Pope Leo I was the bishop of Rome from 440 to 461. He is remembered as one of the greatest popes in the history of the papacy. Born in Tuscany, Western Roman Empire, he grew up in an aristocratic Roman family. Not much information is available about his early life. He served as the archdeacon of the ‘Roman Church’ under Pope Celestine I. Leo had also earned respect from the emperor Valentinian III, who often relied on Leo to settle his political disputes. Pope Sixtus III passed away in 440. Soon after that, Leo was elected as the new pope by a unanimous decision. He was immensely respected. Thus, his election as the pope was not debated. He immediately devoted himself to the service of God and worked hard to call out the heresies that were flourishing under his reign, such as Pelagianism and Manichaeism. He also addressed the issue of Jesus Christ’s existence as both divine and human. He wrote a letter that proclaimed that Jesus was a combined form of humanity and spirituality. This reunited the opposing Christian sects. He was also instrumental in bringing about peace between Rome and Attila the Hun. About 100 of his sermons and 150 letters have been preserved to this day.
Childhood & Early Life
Pope Leo I was born Leo, in 400 A.D., in Tuscany, Western Roman Empire. Many sources claim that he belonged to a wealthy and aristocratic Roman family. Hence, he was taught reading and writing and was well-versed in science and philosophy.
He had joined the Church early in life and thus became a deacon sometime in his 20s. By the time he was in his early 30s, his reputation had crossed the national borders. According to Leo’s suggestion, Christian monk John Cassian wrote a treatise opposing Constantinople’s archbishop Nestorius and dedicated it wholly to Leo.
Cyril of Alexandria made an appeal to Rome to help him with his jurisdictional dispute. It is not clear whether he had asked for help from Leo directly or had approached Pope Celestine I. However, the fact that Leo was recognized as a man with a great presence of mind and an impeccable sense of justice was certain.
The Western Roman emperor Valentinian III also asked for Leo’s help to settle a dispute in Gaul. Apparently, there had been a dispute between Gaul’s military commander and chief magistrate, toward the end of Pope Sixtus III’s reign.
Pope Sixtus III passed away in August 440. Leo was the prime candidate for taking over the papacy. He was in Gaul at that time, adhering to the emperor’s wishes of bringing peace between the two administrative parties.
Leo returned immediately and was elected as the pope by a unanimous decision. His term as the new pope began on September 29, 440.
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Over the years of his papacy, he earned a great reputation. He began working as “Peter’s Successor.” The different doctrines in Christianity had divided the religion into different sects. He worked tirelessly to ensure unity among all sects of the faith.
One of his main tasks was to call out and remove the heresies that threatened the sanctity and, to some extent, the existence of the ‘Western Church.’
One of the most troubling heresies was known as Pelagianism. The Pelagians opposed the Original Sin and proclaimed that there was no substance in the claim that God’s grace was required for true salvation. Leo rooted out the heresy.
Manichaeism was yet another troubling heresy, According to Manichaeism, Jesus possessed three separate identities: (a) Jesus, the Luminous, (b) Jesus, the Messiah, and (c) Jesus patibilis (the suffering Jesus). It thus rejected the ‘New Testament’ and the teachings written in the gospels. Pope Leo tried his best to save the orthodox teachings of the ‘Christian Church,’ which had been gravely endangered by then. Thus, the whole Orthodox Christian community credits Leo for saving their faith.
Leo had assumed papacy at a time when Rome was vulnerable to barbaric foreign attacks. Along with this, the ever-decreasing imperial authority in the West was another burning issue. This led Leo to become more active in political and administrative matters.
He thus ardently worked toward bringing the much-needed unity among the different sects of Christianity, by promoting the papal primacy, which was based on the succession of Peter the Apostle. He was also known as “Peter’s Successor.” He greatly admired Peter and called himself the unworthy heir and deputy (vicarius) of the apostle. He mentioned that he was just following Peter’s example.
In 452, Attila the Hun, who had launched his invasion of Italy, began approaching Rome. He demanded that the sister of Emperor Valentinian III must be sent to him, along with a significant dowry. The emperor was worried and sent a peace envoy to meet Attila. The envoy also included Leo. There is no detailed record available about what happened in the meeting, but it is known that Attila withdrew. Many historians claim that Leo’s negotiating skills had done the task.
Leo was also an accomplished writer, and most of his sermons and letters revolved around the debate regarding the true identity of Jesus Christ. Back then, there was an on-going debate between various sects of Christians about whether Jesus was a divine being or a human being. Leo sent numerous letters to the bishops around the empire and the imperial family members, claiming that Jesus was a symbol of both humanity and divinity.
He raised this topic in many of his most popular sermons. He also developed his own concepts around this subject. He made enough contributions to Christology and claimed that if Jesus had been a divine being, everything about him would have been divine. He also claimed that the fact that he took birth as a human being motivated an average Christian to attain true salvation.
Leo also devoted a lot of time helping the people of Rome in times of great difficulty. He always helped people deal with calamities such as famines, poverty, and refugee crises. He also inspired a huge number of people to devote themselves to such humanitarian work. He mentioned in one of his sermons that Christianity was not only about adhering to the gospels, but it was also about going out in the world and trying to heal it of all its sufferings.
He was also widely recognized for his many sermons. He had the ability to reach out to all and meet their needs through his words. It was because of his great sermons and letters that he is recognized as one of the greatest popes in the history of the papacy.
Several of his letters and sermons survived and became testaments to the great life he led.
Death & Legacy
Pope Leo I passed away on November 10, 461, in Rome. He had requested to be buried as close to Peter the Apostle as possible. His last wish was fulfilled when in 688, his remains were moved inside ‘St. Peter’s Basilica.’
Pope Benedict XIV honored Leo with the title of the “Doctor of the Church” in 1754. Only one other pope, Pope Gregory, has been granted the honor to date.
His feast day is celebrated on November 10, the day he passed away.
Both the ‘Eastern Orthodox Church’ and the ‘Eastern Catholic Churches’ celebrate “Saint Leo Day” on February 18 every year.