Doctors of the Church: Pope St. Leo the Great

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Saint Leo Magnus by Francisco de Herrera el Mozo

So, we’ve been at this for a while now, and we keep discussing various bishops and their roles in battling heresies, writing treatises, and speaking at ecumenical councils. You might be wondering, “Where was the pope during all this?” Well, the popes were always in the background, supporting the efforts of these other Doctors, but today’s Doctor of the Church stands out for his contributions. Of course, we’re talking about Pope St. Leo the Great.

St. Leo was born in Tuscany of an aristocratic family, and one would assume that like many of these guys, he received a good classical education. In 431, the same year as the Council of Ephesus, Leo was ordained a deacon for the Church in Rome, and apparently held a very important position in the Church, becoming the go-to guy in Rome alongside the pope. We have letters between him and St. Cyril of Alexandria (from last week!) and St. John Cassian, who actually dedicated a book to him. He also was sent to Gaul to settle a dispute between to of the leading Roman military commanders. All this was setting the table for him to be elected as pope in 440. St. Leo served the Church for 21 years as the Vicar of Christ, and is certainly one of the most important popes in history, hence the moniker “the Great.”

St. Leo threw his hat into the great ecclesiastical debate ring at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This ecumenical council built on the several we’ve already mentioned: Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The Council of Chalcedon affirmed all the doctrine of the previous councils, and definitively condemned Nestorianism (that whole divine Jesus and human Jesus, two persons in one Christ heresy from last week). Previously, Leo had been challenged by Flavian, the bishop of Constantinople, so as a statement of faith, purpose, and leadership, Leo issued the Tome of Leo to be read at the Council, affirming that the Church of Rome, the beating heart of the whole Church, was faithful to her ancient and true teachings. Of course, someone had to spoil the party, and this time, it was another heretic group, the Monophysites, but we’ll talk about them later…

St. Leo is probably most famous for a famous event that took place in 452. At this time, the Roman Empire was crumbling under constant attack by various barbarian tribes. One of those was the Huns, who attacked Rome all the way from Central Asia, destroying everything in their path. They had laid waste to northern Italy, and were rampaging south toward Rome. Most of the Roman government authorities had either fled or simply braced themselves for the destruction. Leo, the humble shepherd of the Church in Rome, saw that he was the only one who could do anything. The Pope, defenseless and surrounded by some of his clergy, rode out to meet Attila the Hun at Mantua, where he interceded for his flock and persuaded Attila to turn around and abandon the sack of Rome.

Think back to the profession of St. Peter in the Gospel – “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” As we can see, Pope St. Leo the Great showed that same commitment of faith and love of the flock entrusted to his care.

Doctors of the Church: St. Cyril of Alexandria

0609-cyril-alexandriaWho would have thought that the name “Cyril” would be such a popular one in the early Church? We had St. Cyril of Jerusalem before, and now we continue with our Doctors of the Church with St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Very little is known about Cyril’s early life, but he was probably born in Alexandria between 370 and 380. Cyril’s uncle Theophilus (also a popular name, apparently) was the bishop of Alexandria and well known for his strong leadership. With that in mind, Cyril was destined to follow in his footsteps, and at an early age, became involved with leadership of the Church. Eventually, Cyril literally followed in his uncle’s footsteps as they went together to Constantinople, where they helped the emperor depose a certain Bishop John, later known as “Chrysostom.” Woops!

When Theophilus died, Cyril became the bishop of Alexandria, where he served for 32 years. Despite his rocky relationship with the Church in Constantinople early on (deposing their bishop, and whatnot), Cyril worked hard to mend divisions. At least he did until a new bishop came to Constantinople.

Nestorius, a reputable Syrian priest known for his fantastic sermons, became famous for the heresy that later took on his name – Nestorianism. Nestorius divided Jesus Christ into two persons – the human Christ, and the divine Christ. At the time, people were growing in devotion to Mary, and had been referring to Mary as Theotokos, meaning “Mother of God,” or “God-bearer.” Nestorius refused to use that title, and preferred the term Christotokos, the “Mother of Christ.” It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but what he was doing was splitting the person of Jesus into two. We can even see this today when people say that they believe Jesus was a good teacher to follow (the human Christ), but not someone to be worshipped (the divine Christ).

