Church Father

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Pope Leo I (400 – 461), also known as Leo the Great, was bishop of Rome from 440 until his death.  He was the first pope to have been called “the Great” and is also a Doctor of the Church.  Theologically, he is most remembered for issuing the Tome of Leo, a document which was a major foundation to the debates of the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth ecumenical council. That meeting dealt primarily with Christology and elucidated the orthodox definition of Christ’s being as the hypostatic union of two natures, divine and human, united in one person, “with neither confusion nor division”. It was followed by a major schism associated with Monophysitism, Miaphysitism and Dyophysitism, resulting in the separation of what would become the Oriental Orthodox Church from the larger Catholic Church.

In 440, after the death of Pope Sixtus III, Leo was elected unanimously by the people to succeed him.  Soon after assuming the papal throne Leo learned that in Aquileia, Pelagians were received into church communion without formal repudiation of their errors; that is the heresy erroneously taught by Pelagius that original sin did not taint human nature and that humans have the free will to achieve human perfection without divine grace.  Pope Leo censured this practice of receiving Pelagians into communion without formal repudiation and directed that a provincial synod be held where such former Pelagians be required make an unequivocal abjuration.  Leo drew many learned men about him and chose Prosper of Aquitaine to act in some secretarial or notarial capacity.  Leo was a significant contributor to the centralisation of spiritual authority within the Church and in reaffirming papal authority. In 450, the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II, in a letter to Pope Leo I, was the first to call the Bishop of Rome the Patriarch of the West, a title that would continue to be used by the popes up until as recently as 2006.  It was also during Leo’s papacy that the term “Pope”, which previously meant any bishop, came to exclusively mean the Bishop of Rome.

As Rome was beset by famines, an influx of refugees, and poverty, Pope Leo promulgated charitable works to ease their suffering. He further associated the practice of fasting with charity and almsgiving.  In his In Nativitate Domini, Christmas Day, sermon, “Christian, remember your dignity”, Leo articulated a fundamental dignity common to all Christians, whether saints or sinners.  In 451, after the indecisive outcome of the Battle of Chalons, Attila the Hun invaded Italy, sacking cities such as Aquileia and heading for Rome. He allegedly demanded that the sister of the reigning Emperor Valentinian III be sent to him with a dowry. In response, the emperor sent Pope Leo I to negotiate with Attila. Little is known of the specifics of the negotiations, but as a result, Attila withdrew. Most ancient and medieval historians give Pope Leo credit for this successful embassy. According to Prosper of Aquitaine, who was alive at the time of the event, Attila was so impressed by Leo that he withdrew.  Leo died in 461 and, as he wished to be buried as close as possible to the tomb of St Peter, his body was entombed within the portico of Old St. Peter’s Basilica.  He was the first pope to be buried within St. Peter’s.

Writings:

  • Tome of Leo
  • Sermons
  • Letters

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