Saint Leo the Great: No Fear, No Compromise, the Lion in the Chair

Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife . (Pope St. Leo the Great)

Attila, the great Khan of the Huns, trained his mobile soldiers to sleep on their horses. It has been alleged by some historians that this tactical feat led some of his superstitious victims to think that the Huns were centaurs. That, I think, is highly imaginative; the fact is, however, that, even dismounted, he and his men must have looked hideously freakish. In order to appear as ferocious as they were, they scraped the first layer of skin off their faces, preferring this grotesque appearance to plucky beards.

At the request of the emperor, Valentinian III, the courageous Bishop of Rome made his way north, with two local magistrates for aides, to confront the rampaging Attila near the city of Mantua on the bank of the River Po. Pope Leo walked calmly into the camp of the king of the Huns. The year was 452, the twelfth of his glorious reign as Vicar of Christ.

Attila came out of his tent to meet the leader of Christians. But he saw more than Leo. What he did see caused him to agree immediately to the two demands that the Roman Pontiff delivered in the Name of the King of kings: 1) to stay away from Rome and 2) leave Italy. Above the head of the Pope, the Mongol Khan saw the figure of a stern looking man with a sword raised so to strike him. It was St. Prosper of Aquitaine, Pope Leo’s secretary and biographer, who surmised that the sword wielding man was Saint Peter.

Historical record first introduces Leo as an archdeacon in the service of Pope St. Celestine I (422-432), the same pontiff who sent St. Patrick to Ireland. Archdeacon Leo must have been well known outside of Rome as well, for we find that one of the early Church fathers, Cassianus of Gaul, wrote a treatise against the heretic Nestorius at Leo’s request. That work, On the Incarnation of our Lord , was dedicated to Leo the deacon. The able cleric was also employed on diplomatic missions. It was while Leo was on one such mission that he was informed of the death of Pope Sixtus III and his own election to the papacy. The year was 440. Kneeling in church he prayed: “Lord, I have heard your voice calling me, and I was afraid; I considered the work that was commanded of me, and I trembled, for what proportion is there between the burden assigned to me and my weakness, this elevation and my nothingness?”

After returning to Rome, he was ordained a priest, consecrated a bishop, and formerly invested with the authority of the keys of St. Peter. Pope Leo the Great took the helm of Peter’s bark at a time when Christendom, having emerged from the dark cruelty of the pagan persecutions with Constantine’s Edict Of Milan (313), was under siege on nearly every frontier. Foremost among the restless invaders were the barbarians (i.e., bearded ones) to the north. These were Germanic (Gothic) tribes, some pagan, some Arian heretics, whose armies were moving south, east, and west.

[Note: Arianism was a fourth century heresy, whose author, Arius, an Alexandrian priest, denied the divinity of Christ. It was vigorously condemned at the first ecumenical council, Nicea I, in 325.]

Then, to add more pandemonium, there were the Huns, already introduced. Spreading terror from the East, this mobile confederation of Mongolian tribes had crossed the Ural mountains and the Danube river into what was to become Europe. For a time, after conquering Pannonia (ancient Hungary), Attila, their Khan, could not be stopped. His scar-faced cavalry scoured the countrysides, pillaging, raping, slaying the resistant, and leaving behind nothing but carnage and ashes.

Finally, there were the barbarian Vandals, another Germanic Arian tribe, who had moved south into Spain, southern Italy, and North Africa. Their name has gone down in infamy as synonymous with “malicious destruction of property.” Only thirty-six more years remained from the time of Leo’s elevation to the papacy before the Roman Empire in the West would be history.

Add to these onslaughts the profusion of numerous Christological heresies, as well as a re-emergence in Rome of gnostic Manichaeanism, a dualistic sort of spiritism originally bred in Zoroastrian Persia. Manes, its founder, rejected the goodness of God in the Old Testament and of His whole material creation. It boasted of a secret illumination of knowledge for those whom higher celestial powers liberated from the oppression of their bodies. Leo was dauntless in uncovering their adherents. Many of Manes’ devotees converted from their errors because of the pope’s sound preaching and that of the Roman clergy. Leo himself received many of these into the Church, taking time to personally instruct them.

Turning his attention to Spain, the pope worked in tandem with Bishop Turibius of Astorga to eradicate the noxious doctrines of Priscillianism from among some of the bishops and priests of that country. This was a bizarre form of “Christian” Manichaeanism.

Unworthy candidates for the priesthood were also a problem in Pope Leo’s time. Our saint himself, for a time, was a bit lax in scrutinizing all of those upon whom he laid hands. It was related by Amos, one of the early patriarchs of Jerusalem, that during a forty-day retreat, while Pope Leo was praying before the tomb of St. Peter, he heard the voice of the Apostle issuing him a sobering remonstrance for this negligence. This revelation would explain why this great pope issued so many disciplinary canons dealing with the proper education and formation of the clergy.

