St Leo the Great
For all the Saints: Leo the Great
It was a bad time for the Roman Empire. Attila the Hun and his armies had devastated Northern Italy by early 452. The Bishop of Rome went to meet him, garbed in his Episcopal vestments. This gesture was guaranteed no success; the Bishop pleaded with Attila to spare Italy from destruction. Attila met with Leo, Consul Avienus and Prefect Trigetius at Mincio. Surprisingly, Attila withdrew and negotiated a peace with the Emperor.
In 455 the Vandals threatened Rome and, once again, Bishop Leo met with their leader Genseric and gained a promise that the city and its inhabitants would be spared. In those waning years of Empire the moral authority of the Roman bishop had grown so great that such concessions could be won.
We don’t know specifically where or when Leo was born, but we know that he was born to Christian parents in Italy. He was Archdeacon under Bishop Sixtus III of Rome, and against his will was elevated to the bishopric upon Sixtus’s death. He served from 440-461.
Leo was as active in developing spirituality as in social ministry. We have ninety-six of his sermons marked by depth, style, clarity, and compassion.
Leo was active at the Council of Chalcedon (450), one of the seven major ecumenical councils of the early church. In fact, the tome of Leo was the basis for the council’s position on the person of Christ. His careful wording of positions was instrumental in all the deliberations of the Council.
Leo died 10 November 461 and is buried in the vestibule of St. Peter’s at the Vatican. The West commemorates him on 11 April and the East on 18 February. Many other Popes since him have been named Leo, but he is “the Great” for his contributions to church and society.
Leo knew that Christian faith is nothing if not contemporary. It is companionship with God through Christ. “Everything that Christ did and taught for the reconciliation of the world we know not only as the historical account of things now past, but we also experience them in the power of the works that are present.” He points us to the Presence of God in creation and in the sacraments. As he proclaims in his Lenten sermons, Evil is ultimately bound and Good has been unleashed on the earth, and we may live in that Light.