The Kindness of Pope Leo
Pope St. Leo the Great died on this day in 461 AD after being pope for 21 years. He was and is considered “great” for his pastoral care of his people through adept diplomacy, teaching, and charity. It's because of his encouragement to us to be charitable that makes him "great" in my book.
Regarding diplomacy, by 455 AD Attila the Hun drove his nomadic horsemen across the Danube from Central Asia and through Hungary, deep into Roman territory, sacking parts of Gaul then Pavia and Milan, and driving all the way to Rome. Terrified, the Roman political leaders begged Leo to go and meet the “barbarian” from the East. Pope Leo did so, approaching the Hun and his hordes in a simple but regal manner.
According to one account Attila was so impressed by the pope that he decided not to invade. Another later account includes Pope Leo giving a fiery speech as Saints Peter and Paul appeared flanking Pope Leo and threatening Attila. In truth, Pope Leo negotiated a financial tribute to the Huns that spared the people of Rome and the Church. It is written that Pope Leo did this without hesitation, showing no fear, and confident that all would be well. The gates of hell shall not prevail, after all.
Regarding Church teaching, Pope Leo was forced to settle a number of minor heresies in Spain and elsewhere, all of them variations of the same heresy. But it was during the Council of Chalcedon (451AD) that Pope Leo provided an explanation of the relationship between Jesus’ two natures. Chalcedon was necessary because at a council now called the Robber Council of Ephesus (449AD), supporters of the excommunicated priest Eutyches (pronounced YOU-te-kees) denied that Jesus had two natures and asserting that Jesus was only divine. The small number of bishops who attended the Robber Council never included an opportunity for the Bishop of Constantinople, St. Felix, to defend the orthodox position. Neither did Eutyches or his supporters allow a letter written by Pope Leo to be read. As a result of these events, Pope Leo called the Council of Chalcedon. Though he could not attend himself, he sent representatives. This time, his letter was read to the attending Fathers explaining the two-fold nature of Jesus, and upon its completion a cry was made in the chamber, “Peter has spoken through Leo!”
But it is Leo’s attention to charity that most interests me. We have close to 96 sermons given by Pope Leo. And in his sermons he often brought up a Christian’s responsibility to charity. In Sermon #9, for instance, he wrote that Jesus’ presence in our time is not only in “his glory which we adore him as King and Lord” but “we might also find him in his poor.” The wealthy, Leo wrote, “shall be set free in an evil day from perpetual damnation” if that take “considerate care of the poor.” He goes on to say that even if the wealthy person were virtuous in every other way but lacked “of this one virtue” of charity to the poor, every other good act would be “of no avail.” This is how important giving to the poor is. It could save your soul when all else fails.
In Sermon #10 he said that “there are three things which most belong to religious actions, namely prayer, fasting, and almsgiving,"or giving to the poor. “In prayer faith remains steadfast, in fastings life remains innocent, in almsgiving the mind remains kind.” You see, by giving from our excess and, maybe even giving when it hurts us, we help to shape our minds in and through and for a kindness that we need in this world. Through almsgiving or service to the poor, we ourselves become more ourselves and so become kinder. And, look, we could use a whole lot of kindness in our world today.
So, let us pray to Pope St. Leo the Great for the kindness that we need in our time and for the grace to give to the poor, particularly as we enter the holiday season.