During his general audience on March 5, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the early Fathers of the Church. Thanks to his many sermons and letters, we can still appreciate his zeal and his love as a pastor of the Church and his theological depth and clarity.
Dear brother and sisters,
Today, as we continue our journey among the Fathers of the Church who are truly guiding lights that shine forth from the distant past, we encounter a pope, St. Leo the Great, whom Pope Benedict XIV declared a Doctor of the Church in 1754.
As the name that is traditionally given to him indicates, he was truly one of the greatest popes to have graced the See of Rome, greatly contributing toward strengthening its authority and prestige.
He was the first Bishop of Rome to bear the name of Leo, which 12 other sovereign pontiffs subsequently assumed, and he was also the first pope whose sermons were handed down to us, which were addressed to the people who gathered around him during various celebrations.
It is natural to think of him, then, during these Wednesday audiences, a standing appointment that has become during the last few decades the customary way in which the Bishop of Rome is able to meet with the faithful and with many visitors from all over the world.
His Early Life
Leo was a native of Tuscany. He became a deacon in the Church of Rome around the year 430 and, over time, worked his way up to a position of great importance there. Because of his prominent position, Galla Placida, who ruled the Western Empire at the time, sent him to Gaul in 440 to resolve a difficult situation there.
However, in the summer of 440, Pope Sixtus III, whose name is associated with the magnificent mosaics in St. Mary Major, died and the one elected to succeed him was Leo. He received word of his election as he was pursuing his efforts for peace in Gaul.
Returning to Rome, the new Pope was consecrated on Sept. 29, 440. Thus began his pontificate, which lasted more than 21 years and was, without doubt, one of the most important pontificates in the history of the Church.
When he died Nov. 10, 461, he was buried near the tomb of St. Peter. His relics are preserved to this day in one of the altars of the St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.
Encounter With Attila
Pope Leo lived during a difficult period of ongoing barbarian invasions, a progressive weakening of imperial authority in the West, and a lengthy crisis in society that forced the Bishop of Rome to assume a prominent role in civil and political affairs — something that would occur to an even greater degree a century and a half later during the pontificate of Gregory the Great. Obviously, this increased the importance and prestige of the See of Rome.
One particular episode in the life of Leo remains famous to this day.
In 452, Pope Leo, who was in Mantua with a delegation from Rome, met with Attila, the leader of the Huns, and persuaded him not to continue his invasion, which had already devastated the northeastern areas of Italy.
And so he saved the rest of the peninsula.
This important and memorable event remains a symbol of his efforts for peace. Unfortunately, another initiative that occurred three years later was less successful yet is remains a symbol of courage that continues to amaze us even today.
In the spring of 455, Leo was unsuccessful in stopping the Vandals, who had reached the gates to Rome under Genseric, from invading the city, which was defenseless and which they plundered for two weeks. Nevertheless, this gesture by Pope Leo, who met the invader unarmed and surrounded by his clergy in an effort to convince him to stop, prevented the burning of Rome and spared the basilicas of St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s and St. John Lateran, where a part of the population had taken refuge in their terror.
We are familiar with Pope Leo’s work thanks to his beautiful sermons — of which almost a hundred have been preserved, written in clear, splendid Latin — and thanks to his letters, which number about 150.
In these texts, Pope Leo appears to us in all his greatness, dedicated to the service of truth in charity through a tireless exercise of the word that reveals him, at one and the same time, as theologian and pastor.
Leo the Great, who had an ongoing concern for the faithful and for the people of Rome, also had a concern for communion among the various churches and for their needs, so he tirelessly supported and promoted the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, whom he upheld as the true heir of Peter the Apostle.
The many bishops who were gathered at the Council of Chalcedon, most of whom were from the East, were fully aware of this.
This council, which took place in the year 461 with 350 bishops in attendance, was the most important gathering in the history of the Church up to that time.
Chalcedon represented the culmination of the Christology of the three preceding ecumenical councils — the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Council of Constantinople in 381, and the Council of Ephesus in 431.
By the sixth century, these four councils, which had provided a summary of the faith of the early Church, were being compared to the four Gospels. This is what Gregory the Great stated in a famous letter (Letters 1:24) in which he declared that he “welcomed and venerated the four councils, just like the four books of the holy Gospel,” because on these, Gregory explained, “the whole structure of our holy faith has been laid, as on a square stone.”
By rejecting the heresy of Eutyches, which denied the true human nature of the Son of God, the Council of Chalcedon affirmed the union in one Person, without confusion and without separation, of the two natures, human and divine.
The Pope affirmed this faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, in an important doctrinal statement that was sent to the bishop of Constantinople.
When his letter, the so-called Tome to Flavian, was read at Chalcedon, the council fathers who were gathered there welcomed it with an eloquent acclamation, recorded in the acts of the council: “Peter has spoken through the mouth of Leo,” the council fathers exclaimed in unison.
It is clear, above all from this intervention and also from others that were made during the Christological controversy of those years, that Pope Leo experienced in a particularly urgent way his responsibility as Peter’s successor, whose role in the Church is unique because, as Leo stated in one of his sermons on the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, “what was communicated to all the apostles was entrusted to one apostle alone” (Sermons 83:2).
Pope Leo the Great showed that he was capable of exercising this responsibility both in the East and in the West by intervening prudently, firmly and coherently in diverse circumstances, both through his writings and through his legates. In this way, he showed that the primacy of Rome was as necessary then as it is now in order to serve in an effective way the communion that is characteristic of the one and only Church of Christ.
A Shepherd for the People
Conscious of the historical significance of the time in which he was living and of the changes that were taking place as Rome moved from paganism to Christianity in a time of deep crisis, Leo the Great was able to remain close to the people and to the faithful through his pastoral work and his preaching.
He encouraged charitable works in a Rome that was gripped by famine, an influx of refugees, injustice and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the activity of Manichean groups.
He related the liturgy to the daily life of Christians, by uniting, for example, the practice of fasting to charity and almsgiving, especially during the Quattro tempora that marked the changes of seasons during the course of the year.
In a special way Leo the Great taught the faithful — and his words are relevant for us today — that Christian liturgy is not simply a way of remembering past events but of making present invisible realities that have an influence on the life of each and every person.
In one sermon, he emphasizes that Easter is to be celebrated throughout the year “not as something from the past, but rather as an event of the present” (Sermons 64:1-2).
All of this, holy Pope Leo insists, is part of a precise plan: Just as the Creator breathed the breath of rational life into man who was molded from the mud of the earth, so after original sin he sent his Son into the world in order to restore the dignity that mankind had lost and destroy the devil’s reign by means of a new life of grace.
His Legacy Today
This is the Christological mystery to which Leo the Great, in his letter to the Council of Ephesus, made a contribution that was both effective and essential, confirming for all ages — through this council — everything that St. Peter said at Caesarea Philippi.
With Peter and like Peter he confessed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” and therefore God and Man together, “not alien to the human race, but alien to sin” (see Sermons 64).
With the strength of his Christ-centered faith, he was a magnificent bearer of peace and love. He shows us the way: in faith we learn charity.
Let us learn, therefore, like St. Leo the Great, to believe in Christ, true God and true Man, and to make this faith a reality each and every day through our work for peace and through our love for our neighbor.