By Sean Fitzpatrick
He was called the Scourge of God—Attila the Hun.
He raged with his barbarian horde through Italy like fire, leaving devastation and death behind him. Cruel in torture, ravenous in plunder, and insatiable in effrontery, he razed and ravaged and rushed upon Rome in the year 452.
Out from the ancient gates of Rome passed a white-haired ancient in resplendent raiment. A harmless old man come to meet the savage; prepared to parley, and, God willing, to save his flock. The aged Pope of Rome himself hobbled forth to hold conference with the wild Hun while all the world watched; and this, according to legend, is what the Pope said:
“The people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now kneel conquered. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, you could have no greater glory than to see suppliant at your feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. You have subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands granted to the Romans. Now we pray that you, who have conquered others, should conquer yourself. The people have felt your scourge. Now they would feel your mercy.”
So spoke the venerable bishop under the gaze of the vicious tyrant. Then suddenly, Attila’s disbelieving eyes beheld two towering giants flanking the pontiff, one on his right and the other on his left. The apostles Peter and Paul appeared, wielding swords of flame over the gray head of the pope, who knelt in an attitude of humble submission. Back flew the invader in terror, when he then caught sight of a gleaming, glorious army—ten thousand times greater than his own—ranked in rows of flashing fire against the night sky. The pope’s plea echoed in his ears like a command, and he raved as one gone mad. Attila the Hun raised the pope to his feet, swore to an enduring truce, and fled away with his legions across the Danube.
The title “Great” was not first given to Pope Leo for small reason.
Pope Leo the Great held the Chair of St. Peter from 440 to 461, and from it proclaimed and projected the elect holiness of Rome, calling it a royal city and, by virtue of the See of St. Peter, the head of the world, ruling by moral faith and religion rather than military force and dominion. The voice of Leo was the voice of the eternal city, and it was the roar of a lion and a king: “Though enlarged by many victories, you have spread the authority of your rule over land and sea. What your warlike labors have attained for you is less than what the Christian peace has brought you.” Rome was, and yet is, the heart of the Kingdom of God on earth, and Leo thundered its praises despite the riches and renown of the fallen Constantinople, defending it as the Supreme Pontiff of Christ’s Church—as a lion with its peaceful poise, confirmed in supremacy, in papal and Petrine primacy.
Though his might was manifested in meekness at his famous embassy with Attila the Hun, Pope Leo’s assertive strength as the Vicar of Christ was a theological force during his remarkable pontificate. In 451, he gathered the largest group of bishops in history for the Council of Chalcedon: a council to muster strength and strategy against an epidemic of heresies arising from the East. Leo took up the destiny of the Church with a will that evoked a rare and robust trust in God and with such broadness of vision—as a lion overlooking his golden realm—that he is remembered not only as a guardian of the Faith but also as a savior of Western civilization. At the Council of Chalcedon, the existence of Jesus Christ’s dual nature in one Divine Person was defined, and finally dogmatized in Pope Leo’s magnificent epistle, called the Tome, which was read aloud at the Council. Upon this inspired articulation of the hypostatic union, the bishops reported, “Behold, this is the Faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the Apostles. This we believe. Peter has spoken through Leo.”
The Council, though a solidifying of truth within the Church, poured fuel on the growling fires of the East, where many bishops were yet chafing under the rise of Rome over Constantinople and resisting orthodox teaching with persistent and even rebellious heresy and schism. Pope Leo rejected the attempts of the Eastern Church to affirm its errors upon the Universal Church. The subsequent rivalry between Constantinople and Rome led to violent uprisings and the persecution and martyrdom of holy bishops in Alexandria and Egypt. But mobs or militia could not drown out the roar of Leo. He ever proved an inflexible adversary of heresy. Pope Leo gave instruction and assistance to the reeling government in Constantinople to suppress religious rebels. In the end, the imperial battalions were fortified and the heretics were overthrown.
The word “leo” means “lion” in Latin and “king” in Greek. St. Leo was both, and that is why he is called Great. Leo’s indomitable spirit and profound mind has ever continued to influence and inform the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries after his death on November 10, 461, when he was buried, according to his wishes, as close to the bones of Peter as possible. His sermons and Christological writings have been read for well over a thousand and a half years on the most beautiful and signal feasts of the Faith: Christmas, Epiphany, Pentecost, and the Ascension. Leo was a regal saint, a doctor of the Roman Church, a kingly pope serving the King of kings, and a Lion of God who roared out the glory of God—and his roar still echoes through the grandeur of Rome to this day.
O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness,
The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers.
O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us!
Pray that Christ our God may save our souls!