Saint Leo the Great

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Saint Leo the Great

Saint Leo The Great (born 400, died 461 A.D.) the most significant Pope to guide the Universal Church during a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing. Pope Leo I, was a wise individual that brilliantly and energetically confronted extraordinary challenges from barbarians, heresy, Roman authority and dogmatic doctrine. Pope Leo's twenty-one year papacy (440-461 A.D.) in the middle of the fifth century earned him the title Leo 'The Great'. One of only three Popes in the First Christian Millenium with that distinction, along with Pope Saint Gregory the Great and Pope St. Nicholas the Great. His legacy comprises 96 sermons and 143 letters. One of only thirty-six Saints to be called Doctor of the Church. Pope St. Leo the Great is most remembered for his famous Tome explaining Christology, that received universally recognition at the Council of Chalcedon, with the acclamation "Peter has spoken thus through Leo". It is regarded by Roman Catholics as an early ex cathedra statement.

Early Christian Life

Little is known about the man's early life. St. Leo hails from Tuscany. Well educated, he became a deacon in the Roman Church during the pontificate of Pope Celestine I. As deacon, Leo was sent by the Imperial Court under authority of Roman Emperor Valentinian III, with significant task of treatise. He was to reconcile a dispute between the chief magistrate and the provinces military commander. This would be the first of many successful negotiations he commanded throughout his Christian ministry. During this time, Pope Sixtus III died and St. Leo I, was unanimously chosen as Bishop of Rome on September 29, 440.

Roman Authority

According to Pope Leo, the Church is built upon Saint Peter and the promise from scripture, Matthew 16:16-19. Everything is of Christ and Peter's role embodies the Roman Church. What is held in common with Christ, St. Peter and the Apostles, held through Pope Leo and is true of his successors. Pope Leo urges strict observance to all canons and the disciplines. Thus, the Church manifested itself by Pope Leo in the most distinctive of ways. He obtained an Imperial script that confirmed authority of the Pope over his bishops. Ruled that the bishops are charged with the care of their own special regions of people, with Rome leadership. Plus, Leo had autonomous rule and unity with the Roman Emperor. The decline of the Empire, the breakdown of morality and disorder from barbarians, disrupted all conditions of life. Leo's sermons, letters and edicts would define Christ and be used against heretics and those threatening Rome. Unity of Western Christology, in the name of Jesus, was his goal during a time of great upheaval.


Throughout his entire papacy, Pope Leo felt compelled to combat heretics. From across Rome's vast empire Gauls, Goths, Pelagians, Manicheans, Priscillians, Vandals, Huns and Rome politicians corrupted early Christian life. His own church had deviated in Constantinople and Sicily, which earned strong rebukes from Leo. The doctrine of the Incarnation was devised out of his dealings with Constantinople. Pope Leo I, convened the Fourth Ecumenical Council, The Council of Chalcedon in 451. This was a major factor in condemning heresy. What followed was an expression of Catholic faith concerning the person of Christ.[1] First to define Christ as one person, two very distinct natures, Divine and human. Often sighted as his greatest letter, The Tome to Flavian became a significant achievement to unify around.

Manicheans were persecuted by the Vandals. They fled from North Africa to Rome in 439 and secretly organized their religion during Pope Leo's reign. Leo learned of this around 443 and warned the early Christians to report on them for their heresy. On June 19, 445 Roman Emperor Valentinian III was instructed by Pope Leo to convert, punish or drive out Manicheans.

In Spain, the heresy of Priscillianism had been attracting dissent. Leo insisted on the exact observance of the ecclesiastical precepts and refuted their heresy. Pope Leo convened all neighbouring provincial bishops to determine whether any had become tainted with the poison of this heresy. Should any such be discovered, they were to be excommunicated without hesitation.


Vatican fresco painting of St Leo and Attila, completed during the pontificate of Leo X

Attila the Hun, the former Roman prisoner who was called the "Scourge of God", had invaded Italy. Filled with anger and vengeance, for three years his troops marched to destroy cities on their way to Rome in 452. Pope Leo sought out to reconcile with Attila before they entered Rome. In a face to face discussion, a miraculous image of Saints Peter and Paul with a swords appeared overhead of Leo, invoking great fear into Attila. The Pope persuaded him to turn back. A 16th century fresco was created at the Vatican depicting the event. See Vatican Room of Heliodorus

Roman dominion over Latin North Africa forced Vandals to enter Rome. Three years after the Hun, the Vandal Genseric fought the Empire. Again Leo, by Godly power and Holy authority, persuaded Genseric to stop the destruction and slaughter.

St. Leo died peacefully in the year 461.


  1. Saints & Angles

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