Friday, November 10, 2006

The Life of Pope Leo the Great: A First Rate Writer and Saint

"This is the faith of the fathers; this is the faith of the apostles. We ourselves believe this, those whose faith is true believe this. Let anyone who believes otherwise be anathema! Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo."
-Pope Leo, after writing his teaching on the Incarnation

Although much of the current Catholic populous attaches the title "The Great" to our recently departed and universally admired Pope John Paul, the Church has officially given the name to only three popes, and St. Leo was the first.
Known mostly for his strengthening of the Papacy and his defense of the two natures of Christ, Leo was a man of many talents - all of which came in handy as a 5th century leader of the Roman Catholic Church.

Described by an early biographer as "a man of boundless energy and a large heart," Leo spent his early years as Deacon and Priest as a Papal adviser and political peacemaker. It was in this later role, when in the midst of settling a dispute between the governor of Gaul, Albinus, and the region's commander-in-chief, Aetius, that a messenger informed him he had also been elected the Bishop of Rome.

As pope, Leo was the first to crystallize the belief that the Bishop of Rome was the heir to Peter and thus the supreme leader of the Universal Church. He also was responsible for calling the Council of Calcedon, convened to counter to Monophysite Heresy which taught Christ had only one nature. "Christ is one person with two natures," wrote Leo, "divine and human," which are united "without confusion or admixture."

And, while Leo was largely successful at heading this heresy off at the pass, he is probably best known for stopping the advance of Attila the Hun. Attila had already sacked Milan when Leo courageously set out to meet the great general and nearly single-handedly convinced Attila to halt his armies and stop before they entered Rome. Unfortunately Leo was less successful with Gaiseric the Vandal, who sacked the Eternal City three years later.

Despite the defeat, Leo remained upbeat. He lead the financial relief of Rome, sent priests to visit captives, and rebuilt the basilicas (including St. Peter's) as soon as was feasible. Leo died in 461, and was declared a doctor of the Church (by Benedict XIV) in 1754.

While he was nowhere near as prolific as that future "great" doctor John Paul II, Leo's concise prose on Christ's Incarnation and the Primacy of the Pope were every bit as crucial to the 5th century as JP's "Theology of the Body" was to the 20th. For it took both a strong leader and generous soul to show that Rome was still the center of Christendom even when the city had been sacked.

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