All things seemed to conspire toward the good at the beginning of Pope Saint Leo’s pontificate. Born in Rome, carefully educated from his youth in the pontifical palace of the Lateran, possessed of great purity and holiness and tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, beloved as a young priest and as the cardinal-priest of the Church of Saint Susanna, and unanimously chosen, by the bishops, clergy, nobility and the people of Rome, to succeed Pope Adrian I, he was ideally fitted to carry out his sublime calling. The Popes who came before him, most especially Pope Stephen III and Pope Adrian I, had admirably prepared the way for him. They had forged further links in the chain of events leading to the temporal independence of the Popes – so necessary for the realizing of their spiritual mission – and to the restoration of the Roman Empire in the West, which Saint Leo III was finally to accomplish.
It might be well, before we go on to recount the story of Saint Leo, to tell the parts which Pope Stephen and Pope Adrian played in this great drama of Christian civilization, in which the successors of the Apostle Saint Peter were faced not only with the grave moral and doctrinal responsibilities of their own sacred office, but with the enormous task of arresting heresy and decadence in the East, and promoting religious and cultural conversion in the West.
Time and the passing of several generations had done nothing to lessen the repugnance of the Roman people for the Lombards. Italians resented with all their passionate hearts the idea of becoming part of a Lombard state. But this was the prospect which once more confronted them shortly after they had, in wild rejoicing at his election, borne the beloved Pope Stephen III on their shoulders to the Basilica of Saint John Lateran. This spontaneous and beautifully childlike act of a spontaneous and beautifully childlike people brought into being the famous sedia gestatoria, the chair in which the Pope is carried on the shoulders of six men in solemn procession, and which appears so often in our time, in newspaper and magazine pictures of Vatican processions. [Well, not since before Vatican II]
Aistulf, King of the Lombards, had broken the truce which his nation had made with Pope Zachary; with all the old violence, the Lombards were once again marching on Rome. And so, in 753, Pope Stephen III, despite his frail health and the sobs of his people – anguished for his safety as he passed through Lombard lands – courageously set out north and across the Alps, into France. Once more it was necessary for a Pope to save Rome! Pope Stephen’s long and weary mission was to Pepin the Short, who, since the permission of Pope Saint Zachary and the anointing of Saint Boniface, was ruling as King of the Franks.
When the Catholic King Pepin heard that the Vicar of Christ was on his way to see him, he rode out from his palace three miles to meet him. And when he was within speaking distance of the Holy Father, the King dismounted, and with great reverence prostrated himself in the road before him. The Pope, his heart leaping for joy at the honor shown to Christ in the travel-weary person of His Vicar, bade his dutiful son arise, and Pepin, obeying, seized the stirrup of Stephen’s horse and walked beside him for the rest of the way, as his equerry. It was on such realization of spiritual values that Western civilization was built!
Pope Stephen, at Saint Denis, reanointed and recrowned Pepin King of the Franks and Patrician of the Romans. He anointed also Charles (the future Charlemagne) and Carloman, Pepin’s sons. The Pope begged Pepin to save Rome from the Lombards, and the Frankish King’s response was fervent and generous. Twice, in 754 and 756, he crossed the Alps with his armies into Italy, and twice he decisively defeated Aistulf. During the siege of Pavia – the Lombard capital – Pepin, to his great annoyance, was approached by emissaries from the Eastern Emperor, Constantine Copronymus. Pepin knew that the Emperor was still very much occupied with his reign of terror against orthodox Catholics who continued to venerate sacred images, and that his cruelties were unsurpassed by any of the old pagan Emperors, even Diocletian. Copronymus’ emissaries demanded of King Pepin the restoration of all the territory previously taken from the Emperor by the Lombards.
“The Franks have not shed their blood for the Greeks,” Pepin answered them, “but for Saint Peter and the salvation of their own souls.” And refusing to listen to further protestations, he set about the making of the formal gift which has ever since been known in history as the famous Donation of Pepin, the significance of which it is impossible to exaggerate. The donation of Pepin deserves to be ranked in importance with the gifts of Constantine the Great and his removal of the seat of the Emperors from Rome to Constantinople. The gift of the Lateran Palace Constantine had made also, over four hundred years before Pepin, “to Saint Peter,” for it has been the way of great men to discern in the tones of the Bishops of Rome the voice of the divinely chosen Prince of the Apostles.
