Pope Leo I or Pope Saint Leo the Great (ca. 400 – November 10, 461) was pope from September 29, 440 to his death.
He was an Italian aristocrat, and is the first pope of the Catholic Church to have been called "the Great". He is perhaps best known for having met Attila the Hun in 452, persuading him to turn back from his invasion of Italy. He is also a doctor of the Church.
According to the Liber Pontificalis, he was a native of Tuscany. By 431, as a deacon, he occupied a sufficiently important position for Cyril of Alexandria to apply to him in order that Rome's influence should be thrown against the claims of Juvenal of Jerusalem to patriarchal jurisdiction over Palestine—unless this letter is addressed rather to Pope Celestine I. About the same time John Cassian dedicated to him the treatise against Nestorius written at his request. But nothing shows more plainly the confidence felt in him than his being chosen by the emperor to settle the dispute between Aëtius and Albinus, the two highest officials in Gaul.
During his absence on this mission, Pope Sixtus III died (August 11, 440), and Leo was unanimously elected by the people to succeed him. On September 29 he entered upon a pontificate which was to be epoch-making for the centralization of the government of the Roman Church.
Leo was a significant contributor to the centralisation of spiritual authority within the Church and in reaffirming papal authority. While the bishop of Rome had always been viewed as the chief patriarch in the Western church, much of the pope's authority was delegated to local diocesan bishops. Not without serious opposition did he succeed in reasserting his authority in Gaul. Patroclus of Arles (d. 426) had received from Pope Zosimus the recognition of a subordinate primacy over the Gallican Church which was strongly asserted by his successor Hilary of Arles. An appeal from Celidonius of Besançon gave Leo the opportunity to reassert the pope's authority over Hilary, who defended himself stoutly at Rome, refusing to recognize Leo's judicial status. Feeling that the universal jurisdiction of the papacy was threatened, Leo appealed to the civil power for support, and obtained from Valentinian III the famous decree of June 6, 445, which recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome based on the merits of Peter, the dignity of the city, and the Nicene Creed (in their interpolated form); ordained that any opposition to his rulings, which were to have the force of ecclesiastical law, should be treated as treason; and provided for the forcible extradition by provincial governors of anyone who refused to answer a summons to Rome. Faced with this decree, Hilary submitted to the pope, although under his successor, Ravennius, Leo divided the metropolitan rights between Arles and Vienne (450).
In 445, Leo disputed with Pope Dioscorus, St. Cyril's successor as Pope of Alexandria, insisting that the ecclesiastical practice of his see should follow that of Rome on the basis that Mark the Evangelist, the disciple of Saint Peter and founder of the Alexandrian Church, could have had no other tradition than that of the prince of the apostles. This, of course, was not the position of the Copts, who saw the ancient patriarchates as equals.
Regarding Africa, the fact that the African province of Mauretania Caesariensis had been preserved to the empire and thus to the Nicene faith during the Vandal invasion, and in its isolation was disposed to rest on outside support, gave Leo an opportunity to assert his authority there, which he did decisively in regard to a number of questions of discipline.
Regarding Italy, in a letter to the bishops of Campania, Picenum, and Tuscany (443) he required the observance of all his precepts and those of his predecessors; and he sharply rebuked the bishops of Sicily (447) for their deviation from the Roman custom as to the time of baptism, requiring them to send delegates to the Roman synod to learn the proper practice.
Regarding Greece, because of the earlier line of division between the western and eastern parts of the Roman Empire, Illyria was ecclesiastically subject to Rome. Pope Innocent I had constituted the metropolitan of Thessalonica his vicar, in order to oppose the growing influence of the patriarch of Constantinople in the area. In a letter of about 446 to a successor bishop of Thessalonica, Anastasius, Leo reproached him for the way he had treated one of the metropolitan bishops subject to him; after giving various instructions about the functions entrusted to Anastasius and stressing that certain powers were reserved to the pope himself, Leo wrote: "The care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter's one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head."
Council of Chalcedon
A favorable occasion for extending the authority of Rome in the East was offered in the renewal of the Christological controversy by Eutyches, who in the beginning of the conflict appealed to Leo and took refuge with him on his condemnation by Flavian. But on receiving full information from Flavian, Leo took his side decisively. In 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, after Leo's Tome on the two natures of Christ was read out, the bishops participating in the Council cried out: "This is the faith of the fathers ... Peter has spoken thus through Leo ..."
An uncompromising foe of heresy, Leo found that in the diocese of Aquileia, Pelagians were received into church communion without formal repudiation of their errors; he wrote to rebuke them, making accusations of culpable negligence, and required a solemn abjuration before a synod.
Manicheans fleeing before the Vandals had come to Rome in 439 and secretly organized there; Leo learned of this around 443, and proceeded against them by holding a public debate with their representatives, burning their books, and warning the Roman Christians against them.
Nor was his attitude less decided against the Priscillianists. Bishop Turrubius of Astorga, astonished at the spread of this sect in Spain, had addressed the other Spanish bishops on the subject, sending a copy of his letter to Leo, who took the opportunity to exercise Roman policy in Spain. He wrote an extended treatise (July 21, 447), against the sect, examining its false teaching in detail, and calling for a Spanish general council to investigate whether it had any adherents in the episcopate, but this was prevented by the political circumstances of Spain.
