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St Leo the Great

  • International
  • November 10, 2012
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Leo I became pope at a critical juncture in church history. The Roman Empire in the West was disintegrating under the barbarian invasions; and the Eastern Church was greatly disturbed by controversies and speculations over Church doctrine. When Leo became Pope in 440, he took upon himself the motto of St Paul the apostle to “become all things to all”, and was a true father to the Church and one of its most eminent teachers.

The great doctrinal event of Leo’s pontificate was the Council of Chalcedon (near Constantinople) held in 461, the last of the four great ecumenical councils. It was here that 600 bishops in union with the Pope condemned the heresy of ‘Monophysitism’, which argued that Christ had just one nature, a human nature. Orthodox doctrine stated however that Christ was one person but with two natures, a human and a divine nature. This was Leo’s statement, and the Council echoed its approval, crying, “Peter has spoken through Leo.” This is one of the earliest examples of an infallible papal statement.

The most important political event of Pope Leo’s time was the barbarian incursion under Attila the Hun ‘the scourge of God’ in 452. Attila invaded Italy, and lay siege to the city of Rome. As the government could not defend the city, Leo went forth to meet Attila, and persuaded him not to sack Rome in return for an annual tribute. Leo was less successful with Genseric the Vandal, who plundered the city for two weeks in 455, until Leo begged him to desist. Still, the complete destruction of the city was averted.

Few popes there are who have left their mark on church teaching and practice, as well as on the politics of the age. Leo I is one of them, and rightly merits being called ‘Leo the Great’.
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