Feast Day: November 10
Born: 400 in Tuscany, Western Roman Empire
Died: 461 in Rome, Western Roman Empire
Canonized: proclaimed a saint by the early Christians, prior to the institution of the formal canonization process
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Gregory XIII in 1574
Patronage: not a patron saint
FIRST POPE to be called “The Great”
Only three popes throughout the history of the Church have received the honour of being called “Great”: Pope Leo the Great, Pope Gregory the Great (604), and most recently, Pope John Paul the Great (2014). There are specific reasons why each of them received this honorary title. In the case of Pope Leo, it had to do with his theological contributions as well as his courage in saving Rome from impending attacks by barbarians.
Although not much is known about Pope Leo’s earlier years, we do know that by 431, he was a deacon and had earned the respect of many within the Church. He was held in such high esteem that when Pope Sixtus III died on August 11, 440, Leo was unanimously elected by the people (on September 29th) to succeed him as Bishop of Rome.
It was Pope Leo’s devotion to St. Peter – combined with his love for Christ – that fuelled his development of the doctrine of Papal Primacy. Aware of Peter’s leadership role among the original Apostles, Leo reasoned that just as Peter was the leader of the twelve Apostles, so the Bishop of Rome is leader to all the bishops: the head with full authority and all privileges. The authority he exercised as Pope even inspired him to address the Emperor with these words: “Leave to the bishops the liberty of defending the faith; neither worldly power nor terror will ever succeed in destroying it. Protect the Church and seek to preserve its peace, that Christ in His turn may protect your empire.”
Troubled Times – Theologically
But perhaps Leo’s greatest theological contribution is his teaching about the Person of Jesus Christ and His role as Mediator and Saviour. Every era has its challenges, and during the fifth century, a controversy surrounding the nature of Jesus Christ threatened the established order of the Church. The question on the table had to do with trying to understand how there could be both a human and divine nature in the one Divine Person of Christ.
During the Council of Chalcedon (in 451), Pope Leo helped to clearly define the Church’s understanding of the Incarnation along with the twofold natures of Christ. He wrote, “By the act of his incarnation a miraculous action took place in creation whereby the weakness and lowliness of our humanity was taken on by the power and Majesty of God. As a result, we that were once mortal have now become eternal. For the nature of God which cannot be harmed, became united to our human nature, which suffers, so that we might be discharged of Original Sin”. It was said that the bishops at the Council exclaimed, “Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo!”
Through the “Tome of Leo” – a letter from Pope Leo addressed to Archbishop Flavian of Constantinople that served to shed some light on the Christological issues at Chalcedon – we have come to understand that in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God became truly man. In other words, in Jesus, there exists a fully Divine nature along with a fully human nature.
To this day, the Chalcedonian definition has remained the guiding light that helps us understand who Jesus is and how we are saved through Him. In Jesus, we find two natures in one person – what we call the hypostatic union: one person (or subject) acting through two natures or principles of operation. Christ has two wills; Christ has two consciences, and yet, he is one psychological subject. The Son of God who died on a Cross is at the same time the Son of Mary and the One who created the world. It is the union into one person that is the key. St. Leo’s Christology from the Council of Chalcedon has become the touchstone and the context for all future reflections aimed at exploring the meaning of the Incarnation.
Troubled Times – Historically
While Church leaders were busy exploring theological perspectives, back on the home front in Rome in 452, Attila the Hun (the scourge of God) was busy devastating the Northern Provinces of Italy. He had planned to take Rome as well until Pope Leo, “upheld by a sense of his sacred office, set out to meet Attila, accompanied by Avienus, the consul, Trigetius, the governor of the city, and a band of priests.” Whatever was shared between the Pope and Attila remains a secret taken to their graves. All we know for sure is that following their meeting, Attila turned his back on Rome.
Here is a great two-minute clip on Pope Leo the Great that will stretch the beauty of your imagination and enable you to catch a glimpse of his eloquent manner of speech.
– Fr. Jerome Lavigne
Hymn to St. Leo the Great
You were the Church’s instrument
in strengthening the teaching of true doctrine;
you shone forth from the West like a sun dispelling the errors of the heretics.
Righteous Leo, entreat Christ God to grant us His great mercy.
O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,
the enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.
O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!
Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!
Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo,
you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions.
With divinely inspired teachings of the honored Trinity,
you shed the light of the knowledge of God upon your flock.
Therefore, you are glorified as a divine initiate of the grace of God.
1. “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/leo.htm
2. “The Tome of Leo”, http://archive.org/stream/stleosepistle00leouoft/stleosepistle00leouoft_djvu.txt
3. “Lives of Saints”, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc. http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/leo.htm