Saint Leo the Great is the first born pope doctor. His greatness is evident from his roles as peacemaker amidst terror, unifier amidst controversy, and pastoral concern amidst war, diseases, and famine. For two decades during his pontificate the powers of terrorists and Hell attacked and plundered Rome and its citizens.
Leo believed and trusted in God through the intercession of St Peter, the Rock of the Church, and Jesus Christ. It was he who gave Peter and his successors that power over all mortals who would challenges his church on earth.
In addition to writing, leading, and exemplying a unified doctrine for the church, Leo acted in the role of peacemaker which was rare in his day. He met, nearly single-handedly, Attila the Hun, “The Terror of the World” and showed him God’s own enormous and terrible power.
Leo is called the Doctor of the Unity of the Church for many reasons, and, they are listed below:
Everyone can trust and believe in God and meet their challenges as Leo by living out their faith by earnestly following the guidelines of doctrines, dogmas, and ethical principles. When we follow our conscience, coupled with the sincere, charitable efforts toward all in a high moral manner, God will enlighten and guide us. The establishing and the formulation of church writings and traditions were done through the industrious efforts of Leo and catholic leadership acted out down through the centuries. The beginning church paid a great price to lay the foundation of our religion and faith. We might acknowledge Leo and others like him for their significant contributions especially the labors of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith including our parents and relatives. I have paraphrased some of the writings of Leonard Foley, O.F.M., Luigi Gambero, S.M., and Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap. Their books are listed in the sources.
When we use our leadership or supervisory skills, and authority in business or at home, Leo might guide us to become more effective and holy in our dealings with others. Leo prayed frequently to St Peter, the first Pope, for help and he got it. It doesn’t matter the level or the degree of one’s duties. As long as we ask help from people as the saints and doctors who will not fail us. They are there precisely for that reason: to be petitioned and serve as models, examples and support.
There are only two doctors of the church who were popes. The first was Leo and the second was Gregory. They are both called “the great” because of the great struggles and heroic courage they showed in meeting the difficulties of their day, their virtues and their charity they showed to all as they lived out their faith. You may compare the heroic lives of St Leo and St Gregory by clicking on the below link. The Vatican links and many other links at Gregory’s site are applicable to St Leo. Both doctors give us great examples and lessons to learn from in facing terrorist times as the USA is experiencing after 9/11/01:
Leo reigned as pope for twenty-one years. He was born in Tuscany, near Rome. As a young man he assisted Africans, and then in 418, met St Augustine who was then in the full flowering of his genius as bishop of Hippo in Africa.
In John F. Fink’s excellent book The Doctors of the Church, Volume One: Doctors of the First Millennium, the author begin his information on the chapter on St Leo by stating:
“Perhaps surprisingly considering the amount of teaching and writing many of our popes have done, only two of them were included among the Doctors of the Church. These two-Pope Leo I and Pope Gregory I-are also the only popes to be called “the Great.” There obviously was something about each of them that stood out, and we’ll explore that in this chapter and the next.”
John’s book is listed in the sources but what he is saying is that there are only 2 out of 264 successors of St Peter that were selected to be in the august group of Doctors of the Catholic Church. That is quite a milestone.
This universal pope-doctor gives us the same remedy he possessed to help us meet the challenges of the power of evil, its temptations and its many enemies that confront us. He informs us that those who will clash with visible or invisible forces must arm himself with 1) persistence and perseverance in prayer; 2) fasting; and 3) almsgiving.
Through our weakness we sin but we will be pardoned for our sins and obtain forgiveness when we exercise the above three golden remedies. Charities in almsgiving covers a multitude of sins; fasting is the one special mortification that the devil or evil is defenseless against; genuine prayer will united us to God in love and empower us to keep our wills united with the holy will of God amidst repeated failures.
Due to the wars, terrorists and immense problems that Leo faced he strongly advocated the below works of mercy toward others to show true Christianity:
CORPORAL WORKS OF MERCY:
To feed the hungry;
Give drink to the thirsty;
Clothe the naked;
Shelter the homeless;
Visit the sick;
Visit the imprisoned;
Bury the dead.
