Saint of the Day: St. Leo, Bishop of Rome

(Welcome to our Saint of the Day series! Each weekday, we present you with an excerpt from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints series, published by Holy Cross Orthodox Press.Today's saint, St. Leo, Bishop of Rome, comes from Volume 1 of the series.)

A man of considerable influence while still a deacon, St. Leo had advanced to archdeacon when he was the unanimous choice to become bishop of Rome, oddly enough in absentia, since he was at the time of his elevation somewhere in Gaul settling a dispute between a pair of squabbling generals. The unity of the Christian Church had been tenuous at best for the first thousand years of its existence, since the western sector insisted on the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, while the eastern sector never asserted its bishop’s primacy but deferred to the extent that it conceded that the bishop of Rome was the first among equals.

Born in Rome, or as some historians claim, in Volterra, Tuscany, Leo came in 429, with his outstanding defense of the faith against the heresies, especially those of Nestorians and Eutychians who flouted the Orthodox concept of the dual nature of Jesus Christ. Leo had already shown his superior ability in 431, nine years before becoming bishop of Rome, when he joined with Cyril of Alexandria in suppressing the fa-fetched scheming of Juvenal of Jerusalem, who grasped for power in the Church.

When in 448 Euthyches, an archimandrite of Constantinople, wrote to Leo about a growing concern about the revival of Nestorian heresy in that eastern city, he made that heresy number one in his priorities for the sake of all Christianity. Euthyches meanwhile had been deposed and the emperor convened a council to settle the issue.

Although Leo was not in attendance, he did send three representatives, one of whom read Leo’s eloquent letter addressed to the council in defense of the Orthodox doctrine of the two natures of Christ. For some reason the letter was never read and somehow the opposition, in the person of Dioskoros, bishop of Alexandria, removed from office both Flavian and Eusebios, bishop of Dorylaion, both opposed to Euthyches. When the news reached Leo of this shabby affair, he lost no time in asking the emperor for a new council.

Although Leo would have preferred that the council be held in Italy, the emperor opted for Chalcedon, where in 451 the historic Fourth Ecumenical Synod took place. Leo’s theological stance was upheld, but when the council reasserted an earlier canon establishing the equality of the sees of Rome and Constantinople, Leo refused to accept it. He could never accept the fact that the capital of the empire was Constantinople, clinging to the traditional concept that Rome was the center of the civilized world, which was a political ideology that spilled over onto theological ground.

The textbooks of history, as well as those of the Church, record an event in which Leo is established for all time as a heroic figure, an event for which he is best remembered. The barbarians of western Europe, led by Attila the Hun, had ravaged much of the countryside to the north of Italy and in 452 they began their descent on Rome, looting and pillaging villages along the way until they had reached the town of Peschiera. The barbaric horde was poised to strike the Eternal City, pausing in camp by the Mincio River before gathering for their greatest assault. Emperor Valentinian III saw that the only hope to save the beautiful city, virtually defenseless against insurmountable odds, lay in the hand of Bishop Leo, who did not hesitate to comply with the royal request to save his beloved Rome.

Armed only by a small contingent of churchmen, with civic authorities in the persons of Avienus and Trigetius, consul and governor of Rome respectively, Bishop Leo met the barbarians at the outskirt of the city. Leo not only persuaded the feared Attila to spare the city but induced him to turn back as well. Attila was convinced that there was nothing to be gained by reducing magnificent buildings to rubble and butchering women and children, but it is generally conceded that for going away in peace some tribute had to be paid to the barbarian. Some three years later Leo was less fortunate in saving Rome completely from the barbaric hordes of Gaeseric, the Vandal king. Meeting with Leo outside the city walls, the Vandal asked the bishop to step aside, entering the city for booty alone but sparing it from total destruction.

Bishop Leo died in 461, and his feast day is observed by Orthodoxy on February 18.

Text from Fr. George Poulos' Orthodox Saints. Image from Wikimedia.

Leave a comment