Pepin the King donated to the Roman Pontiff, “as representing Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles,” all the conquered lands and cities stretching from Rome to Ravenna in the north. “Fulrad,” we are told, “Abbot of Saint Denys and Plenipotentiary of Pepin, visited all the cities enumerated in the donation, in the company of Lombard deputies, from whom he received the keys of each place, and laid them on the tomb of Saint Peter.”
The Papal States, for so the territory given by Pepin to the Popes was ever after called, had come into being, and with them the temporal independence of the Popes. The people of the lands which Pepin had conquered, long having looked upon the Roman Pontiffs as their rightful rulers and faithful protectors, and believing, as Pepin himself formally stated, that the Frankish King was doing no more than restoring to the Supreme Pontiffs the territories which had unlawfully been taken from them, gladly promised Pepin always to obey the Pope as their King. And so, in the constant conflicts of kingdom against kingdom which woefully would beset the Middle Ages, the Pope was guaranteed the freedom necessary to perform his mission as the spiritual Father of all Christian peoples. He owed allegiance now to no one nation because of the fact that he lived within its boundaries. He was, himself, King of the territory in the middle of which Saint Peter had established his See.
When, in the fourteenth century, the Popes, all seven of them Frenchmen, resided for almost seventy years in Avignon, in France, every nation in the world, except France, protested that the Father of Christendom was biased in favor of one nation, the French. The Church was, as a result, dangerously divided and confused – until the magnificent Saint Catherine of Siena, by the sheer force of her great sanctity, prevailed upon Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome where he rightfully belonged and where his position as Pope – King kept him free from the suspicion of being the pawn of any one government. But his return came almost too late. The Avignon Captivity, so called, was the direct cause of the Great Western Schism, which for a while threatened to rival the Schism of the East.
Pepin the Short died, and in the year 771 his eldest son, Charles, became King of the Franks. For forty-three years, Charles the Great – Charlemagne, as history knows him – would rule over his ever-increasing territories in a manner so inimitably, so lovably and so admirably his own that every succeeding generation would acclaim him in literature and legend and song. He would live; in the minds of men, ages removed from his own, as vividly as he lived in the hearts and imaginations of his soldiers, who adored him, and his subjects, who hailed him with gratitude and devotion.
His deeds and his ways, his spiritual and his military conquests, his largeness of soul and body, his great strength and his great tenderness, his humility and his enormous contrition for his sins, his gallant heart and his brilliant mind, his hunger for life and love and loyalty and goodness and, above all, for God, his soldier’s passion to serve Christ his King, his chivalry toward Christ’s Mother, his veneration for Christ’s Vicar, his desire to weld the Germanic nations into one Catholic commonwealth, his wish for the Christian education of his people, his zeal that the Faith be spread over the earth, his labors for law and order and peace and tranquility and well-being – all go to make up the great Emperor whom sections of Germany today venerate as a saint, whom the Church has never removed from the list of her blessed, and whom the world has never been able to forget.
In 772, Pope Adrian I came to the papal throne, and one of his first acts, hard as it is for us to believe that it could ever again be necessary, was to appeal to Charlemagne for aid against the “unspeakable Lombards,” who once more were girding for war. This time they planned to seize Rome and expel the Roman Pontiff! The constant appeals of the harassed Popes for assistance against the Lombards were making it increasingly clear that not only was it necessary for the Pope to be temporal sovereign of the papal lands, it was necessary also that he have the protection of a strong temporal ally against the greed and aggression of whatever ruler might take it into his head to covet those lands for himself.
Charlemagne, in response to Pope Adrian I’s call for aid, marched his armies into Italy in 773, and encamped before Pavia. The city was still under siege as Holy Week approached, and Charlemagne, longing to be in Rome for the glorious feast of Easter, left his men and set out for the Eternal City. When Pope Adrian learned that he was coming, he sent out to meet him – while he was still one mile distant – all the companies of the Roman militia and all the school children of Rome. The children carried palm and olive branches, and as they marched they sang, with all the ardor of grateful young hearts, the praises of Charles, the King of the Franks!
To do him further honor, Pope Adrian decided that the crosses which heretofore it had been the custom to carry before an exarch or a patrician when he was being received by the Pope, should now be carried before Charles. But Charlemagne, as soon as he saw the crosses being borne toward him, dismounted from his horse, and on foot marched behind them.
The Pope and his clergy were awaiting the King at the top of the steps of Saint Peter’s. They could clearly see, from this vantage point, the historic procession as it wended its way into the famous square. Presently, as they watched, they became aware that the great crowd had lined itself on either side of the wide stairs of Saint Peter’s, and that Charles, King of the Franks and Patrician of the Romans, was coming up the steps on his knees, kissing each stair in its turn. The Pope and the people stood silent until, at last, the majestic figure paused, prostrate at the feet of him who on earth is the august representative of His Divine Majesty, the King of Kings.
When the noble Charlemagne arose, he embraced Pope Adrian. He took him by the hand, and together thus they entered the Church of Saint Peter, while the clergy sang: “Blessed be he who cometh in the name of the Lord.”
It is impossible, the contrast is so heartbreakingly evident, not to compare the Christian King Charlemagne’s filial respect and devotion to Christ, in His Vicar, with the insolent and mocking rebuff administered to Pope Benedict XV by the Masonic leaders of the world both during the First World War and at the Versailles Peace Conference after it; and of the United Nations’ refusal, after the Second World War, to allow the name of God – much less the Holy Name of Jesus – to be inserted in its charter.
God blessed the work of Charlemagne. But we may be sure that He has nothing but anger and contempt for our almost completely de-Christianized civilization, which every day more and more resembles, because of the Jewish control of our thinking agencies – the newspapers, magazines, radio, television, motion pictures, schools – the mind of the infidel nation which crucified Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the most Adorable Trinity become man for our salvation.
During his stay in Rome, Charlemagne confirmed and enlarged the donation of Pepin to the Holy See. And after the fall of Pavia, he took the Lombard King, Desiderius, prisoner, sent him to the Monastery of Corbie, in France, assumed himself the title, “King of the Lombards,” and put an end forever to the Lombard nation – which had lasted for two hundred and six years. The name of the Lombards did not, however, die out in Italy. for the Dukes of Benevento gave the name Lombardy to their own northern Italian lands.
In the defeat of the Lombards, the Eastern Emperors lost their last hope of recovering the exarchate and the imperial lands in Italy, and so with one stroke Charlemagne ended the claims of the two powers which for centuries had harassed or failed the throne of Peter.
The reign of Pope Adrian I saw also the end of the Iconoclast heresy; in so far, that is, as the definition of the Pope and his bishops in ecumenical council safeguarded forever the doctrine for the faithful and anathematized, to their eternal damnation, the unorthodox who persisted in holding the contrary opinion. The Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church, meeting at Nicea in 787, condemned the Iconoclasts, gave proof from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church of the veneration of holy images, and defined the doctrine. The decree, in substance, stated:
“Following the tradition of the Catholic Church, we define that, in the same manner as the image of the precious Cross, so should be likewise venerated, and placed in churches, on walls in houses, and streets, the images of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Mother of God, of the angels, and of all the saints. For, those who frequently have before their eyes and contemplate those sacred images are more deeply impressed with the memory of those they represent, and give them an honorary adoration, but do not indeed offer them that real adoration which the Faith teaches should be given to God alone.
“Christians do not call images gods, neither do they serve them as gods, nor place their hopes of salvation in them, nor expect future judgment at their hands; but, while refusing to pay them the honor due to God, they salute them out of respect to the memory of those they represent, and as a token of the love they entertain for the originals.”
After the middle of the ninth century, Iconoclasm died out in the East. It was, alas, revived in the West in the twelfth century, and broke out again with terrible fury in the sixteenth, under Zwingli and Calvin, who, to quote Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, are “the faithful imitators of Leo and Copronymus; and those who boast of following the above-named masters, should add to their patrons both the Jews and the Saracens.” It is common knowledge that the Protestant sects still accuse Catholics of idolatry because they venerate and love sacred images and pictures; sure proof that one heresy leads to another and that Iconoclasm still persists in its cold, unchildlike, unbending and heretical hold on hearts too proud to embrace a devotion so supremely human and simple and loving, and therefore so infinitely pleasing to God.
Pope Adrian I died on Christmas Day, 795, after a pontificate which had lasted for almost twenty-four years. Pope Saint Leo III was unanimously elected on December 26. Charlemagne’s first word to the new Pontiff was a request that Saint Leo confirm him in the title of Roman Patrician, which had been conferred upon him by Pope Stephen III, and which imposed upon him the obligation to defend the Church. Pope Leo did this at once, and sent to him at the same time the keys of Saint Peter and the standard of Rome. (Saint Robert Bellarmine tells us that the “keys” were boxes filled with relics.)
“It is ours externally to defend the Church,” Charlemagne wrote Pope Leo, “and internally to fortify it by acknowledging the Catholic Faith. It is yours to pray for the victory of Christendom and the magnifying of the name of Christ.”
