillianism, Nestorianism, Euthychianism, Arianism, Donatism, Apollinarianism, and many more. The words mean little to us. We smile at the strange sounds of the list and are impressed that one man should have known what they all meant and, besides, know how to refute them.

The names of Nestorius and Eutyches evoke little response today, but in the fifth century they were more deadly than the invading barbarians, for they caused spiritual violence. In denying the mystery of the Incarnation and the union of the divine and human natures of Christ, they shook Christianity to its very foundations. But Leo fought, and Leo won his battles.

His writings were like strong armor against the heresies of his day and even against those of the future. Leo forcefully reiterated the teaching of the Church on the mystery of the Incarnation. He was very explicit in stating the extent of the pope's supremacy and used that power with absolute authority, wielding the weapons of excommunication and banishment when necessary. Leo wrote letters unceasingly, and the 140 of them that we have are classed among the basic dogmatic writings of the Church. Because of these works, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1744, bestowed on Leo I the title of Doctor of the Church." Taken from Welcome to the Catholic Church produced by Harmony Media, Inc

It was also a time of physical violence. The Vandals had marched through the western Roman Empire across modern day France and Spain to settle in their own new kingdom of North Africa. The Emperor in the west was weak and ineffectual against the onslaughts of barbarian invasions. In 452, Attila the Hun, called the 'Scourge of God', marched down through Italy toward the city of Rome. The Emperor and his generals fled the city and left it and it's people to his mercy. A general and future Emperor, Marcian, came from the east to help form defense of the city, but it was not nearly enough to withstand the power of Attila. The people cried for help and the one person who was willing to stay with them and defend them was the Church and it's leader, Pope Leo.

Pope Leo had not wanted or expected to ever be a Bishop, or for that matter, a Pope. He was a deacon and a diplomat, expecting only to serve the Church and it's needs. He was respected as a good man and holy in his prayer. He was known to be able to reconcile opponents and be able to listen to different sides of a story. His ability to ease tensions and find good alternatives to conflict had won him notice. In fact, he had been sent by the Pope to France to settle a dispute when a messenger arrived with astonishing news. The Pope had died and the Bishops had been unable to elect a replacement from their own ranks; instead, they had chosen Deacon Leo as the next Pope. This is one of the few times that a man was chosen who was not already a Bishop or even a priest to serve the Church as Pope. Leo was quickly ordained and then consecrated Bishop of Rome. He worked amid the needs of the Church and was known for charitable deeds for the poor. When Attila threatened the city and the government of Rome had fled, Leo looked with pity on the poor and told them to pray and reform their lives, to be holy and beg for forgiveness of their sins. If they would do this then he would intercede for them to Attila.

Armed only with the word of God and aided by a few deacons, Pope Leo met Attila at the Milvan bridge north of Rome. Surprisingly, Attila listened to Leo, accepted a promise of tribute from the city, and then ordered his troops to withdraw to the north. His generals were perplexed and upset at his decision since the richest prize in the world lay at their feet. When they challenged Attila on why he was withdrawing from the city of Rome, he said that he had to, that Leo was guarded by the giants in the sky. No one else had seen them but Attila saw the patrons of the city of Rome, St. Peter and St. Paul, leading the armies of heaven and he fell back from the city in awe.

Pope Leo was welcomed and hailed in the city. People saw that the church, and not their government, was their true friend and benefactor. They rejoiced in their good fortune and blessings. Pope Leo warned them to stay true and faithful to their promise and that if they did not remain faithful the outcome in the future might be different. But, people are people, and many began to change their minds now that the threat was past. Attila, for his part, began to rethink his decision and announced that after his wedding night he would gather his army and once again march on Rome. That night, he died of a nosebleed in his sleep. The people, too, began to fall away from Church and to live as they had before. Twenty years later, Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, sailed from North Africa and besieged the city of Rome. People again appealed to Pope Leo for intervention. He must have felt in his heart a great sorrow, for they had once been saved but had refused to change. He knew they would not be so blessed again.

Pope Leo went to Gaiseric and asked him to turn away from sacking the city. Gaiseric refused, but he did promise to respect the church and the sanctity of those within it. People were allowed to find refuge in the churches and, for the most part, those inside were not hurt or hindered. However, for several weeks the Vandals killed and enslaved the rest, took loot and booty, burned large portions of the city and then sailed away to their strongholds in North Africa. To many people it seemed as if the world had come to an end.

Once again, Pope Leo intervened and helped to restore order. The glory of the Roman Empire in the west was no more, but the city and remaining Roman areas had a strength and vitality of their own. The government might have collapsed but the Church grew and flourished. Ironically, much of what is know or continues to exist from the Roman empire to our world today comes from the tradition and practice of the Roman Catholic world nourished by Pope Leo and his successors. Note the following;

"The pope immediately undertook the task of repairing the damage that had been done. He sent priests to minister to the captives in Africa and restored, as far as he could, the vessels and ornaments of the devastated churches. He was never discouraged. He had trust in the promises of God. If Christ would be with the Church all days, then there was no cause for fear. In the twenty-one years of his pontificate Leo I won the love and veneration of rich and poor, emperors and barbarians, clergy and lay people alike."
Taken from Welcome to the Catholic Church produced by Harmony Media, Inc.

Pope Leo wrote many letters and instructions in his lifetime. 140 of these letters and numerous sermons he preached exist to this day. He is known as one of the prime witnesses for the Primacy of the Pope and his authority to lead the Catholic Church. This was a controversial fact and in great dispute in his day. One of his greatest writings is known as the "Tome of St. Leo" and was a defense of the belief that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This defense of the Incarnation of Jesus also had implications on the Church's understanding of Mary. The Church Council of Ephesus had debated the identity of Jesus and it's discussion was based on the role of Mary, was she "Christokos", i.e., the mother of Jesus the man, or was she "Theotokos", i.e., the mother of God. The sway in the Council was about to declare that she could only be the mother of the human part of Jesus, but this would imply a split in the reality of Jesus. For this to be a fact, Jesus would have only been human until his birth when at that moment the divine took form in the newborn human. Thankfully, the people of Ephesus intervened and refused to allow the Bishops to conclude their vote. They had a powerful attachment to Mary as she had spent her last years of life on this world in their city. The Council was deadlocked until delegates from Leo arrived and announced by his letter that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. This belief, would later become a formal part of our Nicene Creed. When the letter was read the delegates declared that truly "St. Peter speaks though Leo."

These facts led to debate and controversy about the role and value of Pope Leo. A formal validation of his role in the church came in 1754 when the Church canonized Pope Leo and declared him, in honor of his extensive writings and instructions, to be both a Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church. It is interesting, that today in the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, many of the same aspects are true today. Both had a devotion and desire to be of great service to the people, both have intervened and worked miracles against oppressive governments in favor of ordinary people. Both are defenders of the Church and strong witnesses for the Papacy and it's role in Church affairs. Both have faced threats and controversy and yet both of them found strength in the Lord Jesus and expressed their devotion to His Mother Mary. In many ways, in their life and ministry, they are 'Her' children and have been and continue to be positive and powerful influences for good in a world filled with uncertainty and disorder.

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