November 10, 2020
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Today is the feast of St. Leo the Great, a fifth-century pope who pastored the Church of Rome for 21 years.
When you walk into St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, it is safe to say the response is breathtaking. The beauty that surrounds you is almost too much to appreciate. Walking up the main aisle on the floor, you see markings dedicated to the greatest churches in the world with the measurements of the churches’ structures. The markings not only tell the size but where the church would fit inside St. Peter’s. The confessional of St. Peter (where his bones have been placed) is prominently placed before the baldacchino (the four-post covering over the main altar).
A space behind the main altar is referred to as the “Altar of the Chair” because the Chair of St. Peter is suspended above that altar. (Some speculate that it is the chair of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor.)
A side altar to the right of the Altar of the Chair is an altar dedicated to Pope St. Leo the Great. The backdrop of the altar depicts a bas relief, which pictures Pope St. Leo the Great confronting Attila the Hun. It was reputed that Attila the Hun was told by Pope Leo that God would defend the Eternal City with the forces of heaven. The bas relief shows Saints Peter and Paul with swords drawn, surrounded by angels descending from heaven. The legend of Pope Leo has him traveling to meet Attila (known as the “Scourge of God”) on a donkey, dressed in his white papal cassock.
There is little doubt that the Church celebrates his courage. I cannot imagine a lone figure approaching the most feared barbarian leader in the known world. Attila did not attack Rome and seemingly dispersed his troops and his marauding ways. What made Attila change his course of action? An old man on a donkey? I think not! It was the power of God using the weak to confound the strong. However, Leo needed to display confidence that God would be with him and allow God to use him as an instrument. This confidence somehow touched the heart of Attila.
This action certainly would be enough to set Leo apart from other papal figures. However, during his papacy, Pope Leo also defended the teachings that Jesus Christ was true God and true man, denying heresies to the contrary. He sent missionaries to Africa, imposed discipline on bishops, and challenged pagan celebrations and sites.
Leo recognized his responsibility as a leader, as well as the nature of the Church he defended. We listen to his own words in a sermon he preached:
Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists as an integral whole, just as the Apostle says. We are all one in Christ, nor is anyone separated from the office of another in such a way that a lower group has no connection with the head. In the unity of faith and baptism, our community is then undivided. There is a common dignity, as the apostle Peter says in these words. And, you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood offering spiritual sacrifices, which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And, again: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of election.
There are only two other Popes who are referred to as “great,” Gregory and Nicholas. Their extraordinary deeds and leadership influenced the Church and made Jesus the priority of all actions. Under their direction, we progressed in the mission of the Church.
Recently, another Pope by popular acclamation was termed “great” – St. John Paul II. Referred to as “great” by Pope Benedict XVI, there have been numerous instances when he made us all proud to be Catholics and followers of Christ. May we all draw strength from the great courage of our papal leaders and progress in our mission to LOVE ONE ANOTHER.
Most Reverend Jerome E. Listecki
Archbishop of Milwaukee