SPIRITUAL WORKS OF MERCY:
To counsel the doubtful;
Instruct the ignorant;
Comfort the afflicted;
Bear wrongs patiently;
Pray for the living and the dead.
We can not imagine Leo’s courage and total trust and abandonment to God when he had to face Attila the Hun. To appreciate his confidence and bravery we need to understand who Attila really was and how Leo faced this person. To capture this story we might reflect that when David faced Goliath, he, at least, had a slingshot. Leo had nothing but his total reliance on God and St Peter who he prayed to for assistance.
The below info is taken from Sister Catherine Goddard Clark, MICM, from the Internet to help us capture the atmosphere when Leo met Attila.
“Pope Leo the Great mounted the throne of Saint Peter at a time of terrible danger, both for the Church and the Empire. The fierce barbarian tribes, one after the other, had been on the march for the whole of the century, plundering, ravaging and threatening the entire Empire. The dreaded Attila the self-designated “Scourge of God,” who left in the wake of his savage army burned churches, murdered priests, devastated countrysides, people ravished and maimed, impoverished and homeless, was on his way into Italy.
In the year 452, Attila the Hun, having with remorseless cruelty sieged, burned, sacked and destroyed Aquileia - the city in northeastern Italy at the head of the Adriatic Sea - was as close as Mantua, on his march to Rome. He was boasting, as he advanced, that the total conquest of Italy was to be his crowning work of destruction. Rome was the dowry which he planned to present to his bride, Honoria, the granddaughter of the great Theodosius!
All Rome awaited the coming of the Mongol King in hopeless terror. They had no defense left against him. And then, in the darkest hour - as would often be the case through the centuries ahead - the Eternal City was saved, not by its legions, its tribunes, its senators, or its suffering citizens. Rome was saved by its Bishop, the Holy Roman Pontiff.
Practically alone, Pope Leo went out to meet the wanton murderer who was the terror of the world. He climbed steadily northward, this holy and august Vicar of Christ, and over the mountains, an arduous journey indeed in those days. He found the Mongolian chief below Mantua, at the point where the Mincio River, flowing down from its Alpine source - the beautiful Lago Garda - emptied itself in the Po. Attila’s troops, hardened veterans seasoned in plunder and sack and rape, were ready and waiting to cross the Po when Saint Leo, in his papal robes, entered the disordered camp and stood before the King of the Huns.
The glorious Pope threatened Attila with the power which was his from Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, if he did not turn back and leave Italy unmolested. And it is one of the most dramatic, of all the dramatic facts with which the story of the Church is so enchantingly full, that Attila, the Hun, yielded before Leo, the Pope. The “Scourge of God” agreed to turn back. He gave up Rome. And Leo, absorbed in thanksgiving, returned to his See.
Attila’s servants, so the story is told, asked him why he had reversed his custom and capitulated so easily to the Bishop of Rome. The brigand chief answered that all the while the Pope was speaking, he, Attila, the generator of terror in others, was himself consumed in fear, for there had appeared in the air above the Pope’s head a figure in the dress of a priest, holding in his hand a drawn sword with which he made as if to kill him unless he consented to do as Leo asked. The figure was that of Peter!”
When one visits the Vatican today one will see this scene depicted in art hanging over the casket of St Leo in St Peters. One will see the terror, fear and dread on Attila’s face and the fearless Leo confronting him with total trust in God.
From another version, we have the meeting of Attila the Hun and Leo at the end of this section on St Leo.
It is quite fitting that, the mortal remains of both the doctor of unity and doctrine, St Leo and St Gregory Nazianzus, the doctor of theology, and surnamed “The Theologian”, are in St Peter’s Basilica. With sound doctrine and theology the church is a fortress and wise guide to humanity. She is also a loving Mother caring and leading her children to the Life, the Truth, and the Way unerringly and incontrovertibly. Christ speaks to us about the study of God and the church’s doctrine through the Popes down through the ages despite all human failings because he claimed all three titles: The Life, The Truth and The Way.
There were other challenges that Leo faced to defend the church of God and they were all the same: God will protect his Church forever.
In 455, once again he went out, alone but for some of his clergy, to meet the invader. This time it was the Arian Vandal King, Genseric, and while Saint Leo was able to prevail upon him to spare his people from massacre, and Rome from burning, he was not able to dissuade him from plunder. For fourteen days, Genseric’s army pillaged Rome; but the Romans, thanks to the Pope, remained unharmed.
There has come down to us, in the words of Saint Leo, his discourse on the supremely lovable, infinitely wistful, majestically humble lover of Jesus Christ, the Prince of the Apostles, the first Holy Roman Pontiff. Leo’s tribute to Peter has rung down the ages:
In the Universal Church, it is Peter that doth still say every day:
“Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and every tongue which confesseth that JESUS is Lord is taught that confession by the teaching of Peter. This is the Faith that overcometh the devil and looseth the hands of his prisoners.
This is the Faith which maketh men free of the world and bringeth them to Heaven, and the gates of Hell are impotent to prevail against it. With such ramparts of salvation hath God fortified this rock, that the contagion of heresy will never be able to infect it, nor idolatry and unbelief to overcome it. This teaching it is, my dearly beloved brethren, which maketh the keeping of this feast today to be our reasonable service, even the teaching which maketh you to know and honor in myself, lowly though I be, that Peter who is still entrusted with the care of all other shepherds and of all the flocks to them committed, and whose authority I have, albeit unworthy to be his heir. . .”
Leo had a diversified background and held various offices in the church before he became pope. Manichaeism which held that there are two gods was the prevalent heresy and Leo attacked it vigorously in his sermons. He also spoke out against pagan festivals and called for the closing of their temples. Due to Leo’s influences, Rome became the “city of the pope.”
His genius served the church well at a time when a strong hand was needed to guide the bark of Peter. The following is taken from from one of Leo’s Christmas homilies:
“Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on this birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victory over sin and death, finding no man free from sin, came to free us all. Let the same rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness.”
Ninety-six sermons and one hundred forty-three letters have come down to us and are extant. Leo is famous for his five-minute sermons. Some of these are enshrined in the breviary readings including the little Christmas homily from above. He emphasized almsgiving and other social aspects of Christian living. He built many churches, wrote many letters and expressed true values.
Leo had a strong conviction for the importance of the Bishop of Rome and took a strong stance on leadership. He set the precedent. The church and her top leaders have to be a sign of Christ’s presence in the world. Leo the Great displayed endless dedication in his role as pope. He worked tirelessly as Peter’s successor guiding his bishops as equals in the episcopacy and he had a faithful devotion to St. Peter to assist him.
Known as one of the best administrative popes of the ancient church, he tried to counteract rampant heresies such as Arianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism and others to empower us with true Christian belief and practices.
Mr Fink’s book
informs us that:
“Leo was determined to make Rome Church a pattern for other churches, so he began his papacy with a series of the sermons for which he is known, instructing his Christians about Catholic doctrine. He discovered that there were many Manichaeans in Rome, some of whom had fled the Vandals in Africa (see chapter on Saint Augustine). He invoked the civil authorities and saw to it that the Manichaeans’ book were burned and that they were banished from Rome. He also wrote to the other Italian bishops warning them of the Manichaeans’ presence and he preached again their false teachings.”
The pope’s major concern and contribution to Catholicism was on doctrinal controversies in the west and east sections of the Church. Defining the teaching on the nature of Christ was very important to him. He was never discouraged and he maintained equanimity even in the most difficult moments. By safeguarding the nature of Christ he reinforced the unity of the church and the mystical body of the church along authentic Christological dogmas and doctrines proclaimed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. He included the issue of the Virgin Mary and her divine Son and his Marian teaching rest on a firm Christological basis. Fr Gambero points out that the human nature of Jesus does not differ from our own, even though he was formed in a miraculous manner from the virginal womb. Mary’s motherhood guarantees the authenticity of Jesus’ human nature which remains distinct from his divinity.
Leo had the ability to reach the needs and interests of his people every day. It is said that his true significance rested on his doctrinal insistence in the mystery of Christ and God’s church and in the supernatural charisma of the spiritual life given to humanity in Christ and in his body-the church. St Leo won the love and admiration of rich and poor, emperor and barbarian, clergy and lay folk.
The Church’s gifted holy writers, especially some pontiffs, have written and expounded on the Holy Trinity, Jesus, Mary, Holy Scripture, the Prophets and Holy Fathers. We will focus here on the mystical body of Christ-the church.
We might compare the arteries and veins of the physical body with the mystical body. The doctrines and dogmas that Leo help established are the sources, channels and life blood by which we are supplied spiritual blood and oxygen to our soul, body and spirit. Spiritually, they are its life, enrichment and sustain its existence. As veins in our physical bodies have defined roles, so too in the mystical body. Veins extend to each member in particular and to the entire church in general. We all know what happens when blood is blocked to any parts of the human body. The same happens in the mystical body. The arteries are vessels that carry blood from the heart through the body. Likewise, our spiritual arteries are mystical organs or parts that energizes the entire church.
Our dogmas and doctrines are precious documents as the Constitution and The Declaration of Independence. Of course, these documents are only physical papers with written words. However, if we live out what they say, not only according to the letter but also according to the Spirit, we will discover life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness both on earth and in heaven. The same applies to the mystical body-the church and each member. When we live out the doctrines and dogmas in the right spirit, we will possess rich and abundant spiritual life individually and the church will thrive.
We should with Leo and all of our past and current leaders from all over the world petition God to unite all people even more as the United States is united but still needs to be united more. Doctrine is used to unite us. Our beloved, heavenly Father allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust and desires more unity regardless of religion. We too, as Leo, can help the unfortunate by active participation in the mystical body defined by our catholic doctrine.
Catholic doctrine needs to be formulated, known and demonstrated. We need to put our words into action. The needy abound. A superb example of sharing our doctrine especially through good example is Teresa of Calcutta and the Missionary Sisters of Charity that she founded. The City of Calcutta, India, and its surroundings, ranks as the second most populated metropolitan area in India and one of the most crowded cities in the world.
Reflect that India’s population of nearly one billion has many illiterates, 1/3 living below poverty level and 25 per cent suffer from malnutrition. India ranks second only to China among the world’s most populous countries. 73 per cent live in rural area. Only 2 per cent are Christians. By Teresa and her sisters demonstrating Christian doctrine throughout the world, our doctrinal faith is being seen, known and becomes more credible. Teresa’s sanctity and fame are known worldwide now and perhaps future generations and a future pope will proclaim her the Doctor of the Poor. Teresa is the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but her example to the poor is our prize from the good God to all humankind.
Doctrine is the backbone of religion as in the world of the Internet, the backbone is the source through which power is transmitted throughout the network. A group or “body” of believers or adherents to a philosophy, school or spirituality needs principles. Doctrines are principles that are accepted. If you can not accept all the doctrines of a particular religion or organization you are not a wholehearted believer to that cause, way or body. Once you surrender your will or acquiesce to a religion or group, you are “hooked”. This can be beautiful or plain dangerous. Why? Because the person is “caught up” or dedicated to that way. There are some groups who are willing to fight and die for what they believe is a “holy” war. However, if their belief is based upon an erroneous doctrine then what they consider holy may in reality be unholy or evil.
In the same manner, dedicated servers in the world of the Internet make excellent virtual host. The more that people serve or minister to other’s needs in a spirit of charity and concern, the more they become consecrated to that way of lifestyle or belief. Doctrine along with tenets and dogmas are accepted as authoritative.
St Leo helped formulate and added to the beautiful doctrines and dogmas of the church as did the forty-four previous successors to the throne of St Peter. It all started with Christ giving Peter full authority. Christ promised Peter He would stay and remain with his Church. Jesus Christ established Christianity and the Catholic Church claims that the Pope down through the ages, despite their personal integrity, has the authorization, power and leadership to guide and make laws to govern its members.
