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Saint Leo the Great (†461, Feast – April 11)

St. Leo the Great

One of the grandest Saints in the Church's Calendar is brought before us today.  Saint Leo, the Pontiff and Doctor, rises on the Paschal horizon, and calls for our admiration and love. As his name implies, he is the Lion of Holy Church; thus representing, in his own person, one of the most glorious of Our Lord's titles. There have been 13 Popes who have had this name, and 5 of the number are enrolled in the catalogue of the Saints; but not one of them has so honored the name as he whose Feast we keep today; hence he is called "Leo the Great."

He deserved the appellation by what he did for maintaining the Faith regarding the sublime mystery of the Incarnation. The Church had triumphed over the heresies that had attacked the dogma of the Trinity, when the gates of Hell sought to prevail against the dogma of God having been made Man. Nestorius, a Bishop of Constantinople, impiously taught that there were two distinct Persons in Christ—the Person of the Divine Word, and the Person of Man. The Council of Ephesus condemned this doctrine, which, by denying the unity of Person in Christ, destroyed the true notion of the Redemption. A new heresy, the very opposite of Nestorianism, but equally subversive of Christianity, soon followed. The monk Eutyches maintained that in the Incarnation the human nature was absorbed by the Divine. The error was propagated with frightful rapidity. There was needed a clear and authoritative exposition of the great dogma, which is the foundation of all our hopes. St. Leo arose, and, from the Apostolic Chair, on which the Holy Ghost had placed him, proclaimed with matchless eloquence and precision the formula of the ancient Faith—ancient indeed, and ever the same, yet acquiring greater and fresher brightness. A cry of admiration was raised at the General Council of Chalcedon, which had been convened for the purpose of condemning the errors of Eutyches. "Peter," exclaimed the Fathers, "has spoken by the mouth of Leo!"

St. Leo also demanded that an explicit and public abjuration of error be made by the former followers of the Pelagian heresy, and he had the Manichaeans banished from Rome.

The barbarian hordes were invading the West; the Empire was little more than a ruin: and Attila, "the scourge of God," was marching on towards Rome. St. Leo's majestic bearing repelled the invasion, as his word had checked the ravages of heresy. The haughty king of the Huns, before whose armies the strongest citadels had fallen, granted an audience to the Pontiff on the banks of the Mincio, and promised to spare Rome. The calm and dignity of St. Leo—who thus unarmed, confronted the most formidable enemy of the Empire, and exposed his life for his flock—awed the barbarian, who afterwards told his people that, during the interview, he saw a venerable person standing in an attitude of defence, by the side of Rome's intercessor: it was believed to be the Apostle St. Peter. Attila not only admired, he feared the Pontiff. It was truly a sublime spectacle, and one that was full of meaning—a priest, with no arms save those of his character and virtues, forcing a king, such as Attila, to do homage to a devotedness which he could ill understand, and recognize by submission the influence of a power which had Heaven on its side. St. Leo, single-handed and at once, did what it took the whole of Europe several ages to accomplish in later times.

That the aureole of St. Leo's glory might be complete, the Holy Ghost gifted him with an eloquence which, on account of its majesty and richness, might deservedly be called Papal. The Latin language had at that time lost its ancient vigor; but we frequently come across passages in the writings of this Saint which remind us of the golden age.

In exposing the dogmas of our Holy Faith, he uses a style so dignified and so filled with the savor of sacred antiquity, that it seems made for the subject. He has several admirable sermons on the Resurrection; and speaking of the Easter Season, he says: "The days that intervened between Our Lord's Resurrection and Ascension were not days on which nothing was done: on the contrary, great were the sacraments then confirmed, and great were the mysteries that were revealed."

Let us now read the sketch of the Saint's life given by the Church in the Matins of the Feast:

St. Leo confronts Attila

St. Leo I, a Tuscan by birth, governed the Church at the period when Attila, the king of the Huns, surnamed the Scourge of God, was invading Italy. Attila pillaged and burned the city of Aquileia, which he took after a three years' siege. This done, he rushed on Rome with burning fury. He had reached the place where the river Mincio joins the Po, and was on the point of ordering his troops to cross the river, when he was met by St. Leo, who was moved with compassion at the misfortunes that were threatening Italy. Such was his superhuman eloquence, that he induced Attila to retrace his steps. When asked by his people how it was that, contrary to his custom, he had yielded such ready obedience to the demands of the Roman Pontiff, the king answered, that he beheld, whilst St. Leo was speaking, a personage clad in priestly robes, who stood near with a drawn sword in his hand, and threatening him with death unless he obeyed the Pontiff. Whereupon he returned to Pannonia.

Leo was welcomed back to Rome amidst the exceeding joy of all. A short time after, when the city was invaded by Genseric, the Pontiff's eloquence and reputation for sanctity had such influence on the barbarian, that he abstained from setting fire to the buildings, and forbade his troops to insult or massacre the inhabitants. Seeing the Church attacked by several heresies, and mainly by the followers of Nestorius and Eutyches, he called the Council of Chalcedon, in order to remove error and vindicate the Catholic Faith. 630 Bishops assisted at this Council, in which Eutyches and Dioscorus, and Nestorius (for the second time) were condemned. The decrees of the Council were confirmed by the authority of St. Leo.

The holy Pontiff then turned his attention to repairing and building churches. It was through his persuasion that a pious lady named Demetria built the Church of St. Stephen on her own land on the Latin Way, three miles out of the city. He himself built one on the Appian Way, and dedicated it to Saint Cornelius. He repaired several others, and refurnished them with all that was needed for the Divine Service. He built crypts under the Basilicas of St. Peter, St. Paul and St. John Lateran. He appointed guards, to whom he gave the name of Cubicularii, to watch at the Tombs of the Apostles. He ordered that these words should be added to the Canon of the Mass: Holy Sacrifice, Immaculate Victim. After these and other similar admirable acts, and after writing much that was replete with piety and eloquence, he slept in the Lord, on the fourth of the Ides of November (Nov. 10). He reigned as Sovereign Pontiff 21 years, one month and 13 days.

O Holy Pope Leo! Thou didst triumph over barbarian invaders: Attila acknowledged the power of thy sanctity and eloquence, by withdrawing his troops from the Christian land they infested. In these our days, there have risen up new barbarians—"civilized" barbarians, who would persuade us that religion should be eliminated from education, and that the State, in its laws and institutions, should simply ignore Our Lord Jesus Christ, the King to Whom all power has been given, not only in Heaven but also on Earth (Matt. 28: 18). Oh, help us by thy powerful intercession, for our danger is very great. Many are seduced and have fallen into apostasy, whilst flattering themselves that they are still Christians.  Pray that the light that is left within us may never be extinguished, but ever increase unto light eternal. Amen.

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