Saint Leo the Great
By Margaret Alexander
Pope Leo I stands out as the resolute champion of the faith and his courage lifted the prestige of the Holy See High. It also earned for him the title of “the Great” and he is honored by the church with the title of Doctor because of his expositions of Christian doctrine.
There are no reliable records of his birth or his early years. What is acknowledged is that he was already a deacon in Rome under Pope Celestine I and Pope Sixtus III in the 400s. He must have achieved eminence early because of his correspondence with Archbishop Cyril, who dedicated to him his treatise against Nestorius, (a bishop who was teaching falsely the doctrine that God the Divine Son and Jesus the Man were two distinct persons and that Mary was only the mother of the human person Jesus but not of the divine person Jesus with a human nature).
In 440 Pope Sixtus III died and Leo was elected to the chair of St. Peter. His consecration took place in September. He at once began to show great energy in his papal duties and set out to make the Roman Catholic Church a pattern for other Churches. Of the 96 sermons we still have, he gave he always stressed upon the virtues of almsgiving, fasting and prayer. He also expounded the Catholic doctrine with clarity, in particular the dogma of the Incarnation, wanting to shield his flock from heresy. When a certain group started spreading the false teachings of Nestorius, Leo burned their books and banished them from Rome. He strongly preached against such errors and wrote letters of warnings to other bishops. The 143 letters he wrote illustrate his extraordinary vigilance over the church.
Once again the heresy that bishop Nestorius started continued to circulate and favored among the clergy, Leo continued to write against this and described the measures he would take if not stopped. In 448 there was another heresy starting by an abbot named Eutyches, denying the full human nature of Christ. St. Flavian wanted him excommunicated from the church and sent Leo a report. Leo wrote a letter to St. Flavian, (which is now known as Leo’s Tome), to be read at the abbot’s trial. But the council at the trial consisted of the abbot’s friends so the letter was not allowed to be read and the abbot was not condemned, but St. Flavian was.
When Pope Leo heard what had happened he declared the decisions at the trial null and void, but for St. Flavian it was too late. He was subjected to such physical violence that it caused his death. Leo wrote another letter, this time to the Emperor calling him leave to the bishops the liberty of defending the faith; neither worldly power nor terror would ever succeed in destroying it. He called him to protect the church and seek to preserve its peace that Christ in this turn may protect your Empire.
In 451 a great council of 600 bishops was held under a new Emperor. St. Flavian’s memory was vindicated and the letter Leo wrote was now read. In it he defined in no uncertain terms the Catholic Doctrine of the Incarnation and the two-fold natures of Christ, which is now accepted as the Church’s official teaching.
During this time there was another and more serious crisis happening. Attila and his Huns were raiding Greece and Germany. After that they entered Italy burning and pillaging their way to the capital. Without hesitation Leo gathered his priests and set out to confront Attila face to face. After a long exchange of words Leo somehow got them to stop their destruction and turn back.
Immediately Leo started repairing the damage and sent his priests to assist and administer alms, his trust in God never wavering. On November 10, 461 St. Leo the Great died and was laid to rest in the Vatican Basilica where his relics still remain.
The heresies of today are immense. Faith and trust in God are floundering. Whatever St. Leo was born with, we definitely need someone like him again. His courage, strength and energy of trying to right the wrongs and protecting the churches and its people from the evils of false teachings is just one of the reasons we need him today. His ability not to let despair overtake him, even in the worst of times, should be our inheritance from him. To keep fighting the good fight and keep asking God to help us when we falter in our steps. He would continue preaching the true doctrines of the church, and finding a remedy for the evils in the world. In the 21 years as Pope, St. Leo won the love and honor of the rich and poor, emperors and barbarians, clergy and lay folk alike. To say he was extraordinary is an understatement!