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Saint Leo the Great: The Most Important Saint You’ve Never Heard Of

Without him, Christianity would look very different


Leo the Great and Attila the Hun (Image: marys-touch.com)



THREE MINUTES WITH THE SAINTS by Paul Combs



Not many people throughout history get the title “the Great” added to their name, the two most recognizable being Alexander the Great and Catherine the Great. It happens even less when talking about the popes, as only three have been so honored over a two thousand year period: St. Leo the Great, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Nicholas the Great. A fourth, St. John Paul II, increasingly has “the Great” attached to his name, but it’s neither widespread nor official at this point.


There is likely no one over the age of twenty who doesn’t know who John Paul II was (and even most under 20 as well), given the impact the man and his 26-year-long pontificate had on the final decades of the 20th century. It could easily be argued, however, that Pope St. Leo the Great had an even bigger impact, and few today know anything about him, including practicing Catholics, an error that needs correcting. Also, please note that Leo was his name both at birth and as pope; the tradition of popes taking a new name did not begin until 533.


Born into an aristocratic Roman family in Tuscany in the year 400, by 431 he was well known and respected for his holiness, intelligence, and ability to reconcile disputing groups of Christians. In 440, he was on a mission to Gaul to bring peace between a military commander and a chief judge when Pope Sixtus III died and Leo was unanimously elected to succeed him. This shows the respect he had both among the people and his fellow clergy, as unanimous elections were rare both then and now.


Leo took his role as the successor of St. Peter very seriously, and unlike many before or since was able to balance the dual aspects of the papacy, attending to both administrative and spiritual issues with equal energy. He was also the first Pope to claim to be Peter’s heir rather than simply his successor; by Roman law, this meant he held all of the rights and duties associated with Peter. This idea developed into the popes being seen as having authority not only over the people but also over their fellow bishops (based upon Matthew 16:16–19) and helped solidify the role of the pope as we know it today.


Leo was tireless in rooting out the many heresies that cropped up in the early days of the Church. The most significant ones he battled successfully were Pelagianism (which denied original sin and minimized the necessity of God’s grace for salvation); Manichaeism (which saw the human body, Creation, and even matter itself as evil); and finally the heresy that questioned the truth that Jesus was both fully human and fully Divine.


Those people who know anything about Leo today typically know him for a decidedly non-theological event. In 452, he met personally with Attila the Hun near Mantua, Italy, and persuaded Attila to not sack the city of Rome. The most reliable sources quote Leo as appealing to him to have mercy on the people of the city, while tradition also claims Attila saw a vision of Saints Peter and Paul above them during the meeting which caused him to spare Rome.


Leo died on November 10, 461. His body rests in St. Peter’s Basilica under a marble relief depicting his meeting with Attila the Hun, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1754. During his General Audience on March 5, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI called Leo’s papacy “undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history,” and nearly 100 of his sermons and 150 of his letters have been preserved after more than 1500 years. He truly was St. Leo the Great.

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