-priest celebrating Mass at the altar of St Leo the Great, St Peter’s basilica
“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember Who is your head and of Whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.” -CCC 1691, St. Leo the Great, Sermo 22 in nat. Dom., 3:PL 54,192C.
Pope Saint Leo I, known as “St. Leo the Great,” was involved in the fourth ecumenical council, which helped prevent the spread of error and heresy on Christ’s divine and human natures.
St. Leo intervened for the safety of the Church in the West as well, persuading Attila the Hun to turn back from Rome.
Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians also maintain a devotion to the memory of Pope St. Leo the Great. Churches of the Byzantine tradition celebrate his feast day on Feb. 18.
“As the nickname soon attributed to him by tradition suggests,” Pope Benedict XVI said in a 2008 general audience on the saint, “he was truly one of the greatest pontiffs to have honored the Roman See and made a very important contribution to strengthening its authority and prestige.”
Leo’s origins are obscure and his date of birth unknown. His ancestors are said to have come from Tuscany, though the future pope may have been born in that region or in Rome itself. He became a deacon in Rome in approximately 430, during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I.
During this time, central authority was beginning to decline in the Western portion of the Roman Empire. At some point between 432 and 440, during the reign of Pope St. Celestine’s successor Pope Sixtus III, the Roman Emperor Valentinian III commissioned Leo to travel to the region of Gaul and settle a dispute between military and civil officials.
Pope Sixtus III died in 440 and, like his predecessor Celestine, was canonized as a saint. Leo, away on his diplomatic mission at the time of the Pope’s death, was chosen to be the next Bishop of Rome. Reigning for over two decades, he sought to preserve the unity of the Church in its profession of faith, and to ensure the safety of his people against frequent barbarian invasions.
Leo used his authority, in both doctrinal and disciplinary matters, against a number of heresies troubling the Western church – including Pelagianism (involving the denial of Original Sin) and Manichaeanism (a gnostic system that saw matter as evil). In this same period, many Eastern Christians had begun arguing about the relationship between Jesus’ humanity and divinity.
As early as 445 AD, Leo had intervened in this dispute in the East, which threatened to split the churches of Alexandria and Constantinople. Its eventual resolution was, in fact, rejected in some quarters – leading to the present-day split between Eastern Orthodoxy and the so-called “non-Chalcedonian churches” which accept only three ecumenical councils.
As the fifth-century Christological controversy continued, the Pope urged the gathering of an ecumenical council to resolve the matter. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the Pope’s teaching was received as authoritative by the Eastern bishops, who proclaimed: “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo.”
Leo’s teaching confirmed that Christ’s eternal divine personhood and nature did not absorb or negate the human nature that he assumed in time through the Incarnation. Instead, “the proper character of both natures was maintained and came together in a single person.”
“So without leaving his Father’s glory behind, the Son of God comes down from His heavenly throne and enters the depths of our world,” the Pope taught. “While remaining pre-existent, He begins to exist in time. The Lord of the universe veiled His measureless majesty and took on a servant’s form. The God who knew no suffering did not despise becoming a suffering man, and, deathless as He is, to be subject to the laws of death.” (Ed: …by His own choice, out of love for us.)
In 452 AD, one year after the Council of Chalcedon, Pope Leo led a delegation which successfully negotiated with the barbarian king Attila to prevent an invasion of Rome. When the Vandal leader Genseric occupied Rome in 455, the Pope confronted him, unarmed, and obtained a guarantee of safety for many of the city’s inhabitants and the churches to which they had fled.
Pope St. Leo the Great died on Nov. 10, 461. He was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV in 1754. A large collection of his writings and sermons survives, and can be read in translation today.
-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, 1514, fresco, 500 cm × 750 cm (200 in × 300 in), Apostolic Palace, Vatican City, Rome. It is reported that when Attila met Leo, he saw Peter and Paul accompanying Leo, when no one else could, and it was for this reason he spared the city. (Please click on the image for greater detail.)
–Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco Herrera the Younger, in the Prado Museum, Madrid
“Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo.” – Council of Chalcedon
“Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife.” – Pope Saint Leo the Great
“No one, however weak, is denied a share in the victory of the cross. No one is beyond the help of the prayer of Christ.”
–St. Leo the Great
“Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still, in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists as an integral whole, just as the Apostle says: “We are all one in Christ,” nor is anyone separated from the office of another in such a way that a lower group has no connection with the head.
In the unity of faith and baptism, our community is then undivided. There is a common dignity as the apostle Peter says in these words: “And you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” And again: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of election.” For all, regenerated in Christ, as made kings by the sign of the cross. They are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood. For what is more king-like than to find yourself ruler over your body after having surrendered your soul to God? And what is more priestly than to promise the Lord a pure conscience and to offer him in love unblemished victims on the altar of one’s heart?” – from a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great
“God decreed that all nations should be saved in Christ. Dear friends, now that we have received instruction in this revelation of God‘s grace, let us celebrate with spiritual joy the day of our first harvesting, of the first calling of the Gentiles. Let us give thanks to the merciful God, “who has made us worthy,” in the words of the Apostle, “to share the position of the saints in light; who has rescued us from the power of darkness, and brought us into the kingdom of this beloved Son.” This came to be fulfilled, as we know, from the time when the star beckoned the three wise men out of their distant country and led them to recognize and adore the King of heaven and earth. The obedience of the star calls us to imitate its humble service: to be servants, as best we can, of the grace that invites all men to find Christ.” – from a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great
Troparion (Tone 3)
You were the Church’s instrument
in strengthening the teaching of true doctrine;
you shone forth from the West like a sun dispelling the errors of the heretics.
Righteous Leo, entreat Christ God to grant us His great mercy.
Troparion (Tone 8)
O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,
The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.
O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!
Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!
Kontakion (Tone 3)
Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo,
you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions.
With divinely inspired teachings of the honored Trinity,
you shed the light of the knowledge of God upon your flock.
Therefore, you are glorified as a divine initiate of the grace of God.
“The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death” -Pope St. Leo the Great