#45 - Pope St. Leo the Great
Pope from 440-461 A.D.
Died: 461 A.D.
Give me the scoop on Leo.
Pope St. Leo, one of the best-known popes from the first millennium, was a native of Tuscany, and initially served as a deacon under Pope St. Celestine I. He’s one of just three popes to be called “The Great” (four if you count St. John Paul II) along with Pope St. Gregory I and Pope St. Nicholas I. Leo was a force to be reckoned with in diplomatic proceedings, which explains why Pope Sixtus III sent him to settle various disputes as a deacon. It’s also how he was able to handle the degradation of the Roman Empire and guide the Church successfully through doctrinal disputes with such finesse.
During Leo’s papacy, it’s clear to see that the whole Church, along with the secular world, recognized the pope as top dog. He ruled on things ranging from church discipline to disputes among bishops, and also wrote a great deal. The most popular at the time was the
Tome of Leo
(settle in...it’s a long one), which helped shape the Church’s teaching on Christ’s
union with God the Father at the Council of Chalcedon (451). Leo died in 461 and is buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. His feast day is celebrated on November 10.
What was he known for?
When Attila the Hun (yes, THAT Attila the Hun) threatened to invade and conquer Italy, it wasn’t an emperor or a deputy who went and talked him out of it. It was THE POPE. No wonder Leo is “the Great.” Records show that after meeting with Leo, Attila suddenly retreated from Rome. Though the most plausible cause is Leo making so great an impression on Attila that he left, stories range from Leo offering Attila a sum of gold (unlikely) to Attila suddenly seeing a vision of Christ in priestly robes bearing a drawn sword, threatening to bring death upon his army if they invaded. We like that last one best.
Leo’s victory was short-lived, as a different barbarian horde sacked Rome just a few years later, in 455. He was, however, able to help rebuild and repair the city and its landmarks before his death in 461.
St. Leo is one of the 36
Doctors of the Church
, those individuals throughout history who are especially honored by the Church for their heroic witness and teachings. St. Leo in particular contributed much to the Church, including (through a particular devotion to St. Peter) helping to develop our understanding of papal primacy.
What else was going on in the world at the time?
In 456, the Anglo-Saxons invited British nobles to Stonehenge to talk peace, but soon changed their mind, deciding to kill everyone instead. Well that escalated quickly.
"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..."
St. Leo the Great
Coming tomorrow....Pope St. Hilarius
SOURCES (and further reading)
John, E. (1964). The Popes: A concise biographical history. New York: Hawthorn Books.
Pope St. Leo I (the Great) -
Pope Leo I -
Doctors of the Church -
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