St. Leo I - A Clever Pontiff

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Illumination of St. Leo I"A burden to shudder at"--thus St. Leo I spoke of the papal office. Yet few have been so capable of bearing that burden as the clever, energetic, and holy Tuscan who succeeded St. Sixtus III. A deacon in the Church at Rome Leo was absent in Gaul on an important mission for the Emperor when St. Sixtus III died. He returned to find himself pope.

To rule the mid-fifth-century Church was not easy. The West was filled with the clamor of barbarians wandering through provinces which had lost the nerve to resist. The East was troubled with a new and dangerous heresy. Leo faced both situations is the story of his pontificate.

Leo acted strongly against all heresies, but the dogmatic crisis of his pontificate arose when the Constantinople monk Eutyches and the patriarch of Alexandria, Dioscorus, began to teach that in Christ there is only one nature. This Monophysite (one-nature) heresy made such progress in the East that St. Flavian, the patriarch of Constantinople, called on the Pope to do something about it. Leo did. In a famous letter to Flavian, the Pope so clearly and forcefully exposed and condemned the Monophysite error that this letter has been venerated as a creed.

The Monophysites, however, gained the ear of the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius II, and succeeded in holding a packed synod at Ephesus. There they so maltreated the saintly Flavian that he died, and they proclaimed the Monophysite error to be true Christian doctrine. Leo came to the rescue. In stinging words he characterized the Ephesus affair as a robbery, and the name has lived. To this day it is known as the robber synod. To counteract Monophysite influence on Theodosius, Leo got Valentinian III, the Western Emperor, to wake up his cousin to the danger of fostering heresy. Though Theodosius died, his successor Marcion heeded the Pope. To settle the matter a great council, the fourth ecumenical, was called to meet at Chalcedon in 451. There the fathers condemned Eutyches and accepted Leo's letter as the symbol of orthodox belief. Though the Monophysite heresy lingered long to trouble the Eastern Church, this great council killed its chance to win the East.

In the West imperial feebleness forced Leo to stand as buffer between his people and barbarian hordes. Attila the Hun, checked at Chalons, had burst over the Alps in 452. Leo went north to meet Attila. On the banks of the Mincio these two giants of the age met, one representing brute might, the other, moral force. And Leo prevailed. Attila agreed to make peace and spare Rome. Three years later when a Vandal fleet sailed up the Tiber, the panic-stricken Romans turned to their bishop. The Pope went outside the walls to meet Genseric, the Vandal king. Genseric agreed to spare the lives and homes of the Romans. Then for fourteen days the Vandals helped themselves to the wealth of imperial Rome, but true to Genseric's promise to the Pope, they set no fires and kept their swords sheathed.

The many-sidedness of Leo is a marvel. Diplomat, statesman, administrator, theologian, orator, and above all a holy man, this pope well deserves the title, Leo the Great.

Excerpted from "Popes Through the Ages" by Joseph Brusher, S.J.

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