Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, 461

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

About the Commemoration

When Leo was born, about the year 400, the Western Roman Empire was almost in shambles. Weakened  by barbarian invasions ad by a totally inefficient economic and political system, the structure that had been carefully built by Augustus had become a chaos of internal warfare, subversion, and corruption.

The social and political situation notwithstanding, Leo received a good education, and was ordained deacon, with the responsibility of looking after Church possessions, managing the grain dole, and generally administering finances. He won considerable respect for his abilities, and a contemporary of his, Cassian, described him as “the ornament of the Roman Church and the divine ministry.”

In 440, Leo was unanimously elected Pope, despite the face that he was absent at the time on a mission to Gaul. His ability as a preacher shows clearly in the 96 sermons still extant, in which he expounds doctrine, encourages almsgiving, and deals with various heresies, including the Pelegian and the Manichean systems.

In Gaul, Africa, and Spain, Leo’s strong hand was felt as he issued orders to limit the powers of one over-presumptuous bishop, confirmed the rights of another bishop over his vicars, and selected candidates for holy orders. Leo’s letter to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 dealt so effectively with the doctrine of the human and divine natures of the One Person of Christ that the assembled bishops declared, “Peter has spoken by Leo,” and affirmed his definition as orthodox teaching. (See page 864 of the Prayer Book.)

With similar strength of spirit and wisdom, Leo negotiated with Attila when the Huns were about to sack Rome. He persuaded them to withdraw from Italy and to accept and annual tribute. Three years later, Genseric led the Vandals against Rome. Again Leo negotiated. Unable to prevent pillaging by the barbarians, he did dissuade them from burning the city and slaughtering its inhabitants. He worked, thereafter, to repair the damage, to replace the holy vessels in the desecrated churches, and to restore the morale of the Roman people.



I. O Lord our God, grant that thy Church, following the teaching of thy servant Leo of Rome, may hold fast the great mystery of our redemption, and adore the one Christ, true God and true Man, neither divided from our human nature nor separate from thy divine Being; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

II. O Lord our God, grant that your Church, following the teaching of your servant Leo of Rome, may hold fast the great mystery of our redemption, and adore the one Christ, true God and true Man, neither divided from our human nature nor separate from your divine Being; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and  reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


Psalm 77:11-15


Lamentations 3:22-33

2 Timothy 1:6-14

Matthew 5:13-19


Preface for the Epiphany

13 thoughts on “Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, 461

  1. Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, 461
    This commemoration’s write-up gives a great deal in the way of information that is inspiring and important. I thank those who formulated it. With the emphasis diaconate has received, especially in recent decades, as a ministry with its own integrity, over and above its place on the path to ordination for priestly ministry, the emphasis on Leo’s being an outstanding deacon seems particularly important, especially in our context of upheaval in both church and society. I do wish the write-up included some indication of how long he served as deacon before becoming pope (or priest).
    At the end of the bio, I felt there was no wrap-up, summary, or sense of ending. We know from the title that he died in 461, and there’s not much more room on the page, but “He worked, thereafter, to repair the damage, to replace the holy vessels in the desecrated churches, and to restore the morale of the Roman people,” sort of leaves us hanging at the end. How many more years did he do this? Was he successful at it? How did the Roman Empire fare after the Vandals? Even “ever so briefly” a generalization would give a sense of drawing the story to a close. A reminder that he died in 461 wouldn’t be out of place, either.
    The Collects, for their part, concentrate exclusively on his doctrinal contribution, with the petition following suit regarding the Church’s own orthodoxy. I’m sure it would be difficult to add more without greatly abbreviating the present content, but I regret that after saving the city twice, and being such an exemplar of Christian service (both as deacon and as bishop), nothing in the Collect embraces anything other than his admittedly great and doctrine-defining theological insight.
    The lessons, on the whole, are okay, … I suppose, … sort of. The Psalm portion does not seem to me to be an honest use of the Psalm: it excerpts from a profound lament the lines that say in effect, “I’ll try to think about happy stuff, i.e., stories where God helped our ancestors — instead of the mess we’re in now, and instead of the fact that God seems to have abandoned us completely!” (I thought we were above “proof texting” as a church?) Here are the verses (NRSV) just prior to our portion – see if you think we haven’t proof-texted the Psalm:
    7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
    8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time?
    9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah
    10 And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”
    [NOTE: Only then does it go into the verses selected for our use today:]
    11 I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD; I will remember your wonders of old.

    I won’t pick at the other choices, but none seems to me to embrace the robust fullness of the gospel of Christian faith as fully as this commemoration gives us every opportunity and the right to do. I’m sorry to be so picky – it has to be hard to be responsible for ALL these commemorations – but the opportunity is rich beyond words. All in all, I still think it’s an excellent commemoration.

  2. Do we know if Leo was ever ordained a priest, or was he one of the many bishops who were deacons and never priests? Several popes were. He is the last pope we ever hear of preaching until modern times.

    The propers seem fine, and he is certainly worth commemorating.

    • On the preaching of popes after Leo: Gregory the Great (590-604) is famous for his homilies; and to give just one example from the Middle Ages: Pope Urban II preached wildly popular sermons in France in 1095 and 1096 advocating the crusade.

      The first paragraphs of the bio reflect old biases about the fall of Rome. As Peter Brown and others have eloquently demonstrated, while the traditional imperial structure may have been weakening, Roman culture itself and the idea of Rome remained strong. Leo received the traditional classical education, for example. The Roman Empire didn’t fall in 476 when the imperial purple was sent back to Constantinople, for the Empire in the East remained and in the sixth century retook considerable territory on the Italian peninsula.

