Doctors of the Church: Pope St. Leo the Great

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!