St. Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor, Pray For the Church

Through the intercession of Pope St. Leo, we pray that the Church stands firm in God’s truth and knows the protection of lasting peace.

Francisco Herrera the Younger (1627-1685), “Pope St. Leo I”
Francisco Herrera the Younger (1627-1685), “Pope St. Leo I” (photo: Federico Pérez / Public Domain)

There are a lot of problems with the postmodern age. Notably, I think we occupants of postmodernity can never truly decide how angry we should be. We are told that tolerance is the primary virtue, but of course, this only applies to those who kowtow to the whims of the cultural elite and their morality police. Should anyone deviate, they are promptly told to sit down and shut up. A clear recent example of this vitriol would be the contempt heaped upon J.K. Rowling for her utterly uncontroversial statements that biological women should not be supplanted by biological men claiming to be women. In the face of such bigotry and privilege, as declared by the current determinants of social virtue, tolerance is abandoned for blind rage.

And in this increasingly isolating epoch, we flee from true connection and community, buying into the myth that we are better off without the social ties and family ties that might constrain our freedom or challenge our worldview through personal engagement. Instead, we hide behind our screens, sniping one-off political barbs online and retweeting and resharing in our various echo chambers.

It’s enough to tempt any man or woman of goodwill to despair, but this too we must not do. Catholics are called to be joyful, to hope, to march steadfastly onwards to heaven, bringing as many fellow pilgrims with us as we can. But how do we do this? How do we sow peace when speaking truth only invites rage? How do we defend our faith when even the basic precepts (man is man, woman is woman, marriage is for a man and a woman, life is precious) that were universally honored for millennia are now under assault?

St. Leo the Great, elected to the papacy in 440, knew the answer, and it was simple. He loved Christ above all, and as a result, he stopped at nothing to defend Christ’s Bride, both her teachings and her people. A skilled administrator and diplomat, Pope Leo is perhaps most famous for saving Rome from the assault of Attila the Hun. But his papal reign was truly characterized by his tireless fight against the heresies that threatened the Church. Today, we are blessed to have hundreds of his writings still known to us.

Pope Leo’s sermons and letters, and especially his letter concerning the nature of Jesus Christ as both fully human and fully divine, reveal a man who loved Christ utterly, and who gave no thought to the criticisms of this world. He desired peace, but he understood his duty was to protect the people of the Church and the mission of Christ to bring others to the Truth.

In a Christmas Mass sermon, Pope Leo wrote:

For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is he come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life …

When God became man to dwell among us, he did so so that by his death and resurrection the gates of heaven would be flung open to all. His mercy could be accessed by all. Today we hear often that the Church must adopt a “pastoral approach” when faced with the incoherent ideologies of our society. Pope Leo would agree, but he would doubtless add that pastoral approaches and undiluted truths are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, the former entirely depends on the latter. He comprehended that diluted, weakened theology, offered in the name of tolerance or driven by a false sense of compassion, would only harm the beloved children of God whose immortal souls had been entrusted to him. True peace can only come by boldly proclaiming the truth in love.

When we are tempted by the irascible temper within us to fly into a rage at those who disagree with us, or conversely to bite our tongue in the face of moral evil, lest we appear too divisive, we must look to the example of St. Leo the Great and call upon his intercession. His life was so rooted in Christ that he could not help but proclaim the Gospel and do so fearlessly. He never sought division, but he never shied away from it if it was the consequence of defending the Church’s teachings, and thus allowing the full truth to permeate more hearts. Like all wise and holy saints, he understood that life is very short, and eternity is very long. He lived his life and led Christ’s Church accordingly.

St. Leo the Great, pray for us!