Cyril went on the offensive, and wrote several letters to Nestorius to address these errors, and he later participated in the Council of Ephesus in 431. Cyril argued that Jesus is both true God and true man – two natures united in a single person. Because Jesus is one person (with both divine and human natures), and not two, Cyril reaffirmed that we truly can speak of Mary as the Theotokos, the “Mother of God.” The word “nature” in this case translates into Greek as hypostasis, and Cyril was the one to begin describing the unity of Jesus’ divine and human natures as the “hypostatic union,” a vocabulary word which you can use for your next round of Catholic Jeopardy.

St. Cyril of Alexandria devoted himself and his ministry to defending and explaining this doctrine of our faith until his death in 444. Let us thank God for being both eternal and born of a woman, Mary, and for sharing himself with us every day!

Doctors of the Church: St. Augustine of Hippo

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St. Augustine and St. Monica by Ary Scheffer

We made reference to our next Doctor before, but now we finally come to one of the greatest Doctors in Western Christianity. It’s hard to tell the story of St. Augustine in 600 words, but I’ll give it a shot…

Augustine’s life is very well known to us because of his autobiography, Confessions, which we could say is not just a story, but a prayer – a love-letter to God. Augustine was born in Tagaste, a Roman city in present-day Algeria. His father was a pagan, who had no love for Christianity until his conversion later in life. But of course, every good biography starts with a good mother, and St. Monica was one of the best. She was a very prayerful, very faithful Christian who desired to do everything she could to pass on her faith to her son.

Augustine was almost baptized as a child, but illness prevented it and further delayed his preparation. As an adolescent, Augustine fell into a bad crowd, and his friends had a bad influence on him. He described it as a “fog of lust” which left him seeking pleasure only to find the bitterness of dissatisfaction. As he got older, Augustine went into his “searching” years. He studied rhetoric at Carthage, and became interested in philosophy through the works of Cicero and Plato. Eventually, his search led him to join the Manichees, a cult that claimed that the body, and indeed the whole physical world, was something evil. Trying to find meaning for his life, he found only sorrow and more questions.

Augustine moved to Rome and then Milan, where he continued to teach. It was there that he came to know a bishop in Milan named Ambrose. Augustine became enthralled by Ambrose’s preaching, and it led him to wonder why this man, who seemed to have given up everything, was so happy. After much struggle, Augustine realized that the only answer was Christ, but while he came to accept the faith intellectually, he couldn’t quite get there internally and morally.

One day, Augustine paced around a garden near his home, engaged in an interior battle. He wanted to follow Christ, wanted to embrace Christ, but the memories of his “old loves” – pleasure, lust, greed, pride – continued to torture him and hold him back. Hearing a nearby choir singing the phrase “take up, and read,” Augustine felt called to pick up the Scriptures and read Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provisions for the flesh.” It was then that Augustine finally felt the peace he longed for, and his doubt was dispelled.

Augustine describes his conversion in the Confessions: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new…You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you…You were with me, but I was not with you…But you called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

St. Augustine has too many contributions to describe here – his priesthood and becoming bishop of Hippo, his incredible writing and preaching, and his great book, City of God, a commentary on our earthly society versus our heavenly one. But his greatest contribution will always be his dramatic conversion, and the invitation for us all to follow in his footsteps.

Doctors of the Church: St. Jerome

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San Gerolamo by Caravaggio

Next up on our list is another Western Doctor, St. Jerome. He was born in the Roman city of Stridon in the Western Balkans, around 347. He received a good education, even being sent to Rome to study under Rufinus, a great scholar at the time. It was there that learned mastery over Latin and Greek.

St. Jerome was baptized around 367, but still lived a pretty worldly life. We could say that he was “going through the motions” of being a Christian, and was still skeptical of his faith. He was invited to move to Trier to do some work for a friend, and it was there, as he was copying a commentary on the Psalms by St. Hilary of Poitiers (remember him?), that Jerome fell in love with Christ and with Scripture.

As with many of the other guys we’ve talked about, Jerome was inspired by the example of the monks, and withdrew to the deserts outside of Aleppo, Syria. He spent his days there praying, studying Scripture, and copying the writings of the Church Fathers. He also became well acquainted with the Jewish Christian community in Antioch, and convinced one of the newly-converted Christians to teach him Hebrew and Syriac.

After being ordained a priest in Syria, he moved to Rome, where Pope Damasus, who had been very impressed by his reputation as a scholar and monk, named him as the papal secretary. It was during this time that Jerome began his greatest work, the Vulgate.

