Feast Day: November 10th | Confessor and Doctor of the Church | Patron of Confessors, Popes, Moral Theology, and Vocations
Historians tell us that in the year 452, the 50-something year old pope, who had been the first to take the Papal name Leo [“The Lion”!], made his way to the North of Italy to stop Attila the Hun. Honorious, the roman emperor at that time, faced catechism on all sides and had no armies with which to turn back the ravaging horsemen led by the Hun. Prosper, a Christian chronicler, tells us what happened in his record from just a few years after:
“Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube.”
What happened in that most famous encounter of one of our most famous Popes? Loved for his courageous leadership over a weakened Rome. Known for his calling the largest ecumenical council, at Chalcedon, where our faith in Christ’s human and divine natures was finally clarified – “Peter has spoken through Leo” they chanted. And treasured for his legendary sermons and writings that continue to shine like gems amidst the mountain of reflections down through the Christian centuries on so many feasts of Our Lord and His saints. … Yet why did Attila turn his armies back north, abandoning hopes of conquering Europe? How did the wizened pope in vestments defend the Christian world from the onslaught of the Huns, who would themselves be conquered by Christ once they settled on the fringes of Christendom in the decades after?
We turn from the historians and the chronicles to receive from ordinary Christians the amazing story. This legend, passed from town to town, of course has been embellished over the ages, yet perhaps it is a bit closer to what actually happened that famous day, for physics and phalanxes did not turn back Attila, but faith. Leo – to tell the tale as a Christian father back then might have told his children – stepped before the barbarian … and fell to his knees. He did not adore the invader, for he only gave worship to Christ, but he did beseech him:
“The people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now kneel conquered. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, you could have no greater glory than to see suppliant at your feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. You have subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands granted to the Romans. Now we pray that you, who have conquered others, should conquer yourself. The people have felt your scourge. Now they would feel your mercy.”
Astonished by the meekness of the aged pontiff, Attila stared at the sight of the robed man, alone between his armies and the riches and fame of Rome. And then his gaze was forced aloft. There, on either side of this ambassador of Christ, stood the giant figures of Peter and Paul, each holding flaming swords in defense of the Kingdom of Christ. As Attila watched, he saw row upon row, rank upon rank, host upon host of heavenly defenders, gleaming and glorious against the darkened sky. The Pope kneeling could not be ignored, his humility shook the tyrant, a greater power rested in the aged heart of that lion than that in the might of all the Huns at Attilla’s command. Attila swore to an enduring truce, turned his armies north, and left Italy and all that could have been conquered there to the authority, and leadership, of Leo, and Christ.
Though we are not certain of Leo’s exact words that evening to Attila, perhaps this quotation of his reminds us that the same power that was at work through him on that occasion is that which God desires all of us to wield in our own battles: “If indeed we are the temple of God and the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts…we must work with much vigilance to make the chamber of our heart not unworthy of so great a guest.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin simply takes for his prayer this week an ancient hymn of praise to God for this Great pope Leo. Perhaps pray it as you look upon this pope as displayed in one of the windows of our Cathedral! “You were the Church’s instrument / in strengthening the teaching of true doctrine; / you shone forth from the West like a sun dispelling the errors of the heretics. / Righteous Leo, entreat Christ God to grant us His great mercy. // O Champion of Orthodoxy, and teacher of holiness, / The enlightenment of the universe and the inspired glory of true believers. / O most wise Father Leo, your teachings are as music of the Holy Spirit for us! / Pray that Christ our God may save our souls! // Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo, / you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions. / With divinely inspired teachings of the honored Trinity, / you shed the light of the knowledge of God up-on your flock. / Therefore, you are glorified as a divine initiate of the grace of God.”