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Saint Leo the Great

Pope Leo I, Father & Doctor of the Church - from Italy
Born c 400 in Tuscany; died on 10 November 461 in Rome
Blessed John XXIII wrote his encyclical Aeterna Dei Sapientia in commemoration of the 1500th anniversary of St Leo's death
Feast Day - 10th November

Catechesis by Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience, Wednesday 5 March 2008 - also in Croatian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our pathway through the Fathers of the Church, true stars that shine from afar, in our meeting today we approach the figure of a Pope who, in 1754, was proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Benedict XIV: it is St Leo the Great. As the epithet soon attributed to him by tradition indicates, he was truly one of the greatest Pontiffs to have honoured the Roman See, contributing greatly to strengthening its authority and prestige. The first Bishop of Rome to bear the name of Leo, adopted thereafter by twelve other Supreme Pontiffs, he is also the first Pope whose preaching has reached us, addressed by him to the people who gathered around him during the celebrations. It is natural/spontaneous to think of him also in the context of the current Wednesday general audiences, appointments that in recent decades have become for the Bishop of Rome a customary form of meeting with the faithful and with the many visitors who come from every part of the world.

Leo was originally from Tuscia. He became a deacon of the Church of Rome in around the year 430 and, over time, acquired a position of great importance in it. In 440 this prominent role led Galla Placidia, who at that time ruled the Western Empire, to send him to Gaul to resolve a difficult situation. But in the summer of that year Pope Sixtus III - whose name is linked to the magnificent mosaics of Santa Maria Maggiore/St Mary Major - died, and it was precisely Leo who was elected to succeed him, receiving the news while he was carrying out his peace mission in Gaul. On his return to Rome, the new Pope was consecrated on 29 September 440. Thus began his pontificate, which lasted over 21 years, and which was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church's history. On his death, on 10th November 461, the Pope was buried near the tomb of St Peter. His relics are still today preserved in one of the altars of the Vatican Basilica.

The times in which Pope Leo lived were very difficult: the repetition of barbarian invasions, the progressive weakening of imperial authority in the West and a long social crisis had imposed on the Bishop of Rome - as was to happen in an even greater way/with even greater evidence a century and a half later, during the pontificate of Gregory the Great - to assume an important role both in civil and political events. This, obviously, did not fail to increase the importance and prestige of the Roman See. One episode in Leo's life has above all remained famous. It dates back to 452, when the Pope, together with a Roman delegation, met Attila, chief of the Huns, in Mantua and dissuaded him from continuing the war of invasion with which he had already devastated the northeastern regions of Italy. And thus he saved the rest of the Peninsula. This important event quickly became memorable, and remains an emblematic sign of the action for peace carried out by the Pontiff. Three years later,
the outcome of another papal initiative, a sign of a courage that still amazes us, was unfortunately not so positive: in the spring of 455 Leo did not manage to prevent the Vandals of Genseric, who had reached the gates of Rome, from invading the defenseless city, which was sacked for two weeks. However, the gesture of the Pope - who, without defence and surrounded only by his clergy, went to meet the invader to implore him to stop - at least prevented Rome from being set on fire and obtained that the terrible sack spared the Basilicas of St Peter, of St Paul and of St John, in which part of the terrified population took refuge.

We know the work of Pope Leo well, thanks to his very beautiful sermons - almost a hundred of them are preserved in a splendid and clear Latin - and thanks to his letters, about 150 of them. In these texts the Pontiff appears in all his greatness, turned towards the service of truth in charity, through an assiduous exercise of the word, which shows him as both theologian and pastor. Leo the Great, constantly solicitous of/to his faithful and the people of Rome, but also of/to communion between the different Churches and of/to their needs, was a tireless supporter and promoter of the Roman primacy, presenting himself as (the) authentic heir of the apostle Peter: of this the numerous Bishops,
the majority from the East, gathered at the Council of Chalcedon, showed themselves to be well aware.

Held in the year 451, with the participation of 350 Bishops, this Council was the most important assembly celebrated up until then in the history of the Church. Chalcedon represents the sure goal of the Christology of the three previous ecumenical Councils: that of Nicaea in 325, that of Constantinople in 381 and that of Ephesus in 431. In VI century these four Councils, which summarize the faith of the ancient Church, were in fact already compared to the four Gospels: this is what Gregory the Great affirms in a famous letter (I, 24), in which he declares: "to welcome and venerate, like the four books of the holy Gospel, the four Councils", because on them - explains Gregory (further) - "as on a square stone, rises the structure of the holy faith". The Council of Chalcedon - in rejecting the heresy of Eutyches, who denied the true human nature of the Son of God - affirmed the union in his one Person, without confusion and without separation, of the two natures, human and divine.