In Jerome’s time, many people throughout the Roman Empire spoke Greek. The New Testament was mostly written in Greek, and the Old Testament had been translated into Greek as well in what became known as the Septuagint. Greek-speakers had access to almost the entire Bible. But not everyone spoke Greek, especially in the western part of the Empire, so many writers had taken it upon themselves to begin translating the Scriptures into Latin. The only problem was that most of them had very little command over Greek and Hebrew, so the translations tended to be pretty off. Pope Damasus wanted to have a standard translation for everyone to use, especially as Latin was gaining more popularity. Having received a very good education in Greek and Hebrew, Jerome was able to go back to the original sources and translate Scripture for all to use. This translation, called the Vulgate, was the standard translation of the Scriptures from its completion in 405 all the way up to 1979, when the New Vulgate was released.

After Damasus died, St. Jerome went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he founded several monasteries in Bethlehem. He also founded hostiles to help provide future pilgrims with a place to stay and pray. Jerome continued to write Scripture commentaries and treatises, and defended the faith against Pelagius, who argued that we as humans are equipped to achieve our salvation on our own without the grace of God. St. Jerome died in Bethlehem around 419.

St. Jerome wrote that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Let us ask his intercession, that we might grow in our love for Christ as he is found in the Scriptures!

Doctors of the Church: St. John Chrysostom

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Mosaic of St. John Chrysostom from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople

Our next saint is widely considered to be the greatest of the Eastern Doctors, and almost assuredly, the greatest preacher to ever take the pulpit in a Christian Church. St. John of Antioch is otherwise known by his nickname, “Chrysostom,” meaning “golden-mouthed.”

St. John Chrysostom was born around 349 in Antioch. His father died while he was still very young, so his mother Anthusa raised him in the faith, instilling in him a love for God and the Church. He studied under Libanius, one of the most famous pagan orators at the time, and after his baptism, under Diodore of Tarsus (where St. Paul was from!), who had been a great ally of St. Basil against Arianism.

After his studies, St. John felt called to withdraw from society, and lived as a hermit in the mountains near Antioch. He spent six years living in a cave, fasting and studying the Scriptures fervently. Unfortunately, this lifestyle didn’t agree with him, and after becoming very ill, he was forced to return to Antioch.

But that time as a hermit had changed him and given him a desire to serve the Church. He was ordained a priest in 386, and jumped right into becoming a pastor of souls. It was during this time that he wrote his greatest works. The most famous of these in his own day was his work On the Priesthood, a beautiful book on the greatness of the priesthood and what to look for in a priest. Today, he is best known for his sermons, and we have well over 700 of them authenticated and preserved. On a personal level, St. John Chrysostom is one of my favorite saints to read because not only is he intellectually brilliant, but he is also easy to understand. He is excellent at beautifully connecting his sermons to the reader/listener, so it’s no wonder he received the nickname “golden-mouthed!”

One story of St. John as a pastor stands out. In 387, the citizens of Antioch rioted over raised taxes, and in the process, destroyed several statues of the Emperor Theodosius and his family. Everyone knew the reprisal by the emperor would be brutal. St. John preached 22 Homilies on the Statues to the people, encouraging repentance and penance. He and his brother priests interceded with the emperor and brought about a peaceful reconciliation, while simultaneously converting many others to the faith.

St. John became so popular that he was actually kidnapped from Antioch and forced to become the bishop of Constantinople. Despite his undesired election, John applied himself immediately as a holy pastor, preaching frequently on marriage and the family, and upholding the dignity of all in society, especially the poor and women.

St. John ran into trouble with the Empress Eudoxia, who cared little for the faith and was insulted by his exhortations to reform. He was exiled initially by the Emperor, but was recalled after only three days, as the people rioted until he returned! After a spat with the empress, who had erected a silver statue of herself in the square outside the Hagia Sophia, he was exiled again, and ultimately died at the rough treatment of his captors.

He is still very influential today, as Pope St. John XXIII named him the patron of the Second Vatican Council, and he is cited in 18 sections of the Catechism. Let us thank God for this great preacher and shepherd of souls!

Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose of Milan

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St. Ambrose by Claude Vignon

Our next Doctor is Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St. Ambrose of Milan. He was born into a Roman Christian family around 340, and like St. Basil, shared the household with a few other saints, namely his brother and sister. Ambrose’s father was in politics, perhaps even as high as the praetorian prefect of Gaul, a very lofty and influential position. At an early age, Ambrose followed the lead of his father, entering into politics, and became the consular prefect (essentially, a governor) of Aemilia-Liguria, a region in Italy that had its headquarters in the city of Milan.

