One thousand five hundred fifty years ago, one of the greatest Roman Pontiffs entered into his eternal reward. Pope Leo the Great, whose name alone marks him among the most illustrious sovereigns to ever occupy Peter’s throne, changed the face of the papacy and consolidated the supreme authority of the Roman See in a period of political chaos and spiritual crisis.
The date of St. Leo’s birth and details of his early life are unclear, but we know he was raised in Tuscany, and received an exceptional liberal arts education. In 440 Leo was elected pope. From the time of his election, he had a vision of the changes he needed to affect, the challenges he would face, and the great labours he would endure in the service of the Church. He immediately began working to centralize ecclesiastical authority under the Roman Pontiff, and he was not afraid to use the all tools granted to him through his office to fight his numerous detractors.
During Leo’s reign the Western
empire was crumbing, and Italy’s administrative infrastructure and defenses
had been seriously diminished. Twice Pope Leo personally worked as a
peacemaker to prevent the complete destruction of the city of Rome. In 452
Attila the Hun made his incursion into Italy. Two separate chroniclers
relate that Pope Leo himself led a delegation to meet Attila in Mantua and
was able to dissuade him from invading Rome. Then, in 455, the Vandals
entered the city of Rome, but Pope Leo, clearly an adept ambassador,
prevented the Vandals from slaughtering the citizens and burning the city to
The spiritual situation in the Church was also bleak, with two especially nefarious enemies prowling about: Nestorians (who taught that God has two natures) and Monophysites (who taught that Jesus had one nature, a novel of mixture human and divine.) These heresies were spreading westward like a disease from Persia, Syria, Egypt and the Levant. Pope Leo was also concerned that Pelagians and Manicheans in Italy were working to destroy the Church, and he gave many vehement homilies to his congregations in Rome against any affiliation with known heretics. Relying heavily on his profound knowledge of sacred scripture, Leo fought hard to destroy these errors.
His remaining literary corpus contains 143 letters and 96 sermons, but he is most remembered for his famous Tome, an ordered enunciation of the formulas of Western Christology. When Leo’s Tome was read at the Council of Chalcedon, the bishops assembled are said to have acclaimed together "Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo." Through his letters, Leo had correspondence with all parts of the Church and was very effective in leading both the East and the West. His letters and sermons contain some of the most glorious examples of eloquence and rhetoric of the period. His Latin style, which became known as the cursus Leonicus, was a standard for centuries. This fiery yet symmetrical style of writing bears witness to Leo’s fervent confession of faith combined with his fair and deliberate way of rule.
While he delighted the faithful with his oratory skills, Pope Leo, as a true pastor to his flock, did not miss an opportunity to remind the faithful of the essentials of our faith. He makes frequent mention in his sermons of the importance of alms-giving, the virtue of charity, and the power of the Sacraments. He is hailed as the author of the social doctrine known as the the universal destination of goods and often reminded the faithful of their equality within the Church despite any class differences.
Astute sensitivity to the liturgy and its relationship to the daily lives of the faithful lead Pope Leo to formalize and emphasis the tradition of Quottour Tempora or Ember Days, which mark the changing seasons with three days of fasting and prayer. In order to ensure consistency of liturgy throughout the Church, he published the Leonine Sacramentary and decreed its application.
St. Leo the Great is a model to the modern Catholic, who lives in a world where our common moral sensibilities have been shattered, a world where heresies grow so vast as they are nameless, a world where Catholic leadership and obedience to the successor of St. Peter is needed more than ever. At Wyoming Catholic College, we provide students with a liberal arts education encompassing a thorough knowledge of sacred scripture and liturgy through Theology, a deep understanding of virtue in Philosophy, appreciation for and mastery of the rhetorical arts in the Trivium and Latin, and the ability and confidence be great leaders through our unique outdoor leadership program. We hope to prepare our students to go out and subdue the modern day Attila and the Vandals and correct today’s Manicheans and Monophysites.
Sancte Leo Magne, Ora pro nobis.
Used with permission.