This faith in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, was affirmed by the Pope in an important doctrinal text addressed to the Bishop of Constantinople, entitled Tome to Flavian, which, read at Chalcedon, was welcomed by the Bishops present with an eloquent acclamation, the description of which is preserved in the acts of the Council: "Peter spoke through the mouth of Leo", exclaimed the conciliar Fathers with one voice. It is above all from this intervention, and from others carried out during the Christological controversy of those years, that it is evident that the Pope felt with particular urgency the responsibilities of the Successor of Peter, whose role is unique in the Church, because "to one Apostle alone is entrusted that which is communicated to all the apostles", as Leo affirms in one of his sermons for the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (83, 2). And the Pontiff knew how to exercise these responsibilities, in the West as in the East, intervening in various circumstances with prudence, firmness and lucidity through his writings and through his legates. He showed in this way that/how the exercise of the Roman Primacy was necessary then, as it is today, so as
efficaciously to serve (the) communion, (the) characteristic of the one Church of Christ.

Conscious of the historical moment in which he lived and of the passage that was taking place - in a period of profound crisis -
from pagan to Christian Rome, Leo the Great knew how to be close to the people and the faithful through pastoral action and preaching. He animated charity in a Rome tried by famines, by the influx of refugees, by injustice and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the actions of Manichaean groups. He linked the liturgy to the daily life of Christians: for example, by uniting the practice of fasting with charity and almsgiving above all on the occasion of the Quattro tempora, which mark the change of the seasons during the year. In particular Leo the Great taught his faithful - and still today his words remain valid for us - that the Christian liturgy is not the memory of past events, but the actualization of invisible realities which act in the life of each person. This is what he underlines in a sermon (64, 1-2) about Easter, to be celebrated in every time of the year "not so much as something of the past, but rather as an event of the present". All this fits into a precise project, the Holy Pontiff insists: just as, in fact, the Creator animated man, molded from the mud of the earth, with the breath of rational life, so, after original sin, he sent his Son into the world so as to restore to man the lost dignity and (so as) to destroy the dominion of the devil through the new life of grace.

This is the Christological mystery to which St Leo the Great, with his letter to the Council of Chalcedon, made an efficacious/effective and essential contribution, confirming for all times - through this Council - what St Peter said at Caesarea Philippi. With Peter and as Peter confessed: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God". And therefore God and Man together, "not extraneous to the human race, but alien to sin" (cf Serm 64). Through the strength/force of this Christological faith he was a great bearer of peace and love. Thus he shows us the way: in faith we learn charity. Let us therefore learn with St Leo the Great to believe in Christ, true God and true Man, and to realise this faith every day in the action for peace and in the love for neighbour."

St Leo the Great - Reading from his sermons:

Although the Church is ordered in various ranks so that the whole is made up of different members, yet (as Paul says) we are all one in Christ. Office does not constitute between members a division such that the insignificance of any part affects its union with the head. And so we say that in the unity of our faith and baptism we enjoy an undivided fellowship and a dignity common to us all; which the most blessed apostle Peter expressed in his inspired words: 'Like living stones be yourselves built up into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.' And father on he says: 'You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people.'

In baptism the sign of the cross makes kings of all who are reborn in Christ, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit consecrates them priests. So, apart from the particular obligations of our ministry, any Christian who has the gifts of rational and of spiritual understanding knows he is a member of a kingly race and shares in the priestly office. For what could be more royal than a soul which by subjecting itself to God becomes ruler of its own body? Or what more priestly when it consecrates a pure conscience to God and offers on the altar of its heart the spotless sacrifice of its devotion? By the grace of God his is common to all. But it is also a gracious and a religious thing in you that on the day of my consecration you rejoice as for an honour that is your own. Thus the one sacrament which confers the high priesthood is celebrated in the whole body of the Church. When the oil of consecration is poured, the grace flows more abundantly over the higher orders indeed, but it flows unsparingly too over the lower.

Therefore, my dear brethren, if we have cause for rejoicing together at the fact that we share this spiritual gift, we shall have a much better and more exact cause to be joyful if we do not dwell on our own lowliness but rather turn our mind to contemplate the glory of the blessed apostle Peter. This will be much more appropriate, and more profitable to us, for then we shall be celebrating this feast in honour of the one who was so flooded with grace from the very fount of all grace that whereas he had so many gifts which he alone received, no one had any that did not pass through his hands. When the Word made flesh was living among us, Christ had already devoted himself entirely to the redemption of mankind.

Fresco (painted in 1514) in the Vatican - Stanza di Eliodoro, Palazzi Pontifici. Completed after the death of Julius II, during the pontificate of his successor Leo X. In fact the latter appears twice in the same scene, portrayed in the guise of Pope Leo the Great and as cardinal. According to legend, the miraculous apparition of Saints Peter and Paul armed with swords during the meeting between Pope Leo the Great and Attila (452 AD) caused the king of the Huns to desist from invading Italy and marching on Rome.