Today is the feast day of Saint Leo IX. Ora pro nobis.
Pope St. Leo IX was born at Egisheim, near Colmar, Germany, on the borders of Alsace, 21 June, 1002, and died on 19 April, 1054. He belonged to a noble family which had given and was to give many saints to the Church and rulers to the German (Roman) Empire. His baptismal name was Bruno. His father, Hugh, was first cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor Konrad, and both Hugh and his wife Heileweid were remarkable for their piety and learning.
As a sign of the tender conscience which soon began to manifest itself in the saintly child, we are told that, although he had given abundant proofs of a bright mind, on one occasion he could not study out of an exceptionally beautiful book which his mother had purchased and given to him. At length it was discovered that, unknown to his pious mother, the book had been stolen from the Abbey of St. Hubert in the Ardennes. After Heileweid had restored the volume to its rightful owners, little Bruno’s studies proceeded unchecked. When five years of age, he was committed to the care of the energetic Berthold, Bishop of Toul, who had a school for the sons of the nobility. Intelligent, graceful in body, and gracious in disposition, Bruno was a favorite with his schoolfellows. Whilst still a youth and at home for a visit, he was attacked when asleep by some animal, and so much injured that for days he lay between life and death. In that condition he saw, as he used afterwards to tell his friends, a vision of St. Benedict, who cured him by touching his wounds with a cross. This miraculous event is recounted by St. Leo’s principal biographer, Wibert, who was his intimate friend when the saint was Bishop of Toul.
Bruno became a canon of St. Stephen’s at Toul (1017), and although still quite young became a trusted assistant to Herimann, the successor of Bishop Berthold in the See of Toul, a Rhineland diocese that was a center of the Northern reform movement. When, in 1024, Konrad, Bruno’s cousin, succeeded Heinrich II as Holy Roman Emperor, the saint was called to the court to serve in the Emperor’s chapel. His virtue soon made itself felt, and his companions, to distinguish him from others who bore the same name, always spoke of him as “the good Bruno.” In 1026, Konrad set out for Italy to make his imperial authority respected in that troubled portion of his dominions, and as Herimann, Bishop of Toul, was too elderly to lead his contingent of clergy into the peninsula, he entrusted the command of it to Bruno, then a Deacon. While he was thus in the midst of this embassy, Bishop Herimann died and the twenty-four year old Bruno was at once elected to succeed him.
The German Emperor Konrad, who destined him for higher things, was reluctant to allow him to accept the relatively minor See of Toul. But Bruno, who was wholly disinclined to accept honors and privileges, and wished to live in as much obscurity as possible, induced his sovereign to permit him to take the See. Consecrated in 1027, Bruno administered the Diocese of Toul for over twenty years in an era of distress and trouble of all kinds. He had to contend not merely with famine, but also with war, to which, as a frontier town, Toul was much exposed. Bruno, however, was equal to his position. He knew how to make peace, and, if necessary, to wield the sword in defense of his Church. Sent by the Emperor to Robert the Pious, King of France, he established so firm a peace between France and the Empire that it remained unbroken for two generations. On the other hand, he defended his Episcopal city against Eudes, Count of Blois, a rebel against Konrad, and by his wisdom and exertions added Burgundy to the Empire.
It was whilst he was Bishop that he was saddened by the death not only of his father and mother, but also of two of his brothers. Amid his trials Bruno found some consolation in music, in which he proved himself very efficient.
The German Pope Damasus II died in 1048, poisoned by members of jealous “papal families,” who coveted the Chair of Peter to satisfy their own worldly ambitions. Mindful of his sacred obligation to preserve the integrity of the Roman See, the pious Emperor Heinrich III, Konrad’s son and successor, at once fixed upon Bruno as his choice for the new Pope. The unworldly Bishop of Toul did all he could to avoid the honor which his sovereign wished him to accept. When he was at length overcome by the combined importunities of the Emperor, the German people, and the populace of Rome (sickened by the corruption and scandals of Italian “papal families”), Bruno agreed to go to Rome, and to canonically accept the Papacy. When he reached Rome with his monastic companion, Hildebrand, and presented himself to its people clad in the guise of a Pilgrim and barefooted, but still tall and fair to behold, the Roman people cried out with one voice that him and no other would they have as Pope. Assuming the name of Leo, the ninth of that name, he was solemnly enthroned 12 February 1049.
