Pope Benedict spoke on Pope St. Leo the Great last week. This is the only one of the audiences I actually got to see in person. I was surprised by how much he added extemporaneously, especially when he spoke in Italian and German. He seemed to be especially fond of Leo — maybe because Leo successfully persuaded the Germanic tribes to leave Rome, whereas Benedict’s predecessor succeeded at keeping his German friend within the walls. Blogger Gashwin Gomes, who sat next to me at the audience, posted video of the English portion of the program. And Teresa Benedetta, as ever, translated:
Dear brothers and sisters,
Continuing our journey with the Fathers of the Church – true stars who shine from afar – today we come to a Pope who was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Benedict XIV in 1754.
We will speak of St. Leo the Great. As indicated by the appellative which was quickly granted him by tradition, he was truly one of the greatest Pontiffs who ever honored the Seat of Roman, contibuting a great deal to reinforce its authority and prestige.
The first Bishop of Rome to carry the name Leo, which was later taken by 12 other Supreme Pontiffs, he is also the first Pope whose preaching to the people who gathered around him during liturgical celebrations has come down to us.
One thinks spontaneously of him in the context of the present Wednesday general audiences, an appointment which has become for the Bishop of Rome, in the past few decades, a customary form of encounter with the faithful and so many visitors coming from every part of the world.
Leo was a native of Tuscia [historic Italian region that was under the Etruscans – now corresponds to the province of Viterbo, but included Tsucany and parts of Lazio]. He became a deacon in the Church of Rome around 430, and with time, achieved a high profile in that function.
His outstanding performance led Galla Palcidia, who ruled the Wetsern Empire at the time, to send him to Gaul in 440 to repair a difficult situation.
But in the summer of that year, Pope Sixtus III – whose name is linked to the magnificent mosaics at Santa Maria Maggiore – died, and Leo was elected to succeed him, receiving the news while he was on his mission in Gaul.
Returning to Rome, the new Pope was consecrated on September 29, 440. Thus started a Pontificate which lasted more than 21 years and which is undoubtedly one of the most important in the history of the Church.
Upon his death on November 10, 461, the Pope was buried near the tomb of St. Peter. His relics are kept today in one of the altars of the Vatican Basilica.
Pope Leo lived in very difficult times. Repeated barbarian invasions, the progressive weakening of imperial authority in the Western empire, and a long social crisis had imposed on the Bishop of Rome – as it would with even greater effect one and a half centuries later during the pontificate of Gregory the Great – the need to assume a role that was relevant even in civil and political affairs. Obviously, this did not fail to increaase the importance and prestige of the Roman See.
A famous episode in Leo’s life took place in 452, when the Pope, together with a Roman delegation, met with Attila, leader of the Huns, in Mantua, and persuaded him from continuing with his war of invasion which had already devastated northeastern Italy, thus saving the rest of the peninsula.
Raphael’s The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila depicts Leo,
escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome
This important event quickly became memorable and continues to be an emblematic sign of the peace activities carried out by the Papacy.
Unfortunately, a similar success was not the outcome of another papal initiative three years later, which is nevertheless the sign of a courage which still amazes us. In the spring of 455, Leo could not, in fact, prevent the Vandals of Genseric, who had reached the gates of Rome, from invading the defenseless city which was sacked for two weeks.
Nevertheless, the Pope’s gesture – helpless and surrounded by his priests, he went forth to meet the invader and asked him to stop – at least prevented the burning of Rome and resulted in saving the Basilica’s of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John Lateran, in which part of the terrorized population had sought refuge.
We know Pope Leo’s activities quite well, thanks to his beautiful sermons, of which almost a hundred have been preserved, in splendid and clear Latin – and thanks to his letters, almost 150.
In these texts, the Pope appears in all his greatness, in the service of truth in charity, through an assiduous exercise of the word which showed him to be both theologian and pastor at the same time.
Leo the Great, whose attention was constantly solicited by the faithful and the people of Rome, but also by the communion among the different churches and their needs, was a tireless promoter and supporter of the Roman primacy, presenting the Pope as the authentic heir of the Apostle Peter. The bishops, many of them Oriental, who gathered together in the Council of Chalcedon, showed themselves to be well aware of this.
Held in 451, with 350 bishops taking part, this Council was the most important assembly ever celebrated in the history of the Church till then. Chalcedon represented the secure harbor of the Christology established in the three preceding ecumenical councils: Nicaea 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, came to be likened to the four Gospels, as Gregory the Great stated in a famous letter (I,24), affirming ‘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.”
The Council of Chalcedon, in denouncing the heresy of Eutiche, who denied the true human nature of the Son of God – affirmed the union, within the one Person of Christ, of the human and divine natures, without confusion and without separation.
This faith in Jesus Christ as true God and true man was affirmed by Pope Leo in an important doctrinal text addressed to tbe Bishop of Constantinople, the so-called ‘Tome to Flavianus’, which, when read at Chalecedon, was received by the bishops present with eloquent acclamation – recorded in the acts of the Council in these words: “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo” – breaking into unanimous applause.
From this intervention above all, but also in others carried out during the Christological controversy of those years, it is evident that the Pope felt the particularly urgent responsibility of the Successor of Peter, whose role is unique in the Church, because “only to one Apostle was entrusted what was communicated to all the apostles”, as Leo said in one of his sermons for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (83,2).
And the Pope knew how to exercise this responsibility in the West as well as in the East, intervening in different circumstances with prudence, firmness and clarity through his writings and through his legates.
He showed in this way how the exercise of Roman primacy was necessary then, as it is today, in order to effectively serve the communion that is charatceristic of the only Church of Christ.
Conscious of the historical moment in which he lived and the transition that it was undergoing – in a period of profound crisis – from pagan Rome to Christian Rome, Leo the Great knew how to be close to the people and the faithful with his pastoral activity and his preaching.
He inspired charity in a Rome that was tried by famine, a refugee influx, injustices and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the activities of Manichaean 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 the faithful – and even today, his words are valid for us – that Christian liturgy is not a remembrance of past events but the actualization of invisiblle realities that work in the life of every person.
He underscored this in a sermon (64,1-2) on Easter, which, he said, must be celebrated everry day of the year “not as something from the past, but rather as an event of the present”.
All this was part of a precise plan, the Holy Pontiff pointed out: Just as the Creator animated with his breath of rational life the man he had fashioned out of the mud of the earth, so too, after original sin, he sent his Son to the world to restore lost dignity to man and to destroy the power of the devil through a new life in grace.
This is the Christologic mystery to which St. Leo the Great, with his letter to the Council of Chalcedon, gave an effective and essential contribution, confirming for all times, through the Council, what St. Peter said at Caesarea.
With Peter and like Peter, he professed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” – thus, God and man together, ‘not alien to the human species, but alien to sin’ (cfr Serm. 64).
With the strength of this Christologic faith, Leo the Great was a great bearer of peace and love. He thus shows us the way: in faith, we learn charity. Let us learn with St. Leo the Great to believe in Christ, true God and true man, and to realize this faith everyday in actions for peace and in love for our neighbor.