At the Second Council of Ephesus, Leo's representatives delivered his famous Tome (Latin text, a letter), or statement of the faith of the Roman Church in the form of a letter addressed to Archbishop Flavian of Constantinople, which repeats, in close adherence to Augustine, the formulas of western Christology, without really touching the problem that was agitating the East. The council did not read the letter, and paid no attention to the protests of Leo's legates, but deposed Flavian and Eusebius, who appealed to Rome.
It was presented again at the subsequent Council of Chalcedon as offering a solution to the Christological controversies still raging between East and West. This time it was read out. The bishops responded by saying "Peter has spoken," and most of them accepted the Tome as broadly following the teaching of Cyril of Alexandria. See the canons of the Council itself for this (10 October session).
Leo demanded of the emperor that an ecumenical council should be held in Italy, and in the meantime, at a Roman synod in October 449, repudiated all the decisions of the "Robber Synod". Without going into a critical examination of its dogmatic decrees, in his letters to the emperor and others he demanded the deposition of Eutyches as a Manichean and Docetic heretic.
With the death of Theodosius II in 450 and the sudden change in the Eastern situation, Anatolius, the new patriarch of Constantinople fulfilled Leo's requirements, and his Tome was everywhere read and recognized.
Leo was now no longer desirous of having a council, especially since it was not to be held in Italy. Instead, it was called to meet at Nicaea, then subsequently transferred to Chalcedon, where his legates held at least an honorary presidency, and where the bishops recognized him as the interpreter of the voice of Peter and as the head of their body, requesting of him the confirmation of their decrees.
He firmly declined to confirm their disciplinary arrangements, which seemed to allow Constantinople a practically equal authority with Rome and regarded the civil importance of a city as a determining factor in its ecclesiastical position; but he strongly supported its dogmatic decrees, especially when, after the accession of Leo I the Thracian (457), there seemed to be a disposition toward compromise with the Eutychians.
He succeeded in having an imperial patriarch, and not the Oriental Orthodox Pope Timotheus Aelurus, chosen as Coptic Orthodox Pope of Alexandria on the murder of Greek Patriarch Proterius of Alexandria.
Raphael's The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila depicts Leo, escorted by Saint Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside RomeThe approaching collapse of the Western Empire gave Leo a further opportunity to appear as the representative of lawful authority.
In 452, when the King of the Huns, Attila, invaded Italy and threatened Rome, Emperor Valentinian III sent three envoys to negotiate with him: the two high civil officers Gennadius Avienus and Trigetius, and Leo. The negotiation was successful, and Attila withdrew. The reasons for this choice have been debated among historians for centuries. Pragmatic concerns such as the large sum of gold that accompanied Leo, or logistical and strategic concerns, may have been the true reason for Attila's mercy. Attila's army was already quite stretched and full of booty from plunder; as such the Pope's plea for mercy may well have merely served as an honorable excuse for not continuing on and sacking the Roman capital.
However, Christian historians celebrated Leo's actions, giving him all the credit for this successful embassy; according to Prosper of Aquitaine, in fact, Attila was so impressed by Leo that he withdrew.Jordanes, who represents Leo's contemporary Priscus, says that Attila was afraid of sharing the fate of the Visigothic king Alaric, who died shortly after sacking Rome in 410. Paul the Deacon, in the late 8th century, relates that an enormously huge man dressed in priestly robes and armed with a naked sword, visible only to Attila, threatened him and his army with death during his discourse with Leo, and this prompted Attila to submit to his request. Unfortunately Leo's intercession could not prevent the sack of the city by the Vandals in 455, but murder and arson were repressed by his influence. He died probably on November 10, 461.
The significance of Leo's pontificate lies in the fact of his assertion of the universal jurisdiction of the Roman bishop, which comes out in his letters, and still more in his ninety-six extant orations. This assertion is commonly referred to as the doctrine of Petrine supremacy.
According to him and several Church Fathers, as well as certain interpretations of the Scriptures, the Church is built upon Peter, in pursuance of the promise of Matthew 16:16-19. Peter participates in everything which is Christ's; what the other apostles have in common with him they have through him. What is true of Peter is true also of his successors. Every other bishop is charged with the care of his own special flock, the Roman with that of the whole Church. Other bishops are only his assistants in this great task. In Leo's eyes the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon acquired their validity from his confirmation.
Leo's letters and sermons reflect the many aspects of his career and personality, including his great personal influence for good, and are invaluable historical sources. His rhythmic prose style, called cursus leonicus, influenced ecclesiastical language for centuries.
The Catholic Church and many Anglican churches mark November 10 as the feast day of Saint Leo, given in the Martyrologium Hieronymianum and the 8th-century Calendar of Saint Willibrord the date of his death and entry to heaven. His feast was once celebrated in Rome on June 28, the anniversary of the placing of his relics in Saint Peter's Basilica, but in the 12th century the Gallican Rite feast of April 11 was admitted to the General Roman Calendar, which kept that date until 1969. Some traditionalist Catholics continue to observe pre-1970 versions of that calendar.
The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Saint Leo on February 18.
Leo was originally buried in his own monument. However, some years after his death, his remains were put into a tomb that contained the first four Pope Leos. In the 18th century Leo the Great's relics were separated from those of the other Leos and he was given his own chapel.
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