Today’s the feast of St. Leo the Great, a 5th century pope buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the front of the church on the left side of the main altar.
The large picture over his tomb pictures him outside Rome before Atilla, the Hun, and his warriors who are poised to invade the city in 452 AD to plunder it and attack its people. Previously, a Vandal attack in 410 AD startled the city that thought itself impregnable.
The western Roman empire was falling apart as barbarian tribes poured through Rome’s defenses along the Rhine River and its northern frontier, threatening the Italian peninsula. Most of Rome’s elite left for the safety of Constantinople, the new center of the empire. The rest of the population, convinced the world was ending, retreated to their own homes with everything they had. No one wanted to fund an army for the city’s defense.
Leo became Rome’s defense by persuading Atilla to leave the city untouched after offering him tribute money. A few years later, though, in 455 AD he was less successful when the Vandals returned to plunder the city for 14 days.
Yet it’s not just for this act that Leo’s called great. A holy, learned man, he saw the church’s best defense in knowing Jesus Christ and the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. His sermons on the Incarnation, preached in the course of the church year, urged Christians to find strength by living as Jesus did.
As bishop of Rome and successor to the Apostle Peter, Leo believed in the future of the church, as Jesus promised to his apostle Peter. He strengthened the leadership of the pope over the bishops of the western church and asserted the authority of the bishop of Rome in the councils called by the universal church, particularly the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD.
Leo’s times were times of great suffering; he found support in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:
“True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity…Who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding of tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?
“It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of human nature and the fullness of the godhead.
“The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours.
“If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.”
Sermon, Leo the Great