Our saint followed this tradition and so did St Gregory the nineteenth successor after Leo or the 64th after Peter. Imagine that since the year 604AD, the Catholic Church has not had any more Pope Doctors. This is remarkably significant. Why? Because, leadership is not necessarily the only hallmark of being a catholic. The true leaders of Catholicism are the members who reflect and act as Jesus Christ. Saints, doctors and holy members who live up to the principles and teaching of the God-Man lead others through Christ-like example and holiness. We do not depend on one but many for the flourishment of the church.
There is a beautiful and moving prayer from“Book of Saints” by Rev. Lawrence G. Lovasik, SVD. He was a Divine Word missionary that I have quoted frequently on this site. I have used pictures of Leo and other doctors from his book. Please pray this following prayer with Leo:
Oh God, You established Your Church on the solid rock of St Peter and You will never allow the powers of Hell to dominate her, grant that she may persevere in Your truth and enjoy continual peace through the intercession of Pope St Leo the Great
If I could sum up in one sentence the doctrines of the catholic church I would borrow Leo’s words. It is taken from one of his many superb homilies. This talk was about Our Lord’s ascension into heaven after his resurrection. Reflect on this inspired sentence often because each word imparts eternal life. He said: “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.”
Why does God have to enter into anything since the Almighty already is present everywhere? Signs and matter encourage human beings. We need concrete, visible contact for reinforcement. We are humans with bodily and spiritual needs. Sacraments touch and empower us by faith and grace.
The sacraments are a part of catholic liturgical involvement. I am indebted to Rev. James P. Moroney, the Executive Director of the NCCB Secretariat for the Liturgy for the following.
Remembrance is at the heart of being human. The Church’s remembering, which is called anamnesis, is not about the writings about Leo. What Leo is imparting to us about the sacraments when he tells us that the Redeemer’s visible presence passes into the sacraments is profound and hardly expressible.
Human remembrance is in the memory. Divine remembrance is not only past. It is yesterday, today and tomorrow. It is past, now, future. St Leo explains that our participating in the sacraments is not as spectators. We are the actors in the drama. Thus our engaging in the sacraments “is not simply in our memories but before our very eyes”. Memory strictly speaking is not human. It is human and divine. Animals remember. But humans know that they remember. Memory can be a part of loving and participating in the past, present and future. Humans act omnisciently, albeit, they do not know all things. They can, however, love all things through the divine faculty of the memory. Every day the church sings and celebrates “Do this in remembrance of me” to reform, renew and sustain us along our journey back to God. Through God’s gift to us on earth, we can experience the marvelous life and existence of God who is infinitely Omniscient.
Leo saw a summary of the entire Christian faith related to Mary: “The entirety of the faithful professes its belief in God the Father almighty, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. By these beliefs, the machinations of all heretics are destroyed.”
Leo defines that the Lord’s miraculous birth poses no threat to the reality of Jesus human nature. It is the same nature as ours, albeit, sinless. He gives the reason for why Christ was born of a virgin in one of his sermons when he says. “… he decided to raise up what was fallen and restore what was broken apart and to strengthen purity for overcoming the seductions of the flesh, so that virginity, which in others cannot be preserved after childbirth, might be imitated even by others, in rebirth.”
When we participate in the Eucharist, the same Christ who was held in the arms of the Blessed Virgin Mary is with us always, even to the end of the world.
Could the church exist without the sacraments? We can not fully appreciate the sacraments because they are as mysterious as they are holy. Unlimited books have been written on them but all we need to know is that Christ’s visible presence has passed into them. What does that mean? God is everywhere. God’s presence is everywhere but especially in an intimate, personal, tangible manner in order to touch us physically, mentally and emotionally. We possess the visible presence of Christ sacramentally. That is why Catholics pay great respect and revere the sacraments. Sacraments are as sacred as they are mysterious. Some of us can partake of the sacraments daily, some only occasionally and some only once in a lifetime or never.
