St. Leo the Great
Doctor of the Church
Today, Nov. 10, is the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great, one of the 33 Doctors of the Church. St. Leo is known as the Doctor of Doctrines and the Doctor of the Unity of the Church.
This is part of our series Doctors of the Church.
St. Leo was born in Italy circa 400 AD. He reigned as Pope and Bishop of Rome from 440 AD until his death in 461 AD.
Not only is St. Leo the first pope to be called “the Great”, but he is one of just two popes to also be called a “Doctor of the Church”. The other is Pope St. Gregory the Great (feast: Sept. 3).
St. Leo the Great was given to the Church by God at a time when things seemed bleak:
- Heresy was rampant;
- the Huns and Germanic tribes were destroying the vestiges of the Roman Empire;
- challenges to the primacy of the Bishop of Rome were coming from the Eastern half of the Empire.
St. Leo not only withstood all of these challenges, but he:
- systematically refuted the heresies;
- turned back Attila the Hun and saved Rome;
- and steadfastly asserted the primacy of the Papacy, strengthening the organization of the worldwide Church.
Although there were several heresies rampant during his reign (for example, Manichaeism, Pelagianism, Priscillianism), St. Leo the Great is best know for resolving the the theological divisions concerning the natures of Jesus Christ.
- Nestorianism held that in Jesus Christ there were two persons, one human and one divine. In fact, Nestorians admitted that the Blessed Virgin Mary was the mother of the human Jesus; but they refused to admit that she was also Theotokos, the Mother of God.
- Jesus Christ is a hypostatic union, in which the divine and human natures are united in a single person.
- In reaction to Nestorianism, Monophysites began to teach that there was just one nature and one person (“mono” = one).
Pope St. Leo set the record straight, writing a letter to the Bishop of Constantinople confirming the doctrines of the Incarnation and the hypostatic union. In fact, he called for the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) to assert the orthodoxy of the doctrines.
At the Council of Chalcedon, the Eastern bishops tried to elevate the See of Constantinople above to second in importance below Rome. Pope St. Leo declared that particular provision null and void, thus asserting the primacy of the Bishop of Rome over the other bishops.
One of the most famous stories concerning Pope St. Leo the Great also involves the most feared person in the world at the time: Attila the Hun, also known as the Scourge of God.
Attila rampaged through Europe and ravaged it. Along the way, he managed to marry Honoria, the sister of the Emperor Valentinian. Through this, he claimed half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry.
Valentinian felt that the marriage was forced, and refused to acknowledge the dowry. Attila invaded to claim what he said was his. His armed march brought him to Mantua; the next stop was Rome.
As the story goes, Pope St. Leo the Great went out to meet him unarmed. Leo told Attila that St. Peter himself would protect Rome, and that Attila should make peace and leave.
Amazingly, Attila did in fact end his invasion, make peace and leave. When asked why, he said that it was because he saw Sts. Peter and Paul standing behind Leo with burning swords in their hands.
Pope St. Leo the Great, pray for us!