Tag Archives: Pope Leo the Great

St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor

November 10, 2015


LeoTheGreatPope Leo I is also known as Pope Leo the Great.  The date of his birth is unknown, and the place uncertain, possibly in Rome.  The first historical information available about his life is that he was a highly regarded deacon who served under two Popes, Celestine I and Sixtus III.

In 440 AD he was sent to Gaul, a region of southern France, as a papal ambassador to mediate a dispute between two feuding generals, Aetius and Albinus, so that they might cooperate in the defense of the region from barbarian attacks.  While on this mission Pope Sixtus III died and Leo was elected his successor.  He returned to Rome and was consecrated on September 29, 440.

During his twenty-one years as Pope, he distinguished himself in at least three major ways:  he acted decisively to strengthen the supremacy and authority of the papacy, he upheld and clarified orthodox theology while he strenuously opposed a number of heresies, and he defended Rome from the barbarian tribes that were invading from the north.

Leo explained that the Pope is the heir of St. Peter, the first of the apostles, and that the authority that Jesus conferred upon Peter as the rock upon which the Church is built (Mt 16:18) is extended to and embodied in the Pope.  Thus, the Pope does not only have authority over the Church of Rome, but also over the universal Church and all its bishops.

The Church was beset by heresy during the Fifth Century, and Pope Leo, through his sermons and letters, as well as the Council of Chalcedon, acted firmly to refute unorthodox teaching.

Priscillianism was strong in Spain, a heresy that claimed that the physical human body is evil; Pope Leo taught that it is good.  Manichaeism was a blend of dualism, material things are bad while spiritual things are good, and Gnosticism, that salvation is achieved through knowledge itself.  Even though it was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 416, it was necessary for Pope Leo to restate the Church’s teaching that all created things are good and that salvation is achieved through Christ.  Pelagianism held that salvation can be gained through human effort alone, and that the saving grace of God is not necessary.  Pope Leo taught that humans simply cannot save themselves, no matter how many good works they may perform, and that the grace of God through Jesus’ redemptive death on the Cross is necessary for eternal life.

Two other heresies had a strong foothold, Arianism, that Jesus is less than God but greater than any human being; and Nestorianism, that Jesus is two separate persons, one divine, the other human, and that they are not interconnected.  Arianism had been refuted by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and Nestorianism by the Council of Ephesus in 431, yet both had many adherents.  A renegade council was called by Emperor Theodosius II in 499 in Ephesus to support Eutyches, a heretic that claimed that Jesus had one divine nature that absorbed his human nature.  Pope Leo countered with the Council of Chalcedon in 451 in which his Tome, a letter that clearly explained the two natures of Christ which had been disallowed by Theodosius II two years earlier, not only was read but was adopted with strong support.

Meanwhile, the barbarians were on the offensive and the safety of Rome was in peril.  The Huns were approaching.  In a dramatic moment in 452, Pope Leo had a face-to-face meeting with their leader, Attila, and convinced him to pull back.  In 455, Pope Leo was not as successful.  This time the Vandals ransacked Rome for fourteen days.  In a piece of artful diplomacy, he was able to convince their leader, Genseric, to confine their activity to plundering, and not to murder the inhabitants or to burn the city.

Pope Leo I died on November 10, 461, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1754.

Continue reading...