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Pope, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, -461

IT was a time of violence. The Western Empire was disintegrating, barbarian hordes were overrunning Europe, and in the East heresies arose and controversies raged. A strong leader was needed, and a strong leader was found.

From the very beginning of his pontificate the strength of Leo the Great was tested and proved. Heresies rose from every direction: Persia, Spain, Constantinople, Greece-the names continue like a roll call of nations. There were Manicheism, Pelagianism, Priscillianism, Nestorianism, Euthychianism, Arianism, Donatism, Apollinarianism, and many more. The words mean little to us. We smile at the strange sounds of the list and are impressed that one man should have known what they all meant and, besides, know how to refute them.

The names of Nestorius and Eutyches evoke little response today, but in the fifth century they were more deadly than the invading barbarians, for they caused spiritual violence. In denying the mystery of the Incarnation and the union of the divine and human natures of Christ, they shook Christianity to its very foundations. But Leo fought, and Leo won his battles.

His writings were like strong armor against the heresies of his day and even against those of the future. He forcefully reiterated the teaching of the Church on the mystery of the Incarnation. He was very explicit in stating the extent of the pope's supremacy and used that power with absolute authority, wielding the weapons of excommunication and banishment when necessary. He wrote letters unceasingly, and the 140 of them that we have are classed among the basic dogmatic writings of the Church. Because of these works, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1744, bestowed on Leo I the tide of Doctor of the Church.

But if it was an age of spiritual violence, it was even more certainly an age of physical violence. The cowardly Roman emperor had gone into exile. The Vandals had taken over North Africa and threatened Rome. The Huns were devastating Gaul. The Visigoths and Burgundians were crossing the frontiers everywhere. The once mighty Roman Empire was without strength, without an emperor, without unity. One man stood between it and utter chaos.

In 452, enriched by the plunder of many nations, Attila the Hun, called the Terror of the World and the Scourge of God, marched toward Rome. The wretched emperor shut himself up within the walls of Ravenna and even his general, Aetius, despaired of saving the city. All eyes turned to Leo-the one strong man left in the Western world.

He went to meet Attila, taking only two dignitaries of the city with him. Contrary to the expectation of everyone, Attila received the pope with honor, gave him a favorable audience, and concluded a treaty of peace with the empire, settling for an annual tribute. A tradition attributes the Hun's forbearance to the intervention of Saint Peter, who, in a vision, warned Attila to obey the pope.

A few years later, Genseric, the king of the Vandals, appeared at the defenseless walls of Rome. Again Leo went forth to meet the aggressor. This time his intervention was not so successful, but he convinced the barbarian that he should avoid slaughter and firesetting. Genseric was satisfied with looting the city. The Vandals withdrew to Africa after fifteen days, taking an immense booty and a host of captives. The city itself was spared.

The pope immediately undertook the task of repairing the damage that had been done. He sent priests to minister to the captives in Africa and restored, as far as he could, the vessels and ornaments of the devastated churches. He was never discouraged. He had trust in the promises of God. If Christ would be with the Church all days, then there was no cause for fear. In the twenty-one years of his pontificate Leo I won the love and veneration of rich and poor, emperors and barbarians, clergy and lay people alike.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved