Thursday, April 19, 2007

From Soldier to Pilgrim: The Life of Pope St. Leo IX

One thousand years before Pope John Paul II globe-trotted the planet and brought his message of Christian courage to the world, another pope traveled extensively to personally spread Christ's love and Church reform to the faithful. Leo may not have put in as many miles as his successor, but he was just as important of an apostle for the papacy.

Pope Leo was born "Bruno" in the famous wine town of Alsace in 1002, the son of the powerful Count Hugh. Well educated as a youth, Bruno was exposed to Church affairs at an early age, becoming a canon of the influential cathedral of Toul while still a teen. But it was his stint as general of an army of Emperor (and close relative) Conrad II that so impressed the royalty that when the Bishop of Toul suddenly died in 1026, Bruno was named his successor. Bruno immediately embarked on a prodigious plan of reform, especially in the areas of simony, failure to observe celibacy, and monasterial education and devotion.

By the time Pope Damasus died in 1048, Bruno was a logical choice to succeed him and Toul's tower of truth was crowned pope by Emperor Henry III the following year. Forsaking the usual pomp, Bruno entered Rome dressed as a pilgrim beggar and took the name Leo "to recall the ancient, still pure church." As pope, Leo's model of reform took on a similar, if more widespread approach, to his efforts as bishop. Leo traveled to all the important centers of Europe, visiting Pavia, Reims, and Mainz in 1049, Siponto, Salerno, and Vercelli in 1050, and Mantua and Bari in 1053, and hosted a total of twelve synods on clerical and liturgical reform in between. Today some may find it utterly fantastic that Leo regularly disposed of rogue bishops and priests who were appointed because of nepotism and simony, when he owed his appointments as both bishop and pope to emperors, one of whom was a close relative. But his command of theology (he personally and decisively settled several heresies, including one with Berengar of Tours involving the real presence in the Eucharist) and his utter humility (he greatly enhanced the primacy of the pope by refusing to get entangled in its wealth and power) won over both king and peasant alike.

Leo's own ideas were also greatly enhanced by his choosing perhaps the best team of advisers a pope ever had, counting Hildebrand (later Pope St. Gregory VII), Frederick of Liege (Pope Stephen IX 1057-58), St. Hugh of Cluny and St. Peter Damian among his close confidants. Indeed, if Leo had a weakness, it was his warring past; against the advice of Damian, he tried to defend the Church's territories against the Normans in Southern Italy, but the papal army was easily defeated and Leo himself captured. Then he tried to enlist the armies of the East in his battle against them, and sent Archbishop Humbert of Moyenmoutier to Constantinople to enlist its aid. But the hot-headed Humbert only exasperated the pins-and-needles relationship between pope and patriarch, which sadly led to the great schism between East and West just months after Leo's death.

By the time Leo was released from military exile in March of 1054, he was so ill that he ordered his coffin placed beside his bed in preparation of his passing. When Leo finally died on April 19th, he was instantly hailed a saint (not unlike John Paul the Great) by the people, and after a large number of miracles were attributed to his intercession, his cult was approved by Blessed Victor III in 1087. Acknowledging his papal military failures, the famous Church historian Knowles still hailed Leo as the first pope "in almost two centuries with ability, energy and spirituality," who succeeded in reform where others failed because "his sprung by action of the centre"—which, in modern day lingo, means it came straight from St. Leo's heart.

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