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.

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