I write this on the feast of St. Leo the Great, Pope and Confessor. Only two popes carry the designation “Great”: St. Leo and St. Gregory. They were bishops of Rome during a most trying time in the history of the West, when the Roman Empire was falling apart and the barbarian invasions were beginning in earnest. There is the famous painting of Pope Leo the Great meeting Attila the Hun outside the gates of Rome. Tradition tells us that Pope Leo succeeded in persuading Attila not to sack Rome. Unfortunately Rome was sacked and pillaged not too long after that by another barbarian invader.
Pope Leo found himself in a position where he had to be not only the Bishop of Rome but also had to take on the civic responsibilities of the city that had been largely abandoned by the Emperors. It was he who began the practice of fasting, prayer and alms-giving at those four “Ember” seasons of the Church Year. Those Ember Days were foolishly eliminated by the reforms after the Second Vatican Council.
St. Leo was a fine theologian. It was he who wrote the famous Tome of Leo that was read at the Council of Chalcedon, a council called to condemn those who denied the full divinity and full humanity of Christ. The Council Fathers declared that in reading St Leo’s theological letter, the Tome, that “Peter himself has spoken.” And this brings us to what is probably St. Leo’s greatest contribution to the theology of the Church: his insistence on the primacy of the See of Rome over the whole Church. The special relationship between Peter and Christ is granted to each of St. Peter’s successors. The Bishop of Rome is the Vicar (that means “in the place of”) of Peter and hence that special relationship between the Rock and Christ is enjoyed by every Bishop of Rome and therefore demands his primacy over the whole Church. The history of the papacy in a real sense begins with St. Leo and continues even to our day with the present Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis. We pray that the present Bishop of Rome will use St. Leo as his model of fulfilling his God- given duties as the Successor of Peter and that he will be as strong a defender of what has been handed down to him in the Sacred Tradition of the Church as was St. Leo, and that he will realize that he is called to be a faithful defender and teacher of the Tradition, never to be an innovator and never to be associated with those who depart from the Tradition with “itching ears” . Let St. Paul have the last say in his Second Letter to Timothy:
“I charge you...(to) preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths. As for you, always be steady, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
St. Leo the Great, pray for the Church at this time!
Fr. Richard Gennaro Cipolla