Before Leo could do anything in the matter of the reform of the Church, on which his heart was set, he had first to put down another attempt on the part of the anti-Pope Benedict IX to seize the papal throne. He had then to attend to money matters, as the papal finances were in a deplorable condition. To set affairs in order, he put them in the hands of Hildebrand, a man of tremendous capabilities and zeal for the Church, and a future Pope–St. Gregory VII.
He then began the work of reform which was to give the next hundred years a character of their own, and which his successors were to carry forward. One of his most important new policies was to appoint experienced reformers from the German dioceses as cardinals. This was a radical innovation that changed the whole institutional structure of the Roman church. There had been cardinals at Rome before, but their functions were merely ceremonial. Leo transformed the nature of the office by conferring it on the chosen men whom he gathered together to serve as his principal counselors and administrators. In April, 1049, he held a Synod at which he condemned the two notorious evils of the day–simony (the buying and selling of Church offices), and violation of the laws of clerical celibacy. Then he commenced those journeys throughout Europe in the cause of a reformation of manners which gave him the pre-eminent right to be styled Peregrinus Apostolicus–Apostolic Pilgrim.
Leaving Rome in May, he held a council of reform at Pavia, and pushed on through Germany to Cologne, joined by the Emperor Heinrich III. Working with the Emperor, he brought about peace in Germany by excommunicating the rebel Godfrey Barbarossa. Despite the scheming of King Henry I to prevent him from coming to France, Pope Leo next proceeded to Rheims, where he held an important synod, at which both Bishops and Abbots from England assisted. There were also assembled in the city a number of enthusiastic people to see their vigorous reforming Pope, “Spaniards, Britons, Franks, Irish, and English.” On his way back to Rome, Leo held another synod at Mainz, everywhere rousing public opinion against the great evils of the time as he went along, and everywhere being received with unbounded enthusiasm. In these councils the general reform decrees were promulgated afresh, and individual prelates who had offended against the canons of the Church were judged and, if necessary, deposed. The effect of the pope’s travels appears to have been electrifying. Clergy to whom the Roman Pontiff had seemed a remote and shadowy potentate at the other end of the world now saw him laying down the law and settling the affairs of their own churches as a formidable judge and ruler.
It was upon his return journey that we have the first mention of the Golden Rose. The Abbess of Woffenheim, in return for certain privileges bestowed by the Pope, each year sent to Rome a golden rose before Laetare Sunday, on which day, says Leo, the popes are wont to carry it. Also before he returned to Rome, he discussed with Adalbert, Archbishop of Bremen, the establishment of the Church in the Scandinavian countries, including Iceland and Greenland, and authorized the consecration by Adalbert of the first native bishop for Iceland.
In January, 1050, Leo returned to Rome, only to leave it again almost immediately for Southern Italy, whither the sufferings of its people called him. They were being heavily oppressed by the Norman invaders. To Leo’s remonstrances, the wily Normans replied with promises, and when the Pope, after holding a council at Siponto, returned to Rome, they continued their oppressions as before. At the usual Paschal Synod which Leo was in the habit of holding at Rome, the heresy of Berengarius of Tours was condemned. This condemnation against one of the earliest heresies against the Holy Eucharist was repeated by the Pope a few months later at Vercelli.