  3. Is the word “Pope” outlawed? Most of us in The Episcoipal Church know that a Pope is also “Bishop of Rome”, but not to give one of the most important Popes that title seems like petty protestant prejudice.

    Leo wasn’t selected for our calendar merely because he was a Pope. The subheading should reflect at least part of his legacy to us. I suggest “Pope and Theologian”.

    In line 3 of the fifth paragraph: substitute “in return for payment of ” for “and accept”. It wasn’t a problem to get them to accept the money; the point that this was the result of a successful bargain is blurred in the present text.

    • I wondered about “petty protestant prejudice” and our use (or avoidance) of the term “pope,” and I don’t think it’s a black and white issue of pride and prejudice (or hubris and prejudice).
      Leo, for instance, wasn’t elected town crier, assemblyman, councilman-at-large, bishop of Rome, or Ecumenical Archdeacon-Primate. Someone said, “Let’s make Leo the pope” – and they had a unanimous election, and that’s what happened: they did it. I have no idea how they did it in those days, or if white smoke had even been invented yet. But the title was Pope (or its Latin equivalent, which wasn’t much different). I referred to him as pope in my own comment, and I don’t have an allergy to the use of the term even though I treasure my petty protestant prejudice as much as I do my petty catholic ones. At bottom, I don’t think prejudice is the issue (even though it exists), nor does it seem to me to be the line along which the question of the term’s use can be productively resolved.
      “Anachronism” is the best I can do to put a name to “the” issue. Plenty of Episcopalians think of pre-reformation events as “THEIR” history (i.e., someone else’s history), not “OURS.” Thus, for example, Francis of Assisi or St Patrick are “Catholic” saints in the minds of many protestants and catholics alike, because (allegedly) someone has to be post-BCP to be both Anglican and “saint.” To suggest Thomas Aquinas belongs as much to the history of Protestant Christianity as to Catholic Christianity sounds like sheer and absolutely inconceivable nonsense to the uncritical ears of many. So how do we say “Pope” without invoking this [historically fractured] alternate universe wherein Henry VIII invented English Christianity, and Martin Luther patented protest?
      “Bishop of Chicago” suggests to us that someone whose office is probably in Chicago, and is bishop of an area more inclusive than that city, but not thereby all of the world (or North America, or the whole Episcopal Church). “Bishop of Rome” to my ears (apart from special pleading around that term) should accordingly mean something similar – even though that’s not how we commonly use it. And, these days, “Pope” carries extra baggage – infallibility being only one rather large suitcase. (See recent dialogues for the complete bill of lading.)
      I’d guess “Bishop of Rome” is probably going to retain its place in our parlance. Primate of the Latin Church, or Primate of the Roman Catholic Church, might work — for me – although I recognize that nobody else is likely to buy into it. At bottom, I can’t agree with anyone on this one: “Pope” doesn’t seem to be a good term for the post-Reformation era (nor for those who retroject modern issues into anachronistic pre-Reformation contexts), and “Bishop of Rome” doesn’t sound sufficient to my ears even for the pre-Reformation period (other than when it really did mean bishop of, you know, ROME). I don’t have a solution, but I also don’t think it’s a “petty” matter – it’s one for which we just don’t seem to have a good alternative. But Leo was elected Pope, and anyone who says otherwise must not have been paying attention to the election returns.

  4. I just noticed a typo (and no, I didn’t check it against the printed edition) where the blog version says “FACE” instead of “FACT.” (“In 440, Leo was unanimously elected Pope, despite the face that he was absent …”)

    • Ditto — opening sentence — “AD” instead of “AND.” (“Weakened by barbarian invasions ad by …”)

      Also, last paragraph, second sentence, (“…to accept and annual tribute”) — it has “AND” where it needs “AN.”

      • Both are typos on the blog. They are correct in the printed edition.

        And apparently the blog-master has taken Veteran’s Day off – and we will catch up on Saint Martin of Tours another day. 🙂

  5. The bio uses the word ‘pope’, but I’d argue against it there as well. Not out of protestant prejudice, although I have plenty of that, but because the word did not mean in Leo’s time what it means today. Other important bishops were also called popes, and at the time he was elected being Bishop of Rome did not automatically imply a claim to universal primacy—although Leo certainly did all he could to try and bring that about, if I remember correctly. It would be less anachronistic to call him ‘Metropolitan’ or ‘Patriarch’ than ‘Pope’.

    And since space is always tight, I’d rather see a bit less said about his political and administrative gifts, which by themselves would not give him a place on the calendar, and the space given to a sentence or two about why the issue of the two natures in Christ was considered so important, and how decisive his support for what is now orthodoxy was.

    And in the collect, as always, I’d rather pray that the church be like Leo in following Christ’s teaching than that we follow Leo’s teaching. Eliminate the middle-man whenever possible.

  6. Laying primacy aside, there are solid reasons to avoid styling Leo “pope” rather than “bishop of Rome.” According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “pope” has been “the title, since about the 9th century, of the bishop of Rome, the head of the Roman Catholic church. It was formerly given, especially from the 3rd to the 5th century, to any bishop and sometimes to simple priests as an ecclesiastical title expressing affectionate respect. It is still used in the East for the Orthodox patriarch of Alexandria and for Orthodox priests.”
    Thus it’s anachronistic with regards to Leo himself, and potentially confusing in a calendar that includes Orthodox as well as Roman saints. Someone reared in the Orthodox –rather than the Latin — tradition and as clueless about our context as we are about theirs might well be puzzled: “Of which pope does the author speak? The one at Alexandria or another?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s