Pope St. Leo the Great and the War in Ukraine
At the March 25 consecration Pope Francis prayed, ‘Grant that war may end and peace spread throughout the world.’ It’s a bold petition — but it’s one that has been answered miraculously before.
In the almost endless annals of Christian hagiography perhaps no “David vs. Goliath” story is as venerable as that of Pope St. Leo the Great turning back Attila the Hun in 452, and thus preserving the Eternal City from being sacked. (At least temporarily — three years later the Vandals, led by Genseric, did indeed loot the city, but St. Leo was able to do damage-limitation on their plundering, which lasted only two weeks.)
I keep wondering if this model of a high-ranking Church prelate — or more specifically prelates, as Leo was aided by his consul Avinus and Trigetius, the city’s governor — would work against the Russian troops currently assailing beleaguered Ukraine.
First, it would create an incredibly powerful optic: Catholic and Orthodox bishops processing in full regalia, with a crucifix and monstrance, against the Russian Army. It’s hard to imagine even the most battled-hardened soldier being able to mow down such a solemn assembly of churchmen and laity, considering even Attila the Hun couldn’t do it. But, God forbid, if such an atrocity were to occur, the outcry from the public at large would be so great that even Vladimir Putin himself — already under so much scrutiny for this madness — would have to reconsider.
Second, the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Orthodox churches could show, finally, some solidarity not on matters theological, but in trying to repel a completely unjust and unwarranted invasion of their sovereign nation.
Third, even if this united Christian front were to fail, there’s no reason to think that the Ukrainian Church leaders could not lead the way in opening negotiations à la St. Leo in 455, when even this great saint had to assent to a (lesser) assault on Rome.
St. Leo the Great was ultimately a pragmatist in handling the Huns and the Vandals, but it is worth pointing out that he was also very brave. He went out to meet the enemy knowing full well that he would probably be killed. In this sense, perhaps a more pragmatic pope would have fled to safer climes. Leo didn’t stay and fight — he stayed and reasoned with a completely unreasonable group. The fact that he had any success at all is a most remarkable and laudable achievement.
Ironically the Russians themselves have a long, rich and varied Christian history — not for nothing was St. Basil’s Cathedral a finalist in the “New Seven Wonders of The World” run-off, and even the bloodthirsty atheist Joseph Stalin himself, during the darkest days of the Nazi invasion — when it looked like Hitler was going to steamroll his way right into the Kremlin — brought back the Russian Orthodox churches for morale-boosting among his bleeding-in-their-own-front-yards populace. Since most of today’s invading Russian soldiers, if not officers, were born after the fall of atheistic Communism and the reinstatement of the Russian Orthodox Church, to which most Russians belong at least titularly, perhaps a display of not power, not Ukrainian pride, but a plea for Christian peace among neighbors might placate the invaders, at least temporarily.
And since he is a member of the beloved Salesians, whose founder, St. John Bosco, was fond of saying, “Give me souls! Leave the rest to God!” let us invoke Don Bosco and St. Mary Mazzarello to guide Christian shepherds in helping to secure a just peace for all of Ukraine.