Before the year 1050 had come to a close, Leo had begun his second transalpine journey. He went first to Toul, in order to solemnly translate the relics of St. Gerard, bishop of that city, whom he had just canonized, and thence to the German imperial court to confer with the Emperor. Returning to Rome, Leo held another of his Paschal Synods in April, 1051, and in July went to take possession of Benevento. Harassed by their enemies, the Beneventans concluded that their only hope of peace was to submit themselves to the temporal authority of the Pope. This they did and received Leo into their city with the greatest honor. While in this vicinity, he made further efforts to lessen the excesses of the Normans, but had to retrace his steps to Rome (1051) without success.
The problem with the Normans was henceforth ever present to the compassionate Pope’s mind. Constantly oppressed by the invaders, the people of Southern Italy ceased not to implore the Pope to come and help them. The Greeks, fearful of being expelled from the peninsula altogether, begged Leo to cooperate with them against the common foe. Thus urged, Leo sought assistance on all sides. Failing to obtain it, he again tried the effect of personal mediation (1052). But again failure attended his efforts. He began to be convinced that recourse would have to be made to the sword.
At this juncture, Leo again was called to cross the Alps to try to mediate peace between Germany and the Hungarians, who repeatedly attacked the frontiers of the Empire. But in March 1053, Leo was back in Rome. Finding the state of affairs in Southern Italy worse than ever, he raised what forces he could among the Italian princes, and, declaring war on the Normans, tried to consolidate forces with the Byzantine general. But the shrewd Normans first defeated the Greeks, and then fell upon the Pope’s forces at Civitella (June, 1053), completely routing them. After the battle, Leo gave himself up to his conquerors who, impressed by his courage and holiness, treated him with the utmost respect and consideration, and professed themselves his soldiers.
Though he gained more by defeat than he could have gained by military victory, Leo betook himself to Benevento, broken-hearted. The slaughter of his faithful troops at Civitella was a profound sorrow to his pastoral heart. Moreover, he was deeply concerned by the growing rift in the Church caused by the prideful attitude of the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople.
Michael Cerularius was determined, if possible, to have no Superior in either Church or State. As early as 1042, he had struck the Pope’s name off the sacred diptychs read in the liturgy, and soon proceeded, first in private, and then in public, to attack the Latin Church on the specious pretext that it used unfermented bread (azymes) in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Finally, he abruptly closed the Latin churches in Constantinople, not without violence. In reply to this outrage, Leo addressed a strong letter to Michael in September, 1053, and then he began to study Greek in order the better to understand the matters in dispute. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Emperor, seeing that his hold on Southern Italy was endangered by the Norman victory, put pressure on the Patriarch to make him more respectful to the Pope. To the conciliatory letters which Constantine and Cerularius now dispatched to Rome, Leo sent suitable replies (January, 1054) with two envoys, Cardinals Humbert and Frederick, but the Holy Pope departed this life before the momentous issue of his embassy was known in Rome. On 16 July, 1054, the two cardinals excommunicated Cerularius, and the great Eastern Schism tragically severed the most ancient churches in Christendom from the Mystical Body of Christ.
The annals of England show that Pope Leo had many communications with the saintly King Edward the Confessor. Leo also intervened in Britain by forbidding the consecration of the unworthy Abbot of Abingdon as Bishop of London. Throughout the troubles which Robert of Jumiges, Archbishop of Canterbury, had with the family of Earl Godwin, he received the support of Pope Leo, who sent him the pallium, and condemned Stigand, the usurper of his See (1053). King Macbeth, the alleged murderer of Duncan whom Shakespeare immortalized in his play, is believed to have visited Rome during Leo’s pontificate, and to have exposed the pressing needs of his soul to that tender Father in Christ.
After the battle of Civitella, Leo never recovered his former vigor. Seized at length with a mortal illness, he caused himself to be carried to Rome (March, 1054), where he died a most edifying death. He was buried in St. Peter’s Basilica. Revered as a worker of miracles both in life and in death, Pope Leo IX was duly enrolled in the Roman Martyrology as a Saint. His Feast is observed on April 19th. (1,4,5)
Image: Leo IX (6)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff