Saint Leo the Great, Pope, Doctor of the Church

April 11

Today is the feast day of Saint Leo the Great.  Ora pro nobis.

from the Liturgical Year, 1870

One of the grandest Saints in the Church’s Calendar is brought before us today. 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 twelve Popes who have had this name, and five of the number are enrolled in the catalogue of Saints; but not one of them has so honoured 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 that 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. 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 ever 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, “Peter has spoken by the mouth of “Leo!” As we shall see further on, the Eastern Church has kept up the enthusiasm thus excited by the magnificent teachings given by Leo to the whole world.

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. 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 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 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 was, to do homage to a devotedness which he could ill understand, and recognise, by submission, the influence of a power which had heaven on its side. Leo, single-handed, and at once, did what it took the whole of Europe several ages to accomplish later on.

That the aureola of 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 vigour; but we frequently come across passages in the writings of our Saint, which remind us of the golden age.

In exposing the dogmas of our holy Faith, he uses a style so dignified and so impregnated with the savour of sacred antiquity, that it seems made for the subject. He has several admirable Sermons on the Resurrection; and speaking of the present Season of the Liturgical Year, 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 (Sermo lxxiii).”

Let us now read the sketch! of the Saints’ life given by the Church in the Matins of the Feast.

Leo the First, a Tuscan by birth, governed the Church at the period when Attila, the king of the Huns, surnamed the Scourge of God, was in vading Italy. Attila pillaged and burned the city of Aquileia, which he took after a three years’ siege. This done, he rushed on towards Rome as a wild firebrand. He had reached the place where the Mincio joins the Po, and was on the point of ordering his troops to pass the river, when he was met by 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 Leo was speaking, a personage clad in priestly robes, who stood near, with a naked sword in his hand, and threatened 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 invested 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. Six hundred and thirty Bishops assisted at this Council, in which Eutyches, and Dioscorus, and Nestorius were condemned, (this last, a second time.) The Decrees of the Council were confirmed by the authority of Leo.

The holy Pontiff then turned his attention to the reparation and building of Churches. It was through his persuasion, that a pious lady, called Demetria, built the Church of Saint 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 the sacred vessels needed for the divine service. He built vaults under the Basilicas of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint 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, spotless Host. He decreed that a Nun should not receive the blessed veil, unless she had observed virginity for forty years. 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 third of the Ides of April, (April 11th). He reigned as Sovereign Pontiff twenty years, ten months, and twenty-eight days. (1,3)

Saint Leo

by Fr. Fracis Xavier Weninger, 1877


St. Leo informs the Romans, without hesitation, that the pillage of the city was caused by nothing else than their ingratitude, the licentiousness of their conduct, and their contempt for the word of. God. The same may justly be said of every calamity that comes over a city or country–such as famine, war, pestilence or other plagues. Men only owe it to themselves. God punishes their sins by such means. “It is certain,” says St. Jerome, “that to our sin we owe famine, war, pestilence and whatever else we suffer.” Holy writ presents so many examples of this that no one can possibly doubt its truth. Whenever God menaced His chosen people, the Jews, with a general calamity, He invariably made known to them that the visitation would come’upon them on account of their sins. They themselves recognized it, and many times freely acknowledged it. “For we have not obeyed Thy commandments,” says the pious Tobias, “and therefore are we delivered to spoil and to captivity and death, and are made a fable and a reproach to all nations amongst which Thou hast scattered us” (Tobias iii.)

The surest means to prevent such punishments and avert them from the land, is to do true penance; because true penance reconciles God to His offending creatures, as we are taught by numerous examples in Holy Writ. It may be noticed specially of the Jews, that as often as they returned with their whole heart to God, did penance, prayed and fasted, so often did He remit the threatened punishment; or if they were already bowed down under its infliction, He turned it from them. “Let us be penitent,” said the pious Judith to the people of Bethulia, “and with many tears let us beg pardon ” (Judith viii.). Should we at any time be visited by unexpected sorrow or adversity, it will be well that we examine ourselves and see whether sin or impenitence is not perhaps the cause of it.

The only care of St. Leo, when he entered the papal functions, was faithfully to fulfil the onerous duties its proper administration imposed upon him. All his time, all his knowledge, all his faculties were given to it; he thought of no recreation but only of discharging his duty. In whatever station of life you may be, you have some peculiar duties and obligations. Strive to comply with them. Woe to you if you spend more time in idleness or empty enjoyments than in the work which your station requires, and which you, by reason of your position, are bound to perform. How will you stand when it is said to you, “Give an account of thy stewardship?” (St. Luke xvi.). This means, as interpreted by Cornelius a Lapide, “Give an account of thy life, thy station, the work entrusted to thee, thy time, thy abilities and other gifts which God gave thee, that thou mightst use them to His honor, and to thine own and other men’s salvation.” (1)

Image: (7)

Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff



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