Although the heresy of Nestorianism had been condemned at the general Council of Ephesus in 431, Leo found it necessary to write his own refutation of that Christological aberration. Nestorius, as Bishop of Constantinople, had denied the title of Theotokos (God-bearer) to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary was the mother of the Son of Man, the heresiarch contended, but not the Son of God. To justify his error, Nestorius maintained that there were two persons in Christ, a divine and a human, each with His own proper nature. In order to understand the complete opposite heresy of abbot Eutyches – which our pope, St. Leo, had to directly confront a generation later – one must at least know what the Nestorian heresy consisted in.

The abbot, Eutyches, an unlearned archimandrite, had earned a good reputation for uniting the Asian monasteries against Nestorius. The problem was, however, that in refuting one heresy he had expounded another. This heresiarch insisted that there was only a divine nature in Christ. According to him, there was no human soul in Jesus, only His body was a created substance. Nestorius had denied that our Lady was the Mother of God; Eutyches, by implication, denied that she was even a mother. This error might have been easily put to rest had Eutyches been more humble. However, having gained the support of Dioscorus, the ambitious Patriarch of Alexandria, prestige enhanced his platform.

This is enough history for the reader to know in order to appreciate the magnificent Christological contribution that our great pope bequeathed to the universal Church in its deeper understanding of the reality of the great mystery of the Incarnation. That contribution is the Letter, the Tome , that Pope Leo wrote to St. Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, in 449. The pope wrote to the bishop in order to support him in his excommunication of Eutyches. The following two paragraphs taken from the heart of that treatise will give the reader a taste of its brilliance:

This birth in time in no way detracted from, in no way added to, that divine and everlasting birth; but expended itself wholly in the work of restoring man, who had been deceived; so that it might both overcome death, and by its power “destroy the devil who had the power of death.” For we could not have overcome the author of sin and of death, unless he who could neither be contaminated by sin, nor detained by death, had taken upon himself our nature, and made it his own.

Accordingly, the Son of God, descending from his seat in heaven, and not departing from the glory of the Father, enters this lower world, born after a new order, by a new mode of birth. After a new order; because he who in his own sphere is invisible, became visible in ours; He who could not be enclosed in space, willed to be enclosed; continuing to be before times, he began to exist in time; the Lord of the universe allowed his infinite majesty to be overshadowed, and took upon him the form of a servant; the impassible God did not disdain to be passible Man and the immortal One to be subjected to the laws of death.

Two years later, in 451, the council of Chalcedon, the fourth such general synod, was called to deal with Eutyches’ Monophysite (one nature) heresy. Six hundred and thirty-six bishops attended. The motivating force that launched the cause for the convocation was the Catholic zeal of the eastern Roman Empress, St. Pulcheria. When the complete Tome of Leo was read before the august assembly, all of the fathers stood up and cried out: “That is the Faith of the fathers! That is the Faith of the Apostles! Peter has spoken by Leo!”

Hundreds of letters and sermons issued from the pen and tongue of this prolific Roman pontiff. Consider these profound reflections that he wrote concerning the Eucharistic Christ: “For what is the fruit of our partaking of the body and blood of Christ, but that we may pass into that which we receive; and that in whom we are dead, and buried, and raised anew (in the newness of our spirit and life) we may bear him both in spirit and in our flesh through all things.” And, on the primacy of the pope, these words are perhaps more relevant than ever:

In the universal Church, it is Peter that still says every day, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and every tongue which confesses that Jesus is Lord is taught that confession by the teaching of Peter. This is the Faith that overcomes the devil and looses the hands of his prisoners. This is the Faith that makes men free of the world and brings them to heaven, and the gates of hell are impotent to prevail against it.

No matter where problems arose, if they involved the spiritual domain and the peace of Christendom, Leo exerted his Petrine authority. He was not always successful, but he was always a force to be reckoned with.

Speaking of which, we left off at the start with Pope Leo putting the brakes on Attila’s the Hun’s rampaging advance upon Rome. After taking Pannonia, Attila devastated the Adriatic seaport city of Aquileia, the See of St. Mark, in Northern Italy. Those few survivors, who were able to escape the slaughter, fled in their boats to a small island just off shore. (The city of Venice would replace Aquileia, rising phoenix-like from the swampy ground of that tiny isle.) Unable to pursue the remnant who sailed off Attila contented himself with razing the one time imperial haven to the ground.

Emperor Valentinian was on the verge of despair. There was one man, he thought, that could save Italy. It was the Vicar of Christ. Leo means “lion.” And the pope is the Vicar of Christ, who is the “Lion of Juda.” Surely, Leo would act in the Name of that “Lion.” And, as related at the start of this tribute, Leo did.

What happened to the “scourge of God?” He died, within a year, on his wedding night, in a drunken stupor, choking on his own vomit.

Pope Leo’s services, as protector of the Roman people, would be required again in 455 when the Vandals invaded Italy under their Arian king, Genseric. All that Leo could do this time was win a promise from the invader that his troops would not burn the city nor do violence to the Roman people. As to plunder, the Arian chief would not give in.

On the tenth of November, in the year 461, Pope Saint Leo the Great went to his eternal reward. The remains of this doctor of the Church rest today in St. Peter’s basilica beneath an altar specially dedicated to him.

Saint Leo the Great, pray for us!