Three years later, on April 25, 799, as Pope Leo walked from the papal palace to head the Saint Mark’s Day procession, he was violently attacked by armed men in the employ of the jealous nephews of Pope Adrian. He was imprisoned and beaten. Twice, his enemies tried to gouge out his eyes and tear out his tongue. Many writers close to the time, and especially Alcuin – the famous monk, scholar and theologian, whom Charlemagne called from England to organize education in his palace-school at Aachen – attest that Saint Leo’s assailants succeeded in blinding him and tearing out his tongue, but that by a miracle Saints Peter and Paul completely cured him.
The Pope escaped his persecutors and made his way to Charlemagne, at Paderborn. The King was thoroughly shocked at the sacrilege committed upon the person of the Holy Father; he received Saint Leo with warmth and tenderness, and he promised that he should have justice. In the year 800, the Pope reentered Rome in triumph, escorted by a guard of honor from Charlemagne, and on November 29, the King himself arrived to vindicate the good name of the Father of Christendom.
The assembly of bishops, abbots and nobility which Charlemagne called together, along with the attackers and false accusers of the Pope, found they dared not make a decision one way or the other as to the guilt or innocence of the Roman Pontiff. They dared not, for the same reason that the council of bishops convoked by Pope Saint Symmachus against his evil detractors, three centuries before, in May, 501, could not pronounce for or against that Supreme Pontiff. The holy bishops then would not even examine the charges against the Pope, leaving it to him to decide whether or not he would answer his enemies, for they declared, “The Apostolic See has the right to judge everyone, but it can be judged by no one.”
Pope Saint Leo himself put an end to his “trial” by solemnly swearing, from the pulpit of Saint Peter’s, with his hand upon the Sacred Scriptures, that he was innocent of all the crimes with which he had been charged.
And then there occurred one of the most significant acts in the whole history of the world. Two days after Saint Leo’s vow of innocence in the pulpit of Saint Peter’s, on Christmas Day in the year 800, while Charlemagne was praying during Mass before the confession of Saint Peter (Saint Peter’s tomb), the Pope, accompanied by bishops, priests, and Frankish and Roman nobility, approached the King of the Franks and placed upon his head a golden crown, and upon his shoulders the purple robe of the Roman Emperors. The Pope greeted him, then, and the immense throng who crowded the vast church and filled the porches, took up the salutation until it swelled into an exultant roar: “Long life and victory to Charles, the most pious Augustus whom God crowneth, the great and peace-giving Emperor of the Romans!”
Emperor of the Romans! Rome was again, then, the center of an empire? Yes, the Holy Roman Empire!
Pope Saint Leo anointed Charlemagne with holy oil, and Charles pronounced the oath which, ever after, was repeated by his successors: “I, Emperor, promise in the name of Jesus Christ, before God and the Apostle Saint Peter, that I will protect and defend the Holy Roman Church against all, as far as God gives me strength and power.”
Leo III, Bishop of Rome and Vicar of Christ, by his crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans, had restored, under the leadership of the Franks, the Empire of the West, which for three hundred and twenty-four years had ceased to exist. A new era had begun for the world. And if the Western (German) Emperors who followed Charlemagne in a long, steady line down to 1806 – when Napoleon brought about the end of the Holy Roman Empire – had truly constituted themselves the temporal protectors of the Church as Charles had, if they had based their lives, as had he, upon thoroughly religious principles, and had they possessed his reverence, love and esteem for the Roman Pontiffs and for everything connected with religion, the history of the world would have been a different and a much happier and more blessed one.
Charlemagne’s instructions to his son, Louis, in 813, on the occasion of his bestowal of the crown upon him, intrigues one to ponder on the world we would live in were one of our Presidents to be given such commands, and were he to respond as did Louis, “With the help of God’s grace, I will do all this.” For Charlemagne had exhorted his son, “Before all things to love and honor God; to keep His commandments; to protect the Church; to love her bishops as his own children; to show kindness to the princes of his own blood; to regard his subjects with the same parental feeling that he would his own offspring; to provide for the poor; to raise to office and positions of trust only such as were distinguished by integrity and holiness of life; to chastise offenders with a view to draw them from their evil ways and insure their eternal welfare; and to be the protector of the religious and the comforter of the poor.”
