Attila the Hun was no match for this Pope

"The Meeting between Leo the Great and Attila" by Raphael depicts Pope St. Leo I, escorted by Sts. Peter and Saint Paul, meeting with the Hun king outside Rome (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Kimberly Bruce

What makes one “Great”? 

The title “Great” added to a saint’s name is not an official title bestowed by the Church. Rather, it is popularly conferred upon a saint because of his or her historical contributions, significance, and saintly reputation in the age in which he/she lived. 

Pope St. Leo the Great, whose feast day we celebrate Nov. 10, is commonly referred to as “Doctor of the Church’s Unity.” But what is a Doctor of the Church?

Doctor 101
The title “Doctor of the Church” is awarded to a saint after careful examination of his/her writings and officially established by a decree of the Vatican Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, and approval by the pope. 

Pope Benedict XIV, who governed the Church in the 18th century, mentions three things necessary to pronounce someone a “Doctor of the Church”:

1.    He/She must have taught with such holy wisdom that through him/her “darkness of error was scattered, dark things were made clear, doubts resolved, the difficulties of Scripture opened.”
2.    He/She must have shown heroic sanctity.
3.    He/She must be declared “Doctor of the Church” by a pope or general council.

Presently, there are 37 Doctors of the Church. Pope St. Leo the Great, from the 5th century, is one of the earliest saints amongst them.

Born near the end of the fourth century, Leo was of Tuscan nationality and spent his early years in Rome. He was ordained a deacon under Pope Celestine I (422-432). 

A known lover of peace and unity, Leo was sent by the Emperor Valentinian III, during the subsequent pontificate of Pope Sixtus III, to reconcile a dispute between the chief military commander of the province and the chief magistrate. Such confidence was had in his abilities, that upon Sixtus’ death in the year 440, Leo was elevated to Pope.

Leader of the Church during a time of great trials, Pope Leo had to combat serious heresies threatening Church unity such as Nestorianism (belief in two separate persons in Christ), Pelagianism (denying the doctrine of original sin), and even the heresy brought by the monk, Eutyches, who denied the two natures (divine and human) in Christ.

Pope Leo’s most prominent claim to fame was when the Council of Chalcedon in 451 formally endorsed Pope Leo's teaching that “Christ is at once both fully God and fully man” in the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Primacy of the pope
Not only did Pope Leo work to preserve Church teaching and unity, but he constantly emphasized the primacy of the Roman Pontiff. Pope St. John XXIII, in his encyclical Aeterna Dei Sapientia (On Commemorating the Fifteenth Centennial of the Death of Pope St. Leo I: The See of Peter as the Center of Christian Unity), cites St. Leo, who said:

The Lord takes special care of Peter; He prays especially for Peter’s faith, for the state of the rest will be more secure if the mind of their chief be not overthrown. Hence the strength of all the rest is made stronger in Peter, and the assistance of divine grace is so ordained that the stability which through Christ is given to Peter, should through Peter be transmitted to the other apostles.

Pope Leo attributed his successes as pope more to the virtue of his office as the successor of St. Peter, than because of his own doings. He said, “If anything is rightly done and rightly decreed by Us, if anything is won from the mercy of God by Our daily supplications, it is due to his [Peter’s] works and merits, whose power lives and whose authority prevails in his See.”

Pope Leo was known, as well, for exhibiting charisms of mercy, Marian devotion, and devotion to the Eucharist. In his letters to princes and clergy alike, Pope St. John XXIII said, St. Leo was always “a father most ready to forgive.”

Of the Blessed Mother, Pope Leo praised Mary as “the Lord’s virgin, handmaid and mother” who participated in the birth “of the body, the Church.” 

Pertaining to the Eucharist, St. Leo said, “the reception of Christ’s Body and Blood does nothing less than transform us into that which we consume, and henceforth we bear in soul and body Him in whose fellowship we died, were buried, and are risen again.”

Attila the Hun
Among St. Leo’s more spectacular achievements was the miraculous interaction that took place between this great saint and Attila the Hun in the year 452. Attila, who had just come to sack and burn Rome after sacking Aquileia, Milan, and Pavia, was boldly met by Pope Leo upon his arrival in the city. Attila turned his troops around. Asked why he did this, Attila responded that he saw Sts. Peter and Paul standing behind Pope Leo. Fascinated, he withdrew. 

Two years later, Rome fell prey to the Vandals, but, again, Pope Leo was successful in saving it from destruction.

Pope St. Leo died in 461 after governing the Church for more than 20 years. 

Pope St. John XXIII said that St. Leo “so won the admiration of the world and the enthusiasm alike of Councils, Fathers and writers of the Church that the fame and reputation of this wisest of popes can hardly be rivaled by any other of the Church’s holy doctors.”

Pope St. Leo the Great, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!

Please help the Marian Fathers in their work to get St. Faustina declared a Doctor of the Church! If you haven’t already, please sign the petition.


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