Today is the Feast of Pope St. Leo the Great. For many, the life of this great pontiff is relegated to the dark and misty past of ecclesial history. Wasn’t he from the Middle Ages when monikers like “the Great” were probably bantered about willy-nilly? Did he institute some grand inquisition or crusade? In fact Pope St. Leo the Great died on this day in 461 after being pope for 21 years. He was and is considered great for the pastoral care of his flock, which took the various forms of political diplomacy, doctrinal exposition, and social transformation.
Regarding political diplomacy, it may not be well known that Attila the Hun, another semi-mysterious figure of ancient history, drove his empire of nomadic horsemen across the Danube from Central Asia and through Hungary, deep into Roman territory, sacking parts of Gaul then Pavia and Milan, and driving all the way to Rome.
Terrified, for Attila’s army was known to slaughter vast numbers of people in the cities it sacked, the Roman political leaders begged Leo to go and meet the “barbarian” from the East. Pope Leo did so. Accompanied with a Roman consul Avienus, he approached in a simple but regal manner the whole army of the Hunnic Empire.
One account from around 455 has it that Attila was impressed by the grandeur of the high priest and so, appeased, decided not to invade. Another later account includes a lovely little bit of oratory from Pope Leo as well as the visions of Saints Peter and Paul flanking Pope Leo and threatening Attila. At this Attila turned and left. In truth, Pope Leo negotiated a tribute to the Huns that spared the people of Rome and the Church. It is written that Pope Leo did this without hesitation, showing no fear that all would be well in his meeting with a man so brutal.
As far as doctrinal matters go, Pope Leo was forced to settle a number of minor heresies in Spain and elsewhere, all of them variations on the Manichean heresy. But it was during the Council of Chalcedon, addressing the question of Christ’s natures, that Pope Leo provided his “Tome,” an explanation of the relationship between Jesus’ two natures.
At a council called the Robber Council of Ephesus (449) supporters of the excommunicated priest Eutyches denied that Jesus had two natures by asserting only one, divine. The Robber Council never included an opportunity for the Bishop of Constantinople, St. Felix, to defend the orthodox position. Neither, did Eutyches or his supporters allow a letter written by Pope Leo to be read. As a result of these events, Pope Leo called the Council of Chalcedon (451). Though he could not attend himself, he sent legates. This time, his letter was read to the attending Fathers explaining the two-fold nature of Jesus, and upon its completion a cry was made in the chamber, “Peter has spoken by Leo!”
It is, though, Pope Leo’s attention to matters of social concern that most interest me about this Great Pope. We have existing close to 96 sermons given by Pope Leo. He was a man who took the task of “teaching” as a bishop very seriously. And in his teaching he very often brought up what Fr. Butler calls “the social aspects of Christian life.” Witness these words from this great Pope:
We exhort you, therefore, holy brethren throughout the churches of your several regions on Wednesday next to contribute of your goods, according to your means and willingness, to purposes of charity, that you may be able to win that blessedness in which he shall rejoice without end, whoconsiders the needy and poor.And if we are toconsiderhim, dearly beloved, we must use loving care and watchfulness, in order that we may find him whom modesty conceals and shamefastness keeps back. For there are those who blush openly to ask for what they want and prefer to suffer privation without speaking rather than to be put to shame by a public appeal. These are they whom we ought toconsiderand relieve from their hidden straits in order that they may the more rejoice from the very fact that their modesty as well as poverty has been consulted. And rightly in the needy and poor do we recognize the person of Jesus Christ our Lord Himself,Who though He was rich,as says the blessed Apostle,became poor, that He might enrich us by His poverty 2 Corinthians 8:9 .And that His presence might never seem to be wanting to us, He so effected the mystic union of His humility and His glory that while we adore Him as King and Lord in the Majesty of the Father, we might also feed Him in His poor, for which we shall be set free in an evil day from perpetual damnation, and for our considerate care of the poor shall be joined with the whole company of heaven.
Notice Pope Leo’s suggestion, made twice in the above from Sermon 9, that feeding of the poor saves us from eternal damnation. He will develop this theme:
But, perhaps there are some rich people, who, although they are not wont to help the Church’s poor by bounteous gifts, yet keep other commands of God, and among their many meritorious acts of faith and uprightness think they will be pardoned for the lack of this one virtue. But this is so important that, though the rest exist without it, they can be of no avail.
This, from Sermon 10, ought to jar us out of our apathy when it comes to almsgiving and charitable work. Regardless of all the other things we have done in our lives, the rosaries, the prayers, the pilgrimages, they will all be meaningless if we are wealthy and do not help the poor.
For although a man be full of faith, and chaste, and sober, and adorned with other still greater decorations, yet if he is not merciful, he cannot deserve mercy: for the Lord says,blessed are the merciful, for God shall have mercy upon them Matthew 5:7 .… But at the great and final day of judgment large-hearted liberality and ungodly meanness will be counted of such importance as to outweigh all other virtues and all other shortcomings, so that for the one men shall gain entrance into the Kingdom, for the other they shall be sent into eternal fire.
I’ll leave you with this from Sermon 12
But there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, in the exercising of which while every time is accepted, yet that ought to be more zealously observed, which we have received as hallowed by tradition from the apostles: even as this tenth month brings round again to us the opportunity when according to the ancient practice we may give more diligent heed to those three things of which I have spoken. For by prayer we seek to propitiate God, by fasting we extinguish the lusts of the flesh, by alms we redeem our sins: and at the same time God’s image is throughout renewed in us, if we are always ready to praise Him, unfailingly intent on our purification and unceasingly active in cherishing our neighbour. This threefold round of duty, dearly beloved, brings all other virtues into action: it attains to God’s image and likeness and unites us inseparably with the Holy Spirit. Because in prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind. On Wednesday and Friday therefore let us fast: and on Saturday let us keep vigil with the most blessed Apostle Peter, who will deign to aid our supplications and fast and alms with his own prayers through our Lord Jesus Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Ghost lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Pope St. Leo the Great makes it clear that almsgiving is not an option but a necessity for the spiritual life. By it we redeem our sins. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a lot of sin to redeem, and there are many poor among us, and I could be doing more to aid them. Where do you stand?