Leo’s pontificate took place in the middle of the fifth century (440-461) and was marked by a number of firsts: he was the first pope named Leo, and the first pope to be remembered as “the Great” (later, Gregory I and Nicholas I would also be accorded the honor).
Leo is also the first pope whose sermons have come down to us. He is one of only two popes (the other is Gregory) to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
In 452 the Italian peninsula was faced with invasion by Attila the Hun. Already, large parts of northern Italy had fallen before the invader; the cities of Aquileia, Padua and Milan were conquered, sacked, and razed to the ground.
Attila was now threatening the interior of Italy and camped near Mantua, on the Mincio River. It is here that he met Leo, the bishop of Rome. Leo had come as the head of a delegation to persuade Attila to withdraw his forces.
According to a later legend, during the negotiations, Attila had a vision of the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul, carrying drawn swords, and threatening Attila if he dared to attack the city of Rome. The story can be seen portrayed in the Apostolic Palace, in frescoes by Raphael.
Three years later, Pope Leo stood before a conquering army. Genseric, a Vandal king, appeared at the gates of Rome; and although the great pope could not persuade him to spare the city, he nonetheless convinced him to spare the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, and the Basilicas of Sts. Peter and Paul. The city was captured, but thousands of innocent people were saved when they took refuge in the Christian edifices.
Leo’s greatest ecclesiastical triumph was the Ecumenical Council, promoted by him, which was held in Chalcedon (modern Kadiköy, Turkey). There, the council fathers recognized and reaffirmed the truth of the union of two natures – divine and human – in the one person of Jesus Christ. Leo had proclaimed this truth in a letter, originally addressed to Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople. When Leo’s “Tome” was read at Chalcedon, the Council Fathers cried out “Peter has spoken through Leo!”
Leo the Great was an ardent supporter and promoter of the Primacy of the See of Peter. In almost 100 sermons and letters that have come down to us, the “Great Pope” shows himself as a theologian and a pastor: attentive to the importance of communion between the churches, but never forgetting the needs of the faithful. In all his actions, Leo strove to “uphold justice with constancy,” and to “offer clemency with love” – all in the name of Jesus, since “without Christ we can do nothing, but with Him, we can do all.”
It was remarkable for his care and concern for ordinary women and men through works of charity he accomplished in an era marked by famine, poverty, injustice, and pagan superstition.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini