Saint of the Day – Pope St. Leo the Great
November 10 is the feast day of St. Leo the Great, who was pope from 440 – 461. “The Great” is a title reserved for few popes. The Catholic Encyclopedia claims that he was the second most important pope after St. Gregory the Great in the ancient church. “The Great” is a title that is well deserved in the case of Pope St. Leo. He not only had a major impact on the development of Christian theology concerning the Incarnation, but he also laid the foundation for the authority of the Bishop of Rome over other Christian bishops. St. Leo the Great is remembered in history for turning Atila the Hun away from the gates of Rome. He also convinced the Vandal leader, Genseric, to stop pillaging Rome after the city had been occupied.
The vortex of social, political, and religious upheaval that enveloped the western Roman Empire in the fifth century is amazing even by the standards of the 20th century. Major portions of the West had already been invaded when St. Leo was elected Pope. (See time line.) Many of us were taught that it was the period of the barbarian invasions – that time when our European ancestors swept into the empire from north and east of the Danube. Our understanding of that history is now more detailed and we can see that it was a time of more than marauding tribal armies, it was an epoch of massive migrations. The History Channel’s series, “The Barbarians,” presents a popularized version that gives some scholars heartburn, even as they acknowledge that the broad themes are correct. The history is very complex, involving alliances between tribes and the empire, betrayal, and mass reprisals. In many respects, we tend to see the Roman Empire as massive and stable. In reality, it was a constantly bubbling cauldron, in which the metal itself was slowly being consumed.
As a child, I saw devotional pictures of Pope St. Leo going out to meet Atila and heard stories of how the barbarian and his horde turned away in terror upon seeing a vision of Saints Peter and Paul accompanying the Pope. The historical reality was probably even more of a testimony to Pope St. Leo’s courage and diplomacy. As a Deacon in Rome, the young Leo had been sent by the emperor to negotiate a dispute between two powerful imperial officials in Gaul (present day France) – Aetius, the Roman commander, and the chief Roman magistrate, Albinus. His success marked him as an astute judge of people, circumstances, and possible solutions. More importantly, the end of the dispute with Albinus left Aetius in a strong position to create an alliance with the Visigoths to defeat Atila near Orleans.
As a result of this and other experience, Pope St. Leo did not meet Atila unprepared. When we become aware of the actual history, that Atila wanted to return home to the steppes of central Asia and his armies wanted to stay in Italy, there is more to his retreat from the gates of Rome. Atila was dealing with command problems and fever from the Tiber’s swamps. This additional historical information only adds luster to Pope St. Leo’s courage and insight at a time when rulers were often the first to leave their cities in a time of crisis.
Pope St. Leo’s skill in handling the Vandals under Geneseric is no less amazing. It would set the standard by which bishops tried to mitigate the depredation of the empire’s collapse and begin the assimilation and Christianization of these large dislocated populations.
All of these circumstances would have made it a very reasonable historical outcome for the central governance of the Church to have left Rome and moved to the secure eastern capital of the empire – the New Rome – Constantinople. Certainly any focus on doctrinal issues should have disappeared from the West as well. In the chaos, one would reasonably expect that the bishops would be left to themselves to sort out religious and civil matters. Pope St. Leo reversed all of these more likely historical outcomes.
The Dark Ages that followed his papacy were bad enough. Yet I wonder where western culture would be today if Pope St. Leo had not laid the foundations of a more centralized Latin church, with definite doctrinal boundaries that emphasized the humanity and the divinity of Christ. The emphasis on the Incarnation – God With Us – in the unfolding of history created a vision which survived apocalypse, by focusing on the Kingdom of Heaven. It was certainly not an escapist vision, but rather, one grounded in very gritty realities. It is not for the faint of heart.
Pope St. Leo the Great’s vision did not involve trying to hold on to a world that had been swept away. He looked for the God With Us to chart a new course that would forever change history. As we survey the tsunami of blood that was the 20th century and which swept away several empires, it might be good to leave the walls of St. John Lateran and pass through the city’s gates to confront the present with courage, vision, and hope.
There is a very interesting video on the history of the Huns that gives us a window onto the world in which Pope St. Leo the Great lived.