Written by: Sam Abbott, UF Student
Alexander. Charlemagne. Catherine. Throughout history, people have used the moniker, “the Great” to describe influential and powerful rulers. However, in the two thousand year history of the Papacy, only three Popes have been honored with such a title. The first Pope to be dubbed “the Great” was St. Leo I, Doctor of the Church who, by the grace of God, strengthened the role of the Papacy and protected the Church from its spiritual and temporal enemies.
St. Leo is believed to have been born in Tuscany to an aristocratic family between the years 390-400. As a young man, Leo dedicated his life to Christ and quickly became an influential figure in the early church. Under the Papacy of Pope Celestine (422-432), Leo was appointed archdeacon of Rome. Leo was also known for his mediator skills, as he would resolve disputes within the Church and the Roman government. While mediating a dispute in Gaul between imperial generals in the year 440, Leo was notified that Pope Sixtus III had died and that he was chosen as his successor.
Once back in Rome, Pope St. Leo soon went to task promoting the Catholic faith and fighting the heresies that threatened the unity of the One, True Church. As Pope, Leo emphasized the importance of Christmas and established new feast days throughout the liturgical year. Leo also waged war against the heresy of Pelagianism and its adherents within the church. Pelagianism was a heresy that denied original sin and believed humans could achieve salvation without the grace of God. Leo forbade any priests, deacons, or clerics from receiving the Eucharist if they had not formally renounced this heresy. Upon discovering that Manicheans (another heretical group) were secretly living in Rome due to Vandal invasions in their homeland of Carthage, he quickly wrote letters to the faithful imploring them to point out these heretics to their priests and along with senators and magistrates, conducted in person an investigation into the secret Manichean groups in Rome. Manicheans denied the goodness of the human body, creation, and matter itself- to them the material world was evil. Due to the actions of Leo, a large portion of Manicheans converted, while those who remained obstinate were exiled from Rome.
Leo’s most important defense of the Catholic faith was when he defended the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation and the dual natures of Christ. The Patriarch of Constantinople, who was named Flavian, and an abbot in the same city had been feuding and sent letters to Leo to help resolve the dispute. The dispute had split the Christian community in the Eastern Roman Empire into two rival factions and threatened the unity of the true faith. The abbot, named Eutyches, wrote letters to Leo claiming Flavian was a heretic that believed that Christ was two separate persons, one human and one divine and asked Leo to relieve the excommunication that Flavian had placed upon him. However, in his letters, Eutyches revealed to Leo that he denied the human nature of Christ. Upon receiving news of the attack on the traditional faith, Leo sent papal legates to Constantinople with a letter, known as Leo’s Tome, defending the Church’s teaching on the Incarnation and elucidating the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, one human and one divine, in one person. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Leo’s concise defense of Catholic doctrine was read aloud to the 600 bishops in attendance, causing some to exclaim, “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo!” Once again, Leo had saved the Church from heresies intent on ripping it apart.
During Leo’s papacy, the Western Roman Empire was disintegrating into anarchy and chaos and its political authority was crumbling. Leo used his administrative abilities to make up for the lack of leadership and protect Rome from external foes. When Attila the Hun, “the scourge of God,” invaded Italy and planned on sacking and plundering everything in his sight, Leo knew he had to do something. Attila had conquered and destroyed the cities of Aquileia, Pavia, Milan and then marched his army of Huns towards the gates of Rome. Upheld by his sense of duty to protect his flock, Leo went out to meet Attila, accompanied only by two Roman officials and a few priests. Leo was able to convince Attila to turn his army around and save Rome from destruction. A few years later Leo met with the Vandal king Genseric outside of Rome and also tried to persuade him to spare the city. This time Leo was less successful, as Genseric pillaged and plundered Rome, but was able to get the Vandal king to restrain his troops from arson and carnage and spare the Churches of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Pope Leo continued to serve the church until his death in 461. During his reign he was called by God, to not only protect the Church from heresy and teach the true faith, but to fill the power vacuum left by the crumbling Western Roman Empire. Through his actions, Leo strengthened papal authority over political and spiritual matters. This is the reason why Pope Benedict XVI stated that Leo’s papacy, “was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.“
St. Leo the Great, pray for us!