On Leo the Great (d. 461)
"One of the Greatest Pontiffs Ever"
March 5, 2008
[Greeting to Italian Students in St. Peter's Basilica]
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am happy to receive you in the basilica and to extend a warm welcome to you all. I greet you, representatives of the Madonnina del Grappa Foundation and of the Movement of Hope and Life and I encourage you to always seek to deepen your lives of faith, keeping in mind the teachings of your founder Father Enrico Mauri. Do not tire of putting your trust in Christ and give testimony to him always.
I welcome the teachers, the students and the parents of the schools run by the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Dear friends I thank you for coming in such large numbers and I hope each of you will live out your time at school as an opportunity gain a full education. I encourage you to strengthen your belief in the Gospel and to always be ready to do the will of God.
Lastly I welcome all you students of the various scholastic institutions and I assure you of my prayers to the Holy Spirit that he may instill true joy in your hearts and fill them to the overflowing with his gifts.
[Catechesis in Paul VI Hall]
Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing on our journey with the Fathers of the Church, true guiding lights that shine from afar, in today's meeting we will look at a pope who in 1754 was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Benedict XIV: I am speaking, of course, of Leo the Great. As indicated by the name he is traditionally given, he was truly one of the greatest Pontiffs ever to have graced the See of Rome. He made an enormous contribution toward strengthening its authority and prestige. He was the first Bishop of Rome to adopt the name Leo, which has subsequently been adopted by a further 12 pontiffs. He is also the first pope of whom we have evidence of his preaching to the people who crowded around him during celebrations. It is natural to think of him in the context of the general Wednesday audiences; an appointment that has become in the last decades, a normal and expected way of meeting with the faithful and with many other visitors from all over the world.
Leo was born in Tuscia. He became deacon of the Church of Rome around 430 and with time worked his way up to a post of great importance. He stood out in this role and in 440 Galla Placidia who governed the Western Empire at the time, sent him to Gallia to help resolve what was a very difficult situation.
In the summer of that year, however, Pope Sisto III -- whose name is linked to the magnificent mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore -- died. It was Leo himself who succeeded him; he heard the news while pursuing his mission of peace in Gaul.
Once back in Rome, the new Pope was consecrated Sept. 29, 440. His papacy lasted 21 years and was without doubt one of the most important in the history of the Church. When he died Nov. 10, 461, the Pope was buried near St. Peter's tomb. To this day his remains are kept in one of the altars in the Vatican.
Pope Leo lived in very difficult times: repeated barbarian invasions, the progressive weakening of imperial power in the West and a lengthy social crisis forced the Bishop of Rome -- as was to happen to an even greater degree a century and a half later during the papacy of Gregory the Great -- to assume a role in the civil and political happenings of the time. This obviously served to increase the importance and prestige of the See of Rome.
Leo is particularly remembered for a certain incident in his life which occurred in 452 when the Pope met with Attila the Hun in Mantua and convinced him to desist from his invasion which had already devastated the northeastern regions of Italy. In so doing he saved the rest of the peninsula.
This important, memorable event has come to symbolize the Pontiff's efforts toward peace. Unfortunately, another papal initiative that took place three years later was not so successful. It was nevertheless indicative of astounding courage. In the spring of 455, Leo was not able to stop the Geiseric Vandals from invading and sacking Rome for two weeks. In any case, the gesture made by the Pope -- who went to meet the invader unarmed and surrounded by his clergy to try and convince him to stop -- prevented Rome from being set alight and saved the Basilica of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John in which some of the terrified people of Rome had taken refuge.
We are well aware of Pope Leo’s actions, thanks to his beautiful sermons -- almost 100 of them are preserved in a superb and clear Latin -- and thanks to his letters, about 150. In his texts the Pontiff appears in all his greatness, at the service of the truth within charity, through an indefatigable exercise of the word that reveals him both a theologian and a shepherd.
Leo the Great, constantly aware of his believers and of the people of Rome, but also of the communion between the various Churches and their needs, was a supporter and an untiring promoter of the Roman primacy, offering himself as the authentic heir of Peter the Apostle: the numerous bishops attending the Council of Chalcedon -- mostly oriental -- were fully aware of this.
Taking place in the year 451, with 350 bishops, this council was the most important assembly ever to be celebrated in the history of the Church. Chalcedon represented the end goal of the Christology of the previous three ecumenical councils: Nicea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431. Already in the 6th century, these four councils, which synthesized the faith of the early Church, were compared to the four Gospels, as Gregory the Great affirmed in a famous letter (I,24), in which he declared we should "to accept and venerate, like the four books of the Holy Gospel, the four Councils" because, he explains further, on them "the structure of the holy faith arises as on a keystone."
By rejecting the heresy of Eutiche, which denied the true human nature of God’s Son, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed the union in the one Person, without confusion and without separation, of the two natures, human and divine.
The Pope affirmed the faith in true God and true man Jesus Christ in an important doctrinal text directed to the bishop of Constantinople, the so-called "Tome to Flavianus," which was read in Chalcedon and was acclaimed by the attending bishops, registered in the, recorded in the acts of the Council in these words: "Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo," the fathers of the council exclaimed together.
From this intervention, and from others made during the Christological controversy of those years, it is evident that the Pope felt the urgent responsibility of Peter’s Successor, whose role is unique in the Church, because "only to one Apostle was entrusted what was communicated to all the apostles,” as Leo affirms in one of his sermons on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (83,2).
The Pontiff managed to exercise such responsibilities, in the West like in the East, by intervening in various circumstances with prudence, determination and lucidity through his texts and his bound manuscripts. In so doing he demonstrated the importance of the Roman primacy then, as much as today, in order to effectively serve the communion that is a feature of the one and only Church of Christ.
Conscious of the historical significance of the times in which he was living and of the change that was taking place -- in a time of deep crisis -- from pagan to Christian Rome, through preaching and pastoral care, Leo the Great was able to stay close to the people and the faithful. He encouraged charity in a Rome that was suffering famine, refugees, injustice and poverty. He hindered pagan superstition and the actions of Manichean groups. He linked liturgy to the daily life of Christians by uniting, for example, the practice of fasting to charity and almsgiving, especially during the Four 'tempora' which marked the seasonal changes during the year. In particular Leo the Great taught his faithful -- even today his words apply to us -- that the Christian liturgy is not simply a way of remembering past events but to focus attention on invisible truths that operate in the lives of everyone. He stresses in a sermon (64,1-2) that we should celebrate Easter at any time of year “not as something from the past, but rather as an event of the present."
The Holy Pontiff insisted this is all part of an orchestrated event: Just as the Creator breathed life into man molded from the mud of the earth, after original sin, he sent his Son to into the world to give man back his dignity and to destroy the reign of the devil by means of a new life of grace.
This is the Christological mystery to which St. Leo the Great gave a vital and effective contribution with his letter to the Council of Ephesus, confirming during the council what St. Peter said to Caesarea-Philippi.
With Peter and like Peter he confessed: "You are Christ, the Son of the living God." God and man together, "not alien to mankind, but alien to sin" (cf. Serm. 64).
With the strength of his Christological faith he was a great bearer of peace and love. Hence he shows us the way: In faith we learn charity. Through St. Leo the Great we learn to believe in Christ, true God and true man, and to realize our faith every day in our actions for peace and in the love of our neighbor.
Thanks to Zenit for providing this translation.