Pope St Leo I is one of only two Popes (alongside St Gregory I, 590-604) to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church, and one of only three (along with the same Gregory, and Nicholas I, 858-67), who are traditionally given the epithet “the Great.” Born in Tuscany sometime around the turn of the 5th century, after serving as the chief deacon of the Roman church for roughly a decade, he was elected to the papacy on Sept. 29, 440, and reigned for 21 years, dying on November 10, 461. His feast is traditionally kept on this date, the anniversary of one of the translations of his relics; in the post-Conciliar reform of the calendar, it was moved to the date of his death.
Of Leo’s writings, there are over 140 letters and over 90 sermons. His Latin is universally recognized to be superb, a product of the best of Roman rhetorical training: clear, practical, logical, polished, but never effusive. Merely from reading him, one would hardly realize that the society whose traditions formed him stood so close to the edge of the precipice, and yet the fall of the Western Roman Empire took place less than 15 years after his death. He is particularly famous for having persuaded Attila the Hun to turn back from his planned invasion of Italy and plundering of Rome, in 452; three years later, he was unable to stop the Vandals from doing the same but was at least was at least able to prevent a wholesale massacre and destruction.
(The Confrontation of Pope St Leo I and Attila the Hun, fresco by Raphael and students in the Stanza di Eliodoro, now a part of the Vatican Museums. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped.)
Since it is also Holy Week, which is, of course, celebrated in preference to his feast day, let us take a look at one of his twenty-one sermons on the Lord’s Passion. Of course, this can only be a small sample of his beautiful Latin.
St Leo loves to begin his sermons with a reminder that the feast or season on which he is preaching represents something that should always be on the Christian mind.
“Omnia quidem tempora, dilectissimi, Christianorum animos sacramento Dominicae passionis et resurrectionis exercent, neque ullum nostrae religionis officium est quo non tam mundi reconciliatio quam humanae in Christo naturae assumptio celebretur.
All times, indeed, dearly beloved, engage the minds of Christians in the mystery of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection, nor is there any observance in our religion in which both the reconciliation of the world and the taking up of human nature in Christ are not celebrated.”
This is then followed by a reminder of the importance of the observance itself, by which the feast or event becomes not a mere commemoration of an event in the past, but the way in which we live in and are present for that event. This theme is very prominent in his work.
“Sed nunc universam Ecclesiam majori intelligentia instrui, et spe ferventiore oportet accendi, quando ipsa rerum dignitas, ita sacratorum dierum recursu, et paginis evangelicae veritatis exprimitur, ut Pascha Domini non tam praeteritum recoli quam praesens debeat honorari.
But now, it is becoming that the universal Church be instructed with greater understanding and inflamed with more fervent hope since the dignity of these events itself is expressed in the recurrence of these sacred days, and in the pages of the truth of the Gospel, such that the Lord’s Passover ought not so much to be so much remembered as an event in the past, as honored like a matter present.”
The contemplation of these mysteries is always tied to the reality of the incarnation; the events of Christ’s life are truly present to us, just as He Himself is truly present to us. In St Leo’s time, the Church had long been occupied with the controversies over Christ’s nature and the fullness of both His Divinity and His Humanity. He therefore recalls this most important of doctrines to his listeners’ minds as the touchstone for understanding what Christ did for us in the individual events of His earthly life.
“Quam itaque sibi in hujus sacramenti praesidio spem relinquunt, qui in Salvatoris nostri corpore negant humanae substantiae veritatem? Dicant quo sacrificio reconciliati, quo sanguine sint redempti. Quis est qui tradidit semetipsum pro nobis oblationem et hostiam Deo in odorem suavitatis (Ephes. V, 2)? Aut quod umquam sacrificium sacratius fuit quam quod verus Pontifex altari crucis per immolationem suae carnis imposuit?
Therefore, what hope do they leave for themselves in the protection of this mystery, who denies the reality of human substance in the body of our Savior? Let them say by what sacrifice they have been reconciled, by what blood they have been redeemed! Who is it ‘who has given himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God unto the odor of sweetness?’ Or what sacrifice was ever more sacred than that which the true High Priest placed on the altar of the Cross by the offering of His own flesh?”
(A statue of Pope St Leo I in the Basilica of St Ann in Altötting, Bavaria. Note the figure of God the Father holding the Son on the Cross with the Holy Spirit above it, resting upon the book of his sermons: a perfect visual summation of his theology and the focus of his preaching. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Mattana, cropped; CC BY 2.0)