There are only three popes in the history of the Church who have been given the honorific suffix, “the Great.” Pope St Leo is the first of these “Great” Popes, and he has the added distinction of being a doctor of the Church.
Image: Raphael, St Leo meets Attila the Hun
Name: Pope Leo I
Born: c. AD 400; Tuscany(?)
Died: 10th November AD 461; Rome
Feast Day: 10th November
Buried: St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Despite being a pope of some antiquity Leo has left behind a significant corpus of writing: 96 sermons and 143 letters which provide an insight into the pastoral priorities and character of the Pontiff. His writings are authoritative and crystal clear; he speaks as one who understands the dignity of his Office as Christ’s Vicar on earth.
A shining example of Leo’s decisive leadership shows in the controversy of the so-called “Robber Synod”. A priest called Eutyches was promoting a heretical denial of the two natures of Christ (that Jesus has both a human nature and a Divine nature) and was spreading his errors throughout Constantinople. The Patriarch of Constantinople, St Flavian, investigated the matter and eventually excommunicated Eutyches, who obstinately clung to his heresy. Eutyches had friends in high places and managed, with the support of the Emperor Theodosius II, to establish a Synod that would ‘resolve’ the controversy. Eutyches saw to it that the synod was stacked with all his supporters who (lo and behold) acquitted Eutyches and condemned Flavian. St Flavian was subjected to such violence by the malefactors that he eventually died. Pope Leo responded to this grave perversion of justice with a declarative judgment in his “Dogmatic Letter”. He denounced the sham council as a “robber synod” by which name it has been known to Church history ever since. (Alas, it’s probably not the last synod that will be deserving of the name ‘robber synod’, led by a pack of heretical bishops using blatant political tactics to achieve a pre-determined end in the name of ‘synodality.’ Truly, there’s nothing new under the sun…but I digress). In AD451 Pope Leo called the Council of Ephesus, which was up to that point the largest ecumenical Council in the history of the Church. Pope Leo’s now famous ‘Tome’ expounding the two natures of Christ united in one Divine person became a permanent touchstone of Christological orthodoxy. The Council Fathers declared with one voice: “Behold, this is the Faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the apostles. This we believe. Peter has spoken through Leo.”
Besides the doctrinal errors of Constantinople, there were other troubles brewing in the East which demanded Leo’s strength of leadership. Attila the Hun and his horde of barbarians were advancing west, looting and pillaging their way towards Rome, the great imperial capital. Rome, bereft of its former political strength, lay ripe for the picking before the rapacious Barbarian horde. As they advanced upon the city the Huns were greeted, not by an imperial army, but by an old man dressed in ecclesiastical attire. Leo came to plead clemency in a desperate bid to save the city of Rome from destruction. Attila could easily have slaughtered the brave pope on the spot, but against all odds (some historians say) Pope Leo succeeded in negotiating a tribute that left Rome spared. There is, however, a more colourful version of events. According to the legend, as Pope Leo came out to meet Attila, Rome’s patrons, St Peter and St Paul suddenly appeared either side of the Pope with blazing swords drawn in attack. Attila and his army immediately fled, thereby sparing the city. The event is celebrated in a famous fresco by Raphael in the Vatican Museum (pictured above).
With good cause was Pope St Leo called “the Great.” His greatness consisted in understanding the demands of leadership: to lead from the front; to confront problems head on; to provide clarity and direction; and to do all this from a position of supernatural faith in Jesus Christ (rather than politically-motivated self-interest). It’s no great secret that there is a serious crisis of leadership in the Church today. It is a crisis born of cowardice, an infatuation with worldly popularity, a capricious and arbitrary use of spiritual authority for political ends, an obstinate refusal to provide clarity where it is needed, and a failure to name and confront the real evils of our times. The answer to this sickness is faith in the supernatural truth of the person of Jesus Christ, without whom we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5) but with whom nothing is impossible.
St Leo the Great, pray for us.