February 18, 2015

Saint Leo I, Pope of Rome

St. Leo of Rome (Feast Day - February 18)

By Hieromonk Makarios of Simonopetra

In the days when the Church of the West was part of the indivisible Church, the Pope of Rome, as bishop of the old imperial city and Patriarch of the West, enjoyed a particular preeminence and was regarded by all Christians as the prime guardian of the apostolic tradition and umpire in matters of dogma. Saint Leo occupied the see of Rome during one of the most critical periods of history, which saw the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West and the Church threatened on all sides by heretics. He proclaimed the wholesome doctrine of the Truth and did his utmost to preserve the unity of the holy Church, for which he is justly venerated in both East and West as Saint Leo the Great.

Saint Leo was born in Rome into a noble family of Tuscan origin. He entered the clergy in his youth and rose to become archdeacon of the Roman Church, which led him to take a close interest in all Church matters, as well as in the doctrinal controversies of the time. He was on a mission to Gaul when he received word of the death of Pope Celestine, and of the people's unanimous choice of himself to succeed him. At his enthronement in September 440, and on every anniversary of it, he would bear witness in his sermons to his fear at the responsibility he bore, and to his reliance at the helm of the Church on divine grace alone.

He was indeed faced with a heavy task. The Empire, threatened by barbarians, was undermined by moral corruption and torn apart by heresies, leaving the people of God straying and in ignorance. Skillfully joining strictness to compassion, Saint Leo began by reforming the clergy, and re-establishing good order in the Churches of Africa and Sicily in the aftermath of the Vandal invasions. He confirmed the authority of the Metropolitan of Thessalonica over the Church of Illyricum, which depended on Rome at that time, and he restored respect for bishops in the Church of Gaul. He penetrated and revealed the designs of the Manichean heretics. By his blameless life, his care for the order of divine service and the sober eloquence of his homilies, he gave an example of a good shepherd to the bishops and priests. At the great feasts, he would expound the mysteries of the Faith for the edification of the people, and exhort them to live in accordance with the precepts of the Gospel.

Above and beyond his pastoral labors, Saint Leo is rightly honored by the Church for his contribution in the domain of dogma. Upon the condemnation of Saint Flavian (Feb. 16) at the false Synod of Ephesus - the "Robber Synod" as Saint Leo himself named it - he lost no time condemning its proceedings and in summoning a synod of Western bishops to annul its decrees and to reaffirm the true faith concerning the Person of Christ. Even before the Robber Synod, Saint Leo addressed a wonderful letter to Saint Flavian in which, having set forth the faith of the Church in the divinity of Christ with great clarity, he went on to say:

Without detriment therefore to the properties of either nature and substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt belonging to our condition inviolable nature was united with possible nature, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and not die with the other. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And by "ours" we mean what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For what the Deceiver brought in and man deceived committed, had no trace in the Savior. Nor, because He partook of man's weaknesses, did He therefore share our faults. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human and not diminishing the divine: because that emptying of Himself whereby the Invisible made Himself visible and, Creator and Lord of all things though He be, wished to be a mortal, was the bending down of pity, not the failing of power... There enters then these lower parts of the world the Son of God, descending from His heavenly home and yet not quitting His Father's glory, begotten in a new order by a new nativity... The same Person is thus at once true God and true man; and this unity is genuine, for it comprises the humanity of man and the majesty of God... The Catholic Church lives and progresses by this faith, so that in Christ Jesus neither the manhood without the true Godhead nor the Godhead without the true manhood is believed in. (Letter XXVIII to Flavian)

It is said that Saint Leo composed this letter under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit after many days of fasting, vigil and prayer and that he then placed it on the tomb of Saint Peter, entreating the Prince of the Apostles to amend any error that might have crept in through human weakness. After forty days, the holy Apostle appeared to him at prayer and said: "I have read and I have corrected." On opening the letter, Saint Leo did indeed find Saint Peter's handwritten corrections. This letter, which his legates brought to the Synod of Ephesus, was put aside unread by the heretics. However, when the pious Emperor Marcian and Saint Pulcheria convoked the Ecumenical Synod of Chalcedon (451), it was solemnly read in the presence of all the Fathers, who welcomed it, exclaiming with one voice: "This is the faith of the Apostles; this is the faith of the Fathers. Peter has spoken by the mouth of Leo!"

While these great events were taking place in the East, the West was being ravaged by Attila the Hun and his hordes. After sowing death and destruction through Germany and Gaul, they crossed the Alps, ravaged the region of Milan and went on to threaten Rome. The Emperor, Senate and distraught people implored the Pope to entreat for peace with the barbarian tyrant, before whom the world trembled. Wearing his episcopal vestments, the holy bishop, at the head of a great procession of priests and deacons chanting canticles, presented himself before Attila. To everyone's amazement, the "Scourge of God" showed a timid respect, and agreed to depart in return for an annual tribute. When his soldiers asked him to explain his unusual clemency, Attila replied that at the Pope's side he had seen the Apostle Peter holding a sword and looking at him threateningly.

Rome was thus spared by a miracle, but not for long, since the unthankful people immediately forgot the divine blessing and, led by the Emperor, returned to their usual debauchery. And so the Lord, no longer restraining his anger against the proud city, allowed the Vandals under Genseric to seize and pillage Rome in 455. The Pope once again accosted the invader, who undertook to spare the lives of the people of the city and its buildings. They were satisfied with carrying off vast spoils and a large proportion of the population, both of the nobility and of the common people. As soon as there was calm, Saint Leo was occupied in consoling the survivors, restoring the devastated churches and establishing anew, as far as he was able, Christian life in the once-glorious city. He succeeded in sending priests and alms for the support of those deported to Africa.

The remainder of his life was occupied by pastoral labors and the maintenance of the Chalcedonian faith, threatened by the Monophysites especially in the Church of Alexandria. He gave up his soul to God in 461 after an episcopate of twenty-one years.

From The Synaxarion: The Lives of the Saints of the Orthodox Church, Vol. 3, compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra and translated from the French by Christopher Hookway (Chalkidike, Greece: Holy Convent of the Annunciation of Our Lady, 2001) pp. 548-551.