Both Pope Saint Leo and Charlemagne were gladdened during their ideal association together – one as the Pastor and supreme Spiritual Head of Christendom, and the other as the temporal ruler of the West and the official defender of the Church – by the finding of the body of Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Saint Anne’s body was miraculously discovered during the consecration of a church in the south of France, at which the Emperor was providentially present. It came about in the following way.
Fourteen years after Our Lord’s death, Saint Mary Magdalen, Saint Martha, Saint Lazarus, and the others of the little band of Christians who were piled into a boat without sails or oars and pushed out to sea to perish – in the persecution of the Christians by the Jews of Jerusalem – were careful to carry with them the tenderly loved body of Our Lady’s mother. They feared lest it be profaned in the destruction which Jesus had told them was to come upon Jerusalem. When, by the power of God, their boat survived and finally drifted to the shores of France, the little company of saints buried Saint Anne’s body in a cave, in a place called Apt, in the south of France. The church which was later built over the spot fell into decay, because of wars and religious persecutions, and as the centuries passed, the place of Saint Anne’s tomb was forgotten. The long years of peace which Charlemagne’s wise rule gave to southern France, enabled the people to build a magnificent new church on the site of the old chapel at Apt. Extraordinary and painstaking labor went into the building of the great structure, and when the day of its consecration arrived, the beloved Charlemagne, little suspecting what was in store for him, declared himself happy indeed to have journeyed so many miles to be present for the holy occasion. At the most solemn part of the ceremonies, a boy of fourteen, blind, deaf and dumb from birth – and usually quiet and impassive – to the amazement of those who knew him, completely distracted the attention of the entire congregation by becoming suddenly tremendously excited. He rose from his seat, walked up the aisle to the altar steps, and, to the consternation of the whole church, struck his stick resoundingly again and again upon a single step.
His embarrassed family tried to lead him out, but he would not budge. He continued frantically to pound the step, straining with his poor muted senses to impart a knowledge sealed hopelessly within him. The eyes of the people turned upon the Emperor, and he, apparently inspired by God, took the matter into his own hands. He called for workmen to remove the steps.
A subterranean passage was revealed directly below the spot which the boy’s stick had indicated. Into this passage the blind lad jumped, to be followed by the Emperor, the priests, and the workmen. They made their way in the dim light of candles, and when, farther along the passage, they came upon a wall which blocked further advance, the boy signed that this also should be removed. When the wall fell, there was brought to view still another long, dark corridor. At the end of this, the searchers found a crypt, upon which, to their profound wonderment, a vigil lamp, alight and burning in a little walled recess cast a heavenly radiance.
As Charlemagne and his afflicted small guide, with their companions, stood before the lamp, its light went out. And at the same moment, the boy, blind and dumb from birth, felt sight and hearing and speech flood into his young eyes, his ears, and his tongue.
“It is she! It is she!” he cried out. The great Emperor, not knowing what he meant, nevertheless repeated the words after him. The call was taken up by the crowds in the church above, as the people sank to their knees, bowed in the realization of the presence of something celestial and holy.
The crypt at last was opened, and a casket was found within it. In the casket was a winding sheet, and in the sheet were relics, and upon the relics was an inscription which read, “Here lies the body of Saint Anne, mother of the glorious Virgin Mary.” The winding sheet, it was noted, was of Eastern design and texture.
Charlemagne, overwhelmed, venerated with profound gratitude the relics of the mother of Heaven’s Queen. He remained a long time in prayer. The priests and the people, awed by the graces given them in such abundance and by the choice of their countryside for such a heavenly manifestation, for three days spoke but rarely, and then in whispers.
The Emperor had an exact and detailed account of the miraculous finding drawn up by a notary and sent to Pope Leo, with an accompanying letter from himself. These documents and the Pope’s reply are preserved to this day. Many Papal Bulls have attested, over and over again, to the genuineness of Saint Anne’s relics at Apt. Countless cures and conversions have taken place at the shrine there, where the greater part of the relics still repose: the first shrine in the West to the tenderly understanding and most powerful saint whose august and unutterable privilege it was to be the mother of the Mother of God and the instrument of the Immaculate Conception.
Pope Saint Leo III, after a gloriously strong reign of twenty years and fire months, died on the eleventh day of June, in the year 816, two years after the death of the noble monarch whom he had made the first Holy Roman Emperor. Pope Saint Leo III died while the Empire he had reestablished in the name of Jesus Christ, although all too humanly taking advantage of the removal of Charlemagne’s mighty and protecting hand upon it, still held promise of fulfilling the great Pontiff’s hopes for a perfect Christian commonwealth, born of the unblemished and holy union of Church and State.