Leo the Great 400-461

In 05 Post-Augustinian Fathers on 2011/08/08 at 3:39 PM

Roman-born Leo served in the Church’s diplomatic corps, carrying letters from popes to Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria and others.  In an age imperial weakness Leo would established himself as an outstanding personality in the Western Roman Empire which would collapse in 476, shortly after his death.

During the time of the pope Leo was serving and would succeed, he was sent to Gaul by the Emperor in order to settle an ecclesiastical dispute.  Leo did so with alacrity, his chief aim always being to sustain the unity of the Church.  Not long after becoming Pope, he saw that he needed to energetically combat the heresies which were now threatening church unity in the West. While councils of bishops had spoken clearly against the numerous errors, heresies persisted as heretical emperors convened puppet councils to reach predetermined heretical conclusion.

Prolific teacher and preacher, he wrote many letters and gave numerous homilies on doctrinal matters. His ninety six extant sermons are remarkable for their profundity, clearness of expression and quality of style. They demonstrate his lofty conception of the dignity of his office and his thorough conviction of the primacy of the Bishop of Rome as well as the decisive manner of his activities in the role of supreme pastor. One hundred and forty three of his letters are extant as well as thirty sent to him.

Leo fought the Pelagians and Manichaeans.  Driven out of Africa by the Vandal invasion, the Manicheans had come to Rome and formed a secret community.  Leo would convert a substantial number of them; but it took an imperial decree from a supportive emperor to rid Rome and the provinces  of the diehards. The Eastern bishops soon followed Leoʼs example in handling the Manichaeans.

Disorder in all aspect of life followed the constant ravages of the disruption resulting from the continual ravages of the barbarians. The rules of morality were being seriously violated. Leo saw himself as supreme pastor whose duties included the maintenance of strict ecclesiastical discipline. Having responsibility for the Universal Church both in the East and West, Leo never neglected the domestic interests of the Church at Rome. He insisted on the exact observance of the ecclesiastical precepts and with his tremendous energy applied himself to restore order and morality, fearlessly rebuking offenders.

In those twilight years of a formerly well organized Roman Empire, the language barrier had grown as fewer spoke Latin and less Greek; travel throughout the empire had become exceedingly dangerous. Leo had noted that the world of language lacked sufficient theological terminology. For him the essential word was “person” which  was not a well-defined concept in either Greek or Latin.  Neither language had an adequate word for person or individual; the terminological references were all communal referring to tribe or clan.  Therefore, Leo would stress the centrality of the Person of Christ whenever His nature was under discussion.

The importance, magnitude and problems involved in clarification called for a superb theological mind. But, Athanasius, Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine and Jerome were dead. Cyril of Alexandria alone was holding down the theological fort and would die around the time Leo became pope.  The Council of Nicaea in 325 established that Christ is God. The Council of Ephesus in 431, that Mary is Mother of God.  Now the question to be answered was what was the truth about the two natures of Christ which hand remained insufficiently clarified.  The Church needed a definitive answer to this difficult theological question of fundamental importance to Christianity.  And Leo was the man to see that the question was answered.

An Eastern priest called Eutyches led the Monosphysites, a heretical group that distorted the teaching of the Incarnation, maintaining that there was only one instead of two natures in Christ.  When the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated him, Eutyches appealed to Pope Leo. Leo investigated the disputed question  and sent a powerful and sublimely written letter to the Patriarch.  This magnificent theological work is known as the TOME.  In it he confirmed the doctrine of the Incarnation and the union of the Divine and human natures in the one Person of Christ.

At the request of Leo, Emperor Theodosius II convened a general council in order to restore peace to the Church. The Council of Chalcedon solemnly accepted Leo’s dogmatic letter to the Patriarch as the expression of the Catholic Faith concerning the Person of Christ.  At this council, the Creed of Nicaea was read as well as statements from the Council of Constantinople, and so were some epistles of Cyril, ending with Leoʼs Tome being read in full.

The Tome stated clearly the traditional doctrine of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ: that Jesus Christ is one person with two distinct natures, divine and  human.  That he is One and the same Christ, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.  After discussion, at another session of the council, a confession of faith was drawn up in which the bishops stated: “This is the Faith of the Fathers.  this is the Faith of the Apostles.  We all believe thus; the orthodox believe thus; anathema to him who does not believe thus. Peter has spoken through Leo; the Apostle taught thus.  We are for no other definition.  Nothing is wanting in this.”  The council then referred to Leo as  “the very one commissioned with the guardianship of the Vine by the Savior.” When the people heard the decisions, they cried out:  “Peter has spoken through Leo!”

While these theological issues were being dealt with, the Roman Empire as a whole was imperilled, plagued by barbarians.  Pannonia (Hungary) fell to the Huns; Goths occupying Gaul and Northern Spain; the Suevi were in Portugal; Vandals had left Southern Spain for North Africa and had captured Carthage.  A disturbed imperial princess  had sent Attila a ring  which he interpreted as a marriage offer giving him claim to half of the Roman Empire. A massive invasion of Huns headed by Attila had previously crossed the Danube, sieged and conquered much of Byzantium. Emperor Marcian prevented their taking Constantinople by pushing them westward.

Leo moral authority manifested itself even in temporal affairs. In 452 Attila and his Huns were poised to take Rome. Pope Leo himself went out to meet Attila. No one knows that they said to each other but when their talk was over Attila turned his army around and rode off, never to return.  Later, in 455 when Rome was captured by the Vandals, Leo obtained from them a promise that they would not destroy the city or harm the citizens.  However, the malicious Vandals did loot, taking sacred vessels and the great seven branched candlestick Emperor Titus had taken from the Temple at Jerusalem when it was destroyed 400 years before.  Barbarous as were the invaders, Leo also clearly saw them as  souls to be saved.

Leo’s pontificate is considered one of the most significant and important in Christian antiquity. In the days when the Western portion of the Roman Empire was disintegrating and the Eastern portion was splintered by dogmatic controversies  Leo the Great guided the Church for twenty one years.  When Leo and the Emperor died in 461, the Western  Western Roman Empire had just fifteen years to live.


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