Milan was the second greatest city in the Western Roman Empire, and as such it came into the crosshairs of the Arian controversy. All this came to a head at the death of the Arian-sympathetic bishop of Milan, Auxentius. In the early Church, bishops were elected, not appointed by the pope as they are today. So as governor, Ambrose tried to intercede with the opposing factions in the election, but each side saw him as a compromise candidate to the episcopacy, and he was quickly elected as the new bishop of Milan. This might not sound too strange until we consider that he was still a catechumen and hadn’t even been baptized yet!

The newly baptized and newly ordained bishop quickly committed himself to prayer and upholding orthodoxy. He brought several spiritual practices of the Eastern Church to the West, including lectio divina, a process of praying with the Word of God in Scripture. Ambrose wrote over 19 commentaries and exegetical works on Scripture, as well as a number of other works including hymns, letters, catecheses, writings on systematic theology, and even a few extended funeral homilies.

His upbringing and past life in politics played a role in his ministry as well. Ambrose worked to guide the Emperor Gratian to avoid Arianism and support justice for his people. He also worked for the Church’s independence from government against the Empress Justina, who tried to exert too much control over the custody of Church property.

St. Ambrose also came to know and work with the Emperor Theodosius, and there is a very interesting story about their relationship. After a mob in Thessalonica (in Greece) killed a military commander stationed there, Theodosius reacted by mercilessly ordering the massacre of the crowds responsible. Ambrose rebuked him, letting him know the severity of his actions. Because of the public nature of this sin, and to avoid scandal to the rest of the Church, Ambrose refused to allow Theodosius (again, the emperor) to receive Holy Communion. Eventually, the Emperor confessed his sins, and was finally reconciled with the Church and with Ambrose. The Emperor’s unrivaled civil authority didn’t seem to bother Ambrose one bit!

St. Ambrose is perhaps best known for guiding a young North African rhetorician to the faith – a guy named Augustine, who we’ll hear about in a few weeks. But in his own right, St. Ambrose was a great writer, bishop, and shepherd of his flock!

Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

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Gregory the Theologian, by Aidan Hart

The next Doctor of the Church on our list is another Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and yes, his name is as difficult to say as it is to spell! Not only did he grow up close to St. Basil, but they were actually very good friends. The two of them first met at Caesarea, where they studied philosophy and rhetoric together, but as St. Gregory travelled the world to continue his studies, he went to Athens, where they met up again! Basil and Gregory did more than just hang out and talk shop; theirs was a truly holy friendship. St. Gregory once wrote about his friend Basil, “This was our competition: not who was first, but who allowed the other to be first.”

St. Gregory was a man who liked solitude and quiet, where he could think, write, and pray. Among his works are De Sacerdotio (on the priesthood), 249 theological letters, and over 17,000 verses of poetry! Later in life, he would write De Vita Sua, the story of his own life and spiritual journey.

As much as Gregory loved silence, he knew it wouldn’t last forever. He was reluctant to study for the priesthood because he knew it would likely lead to his becoming bishop, but eventually he was ordained a priest by his father (you don’t hear that every day!), before his friend Basil consecrated him the bishop of Sasima (in Turkey) in 371.

The most famous contribution of his life came at the Council of Constantinople in 379. St. Gregory was named Bishop of Constantinople and led the Nicaean delegation, the minority group of bishops who were faithful to the Church’s teaching from the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Constantinople had the daunting task of dealing with both Neo-Arianism (which said that Christ was human, but not totally divine) and Apollonarianism (which said that Christ was divine, but not totally human). Yikes!

But truly, this challenge was where St. Gregory shown the brightest. He gave five theological orations (similar to an extended homily), which emphasized that Jesus was both fully human, and fully divine, a concept that would become known as the hypostatic union at later Councils. Whereas his opponents were arguing that Jesus took on some of the qualities of being a human, but not all of them, Gregory asserted that Jesus had to take on all parts of our human nature in order to heal us, restore us, and save us. In one oration, he proclaimed, “What has not been assumed [by Jesus] has not been healed.”

At the conclusion of the Council, St. Gregory resigned his post and returned to Nazianzus, where he lived out the rest of his life in solitude and peace. St. Gregory died in 390, and truly gives us an example of faithfulness and service!