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St Leo the Great and the Church of Rome

Gregory DiPippo

This week, we celebrated the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, the founders of the church of Rome, preceded by that of St Irenaeus of Lyon, an important early witness to that church’s primacy, and followed by the feast of its first martyrs. It seems fitting, therefore, to continue with something on the same subject from one of that church’s most splendid Latin writers, Pope St Leo the Great (440-61). The friend and mentor of many of us at VSI, the late Fr Reginald Foster, used to say that if he were ever elected Pope, he would choose “Leo XIV” as his Papal name in honor of him, and also in honor of another, more recent and equally splendid Latinist among the Popes, Leo XIII (1878-1903).

Apart from his writings, the most important monument of Leo I’s career is the basilica of St Mary Major on the Esquiline Hill. Although it was built by his predecessor, Sixtus III, under whom he served as deacon, it is generally thought that he played an important role in the design of its magnificent (and, fortunately for us, very well-preserved) mosaics. As one stands in the nave and looks at them today, it is difficult to remember that the Roman Empire was on the brink of disintegration, and yet it is only fifteen years between Leo’s death and the deposition of the last Western Roman Emperor.

(The upper part of the nave of St Mary Major, with the mosaic arch designed by Pope St Leo I at the end. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Kiss Tamás, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Leo’s concerns are theological, not political, as those of a bishop should be, and he does not address the looming crisis of the Empire directly. Nevetheless, his talk of a happier “refounding” of Rome by the two Apostles strongly suggests that he is aware that the political order whose achivements he praises, and whose flaws he does not ignore, is not long for this world, while the spiritual order which takes its place is something much greater and longer-lasting. Here then is the beginning of his sermon on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul; next week we will see a bit more.

Omnium quidem sanctarum solemnitatum, dilectissimi, totus mundus est particeps, et unius fidei pietas exigit ut quidquid pro salute universorum gestum recolitur, communibus ubique gaudiis celebretur. Verumtamen hodierna festivitas, praeter illam reverentiam quam toto terrarum orbe promeruit, speciali et propria nostrae urbis exsultatione veneranda est: ut ubi praecipuorum apostolorum glorificatus est exitus, ibi in die martyrii eorum sit laetitiae principatus. Isti enim sunt viri per quos tibi Evangelium Christi, Roma, resplenduit; et quae eras magistra erroris, facta es discipula veritatis. Isti sunt sancti patres tui verique pastores, qui te regnis coelestibus inserendam multo melius multoque felicius condiderunt, quam illi quorum studio prima moenium tuorum fundamenta locata sunt: ex quibus is qui tibi nomen dedit fraterna te caede foedavit. Isti sunt qui te ad hanc gloriam provexerunt, ut gens sancta, populus electus, civitas sacerdotalis et regia, per sacram beati Petri sedem caput orbis effecta, latius praesideres religione divina quam dominatione terrena. Quamvis enim multis aucta victoriis jus imperii tui terra marique protuleris, minus tamen est quod tibi bellicus labor subdidit quam quod pax Christiana subjecit.

The whole world, dearly-beloved, does indeed take part in all the holy solemnities, and devotion to the one Faith demands that whatever is remembered as something done for the salvation of all should be celebrated everywhere with common rejoicing. Nonetheless, today’s festivity, apart from that reverence which it has gained in all the world, is to be honoured with special and particular exultation in our city, so that where the death of the chief Apostles was glorified, there also may the predominance of gladness. For these are the men, through whom Christ’s gospel shone upon you, o Rome, and through whom you, who were the teacher of error, became the disciple of the Truth. These are your holy fathers and true shepherds, who founded you so that you might be added among the heavenly kingdoms, and that, in a much better and happier way than did those men, by whose zeal the first foundations of your walls were laid (i.e. Romulus and Remus): of whom the one that gave you your name defiled you with his brother’s murder. These are they who promoted you to such glory, that being made a holy nation, a chosen people, a priestly and royal state, and the head of the world through the blessed Peter’s holy See, you attained a broader sway by divine religion than in earthly government. For although you were increased by many victories, and extended the authority of your rule on land and sea, nevertheless, what your toil in war subdued is less than what the peace of Christ has conquered.

(Ss Peter and Paul, together with a jeweled cross on a throne, and the symbols of the Evangelists; below the throne is written “Xystus Episcopus Plebi Dei – Sixtus the bishop for the people of God.” Detail of the mosaic arch seen above. Image from Wikimedia Commons by MM, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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