Sacraments are for new birth, strength, pardon and forgiveness, nourishment, vocations and when our soul leaves our bodies at death. Only faith can grasp the invisible presence of Jesus Christ in the sacraments and only love reveals it. This should not surprise us for life itself is a mystery that no one fully understands, not even a genius. The Christian life is steeped in mysterious and sacramental love. The catholic church holds in her doctrines, formulated by Leo and others that Jesus Christ is truly alive in the world but also most active in us when we are touched, moved and motivated by God’s power, especially his TANGIBLE presence and power. She further states that Christ is approachable, accessible and available (waiting for us) in her sacraments and sacramentals.
We want all leadership to be conducted by good example, ethics, high morals and sound administration. Leo possessed these qualities and virtues. He upheld our Catholic tenets and teachings. They have been passed down from generation to generation. Sure, they have been abused, but what hasn’t. There have been “bad” popes but who among us has not been “bad”? Everyone knows that power corrupts and the higher the authority or power, the greater the corruption. Christ picked Peter not because he was never going to fall in error personally but in spite of his denial of Christ.
The Christ-Spirit is the authentic leadership of the church. These tenets or teachings have been passed down through an unbroken chain of successors. Our doctrines and dogmas are extraordinarily rich. They are based upon the person of Jesus and his teachings. When Christ came into the world, Christianity began! The church has few dogmas. Why? Because catholic dogmas imply a doctrine that is laid down as true and beyond dispute. To believe in catholic dogma is to belief in Christ. To be dogmatic is to be a dictator. Accepting catholic doctrine will lead you to holiness. To act doctrinaire is injurious or anti-Christian. Catholics pray for the Pope and the church’s leadership to guide them. They petition God to influence all leaders to act in a just manner. Obedience to the church and its leadership is obedience to God.
The church can never remind us too much of the important of obedience. Jesus was obedient to his parents for 30 years; He learned to obey; He was made obedient unto death. In the spirit of obedience he surrendered to civil authority knowing that they had no power over him if it had not been given to them from above. Religious Orders in the church take vows of obedience. When children obey their parents in rightful commands that show a form of love and duty.
The virtue of obedience offers to humankind a form of order and unity. The church has been particularly blessed with good Pope John XXIII among others. Fr Christopher tells us in his Doctor book, listed in the sources, that Blessed John states that Saint Leo the Great is celebrated above all as the Doctor of the Unity of the Church. God inspired Leo by living and explaining that Jesus Christ as the Word made flesh and presently alive in the church’s sacraments, and is there by his obeying the words that the priest says in the consecration of the holy bread.
Gambero tells us that Leo compares every man who is born again, as the waters of baptism is like the virginal womb. The same Spirit that fills the Virgin now fills the baptismal font. According to Pope Leo, the birth of Jesus and Mary is a type or model of our spiritual rebirth in Baptism.
Blessed John convened the 2nd Vatican Council as Leo called the Council of Chalcedon to condemn errors and to make needed or necessary changes for all God’s people. The work, holiness and example of John Paul II spoke volumes regarding God’s great concern for others. The present Pope will continue John Paul’s legacy through his travels, writings and holy modeling. All holy popes are signals and sirens announcing and proclaiming to the whole world that the church is alive in the current times as One, Holy, Universal and Apostolic Body. As Leo has done for the church in the past so are the church’s current leaders doing for the present.
To accomplish any leadership role in a superior manner requires courage, obedience, confidence, experience and wisdom. These rightful powers come from God. Everyone wants wise and competent leaders not only in an intellectual manner but also in a trusting manner. Leaders hold a sacred trust of the people. That is why they are usually sworn in, as the President of the United States, by taking an oath and placing their hand on the bible. The President has grave responsibilities for over 300 million plus . The Pope leadership role requires extraordinary leadership and trusting characteristics. Over one billion Catholics or 1/6 plus of the world’s population look up to the Holy Father for leadership and example.
God’s immense love for all is evident as the Almighty calls, touches and guides all creation and his creatures. This is especially, personally and most intimately when we honestly seek the Creator through his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of all.