We have no record of his early life, but Leo was probably born of Tuscan parents at Rome around the year 400, at a time when the western Roman Empire was collapsing. Weakened by Germanic invasions and by an inefficient imperial administrative system, the structure that had been built up since the time of Augustus had descended into a chaos of internal warfare, subversion, and corruption. Nevertheless, Leo received a good education and was ordained to the diaconate, serving under popes Celestine the First and Sixtus the Third. At this time the seven deacons of the Church at Rome still had considerable administrative authority, looking after the Church’s possessions and managing the city’s grain dole, and one of their number was usually chosen bishop. Leo had sufficient authority to correspond with Cyril of Alexandria, and for John Cassian to dedicate a theological treatise to him. Leo won considerable respect for his abilities, and Cassian described him as “the ornament of the Roman Church and the divine ministry”.
In 440, Leo was unanimously elected bishop of Rome, despite his being absent from Rome on a mission to make peace between two generals whose differences threatened the safety of Gaul from Germanic invasions. During his twenty year episcopate, Leo served energetically to administer and oversee both the Church and the city. He worked to free Rome from the power of the Germanic invaders and to restore the spiritual and material damage they had caused. His ability as a preacher is demonstrated in the 96 extant sermons, in which he expounds doctrine, encourages almsgiving, and deals with various heresies, including Manichaeism, Priscillianism, and Pelagianism. In his writings and actions a deep conviction that the doctrinal primacy of Rome was of divine and scriptural authority shines, and throughout his pontificate he consolidated and increased the influence and prestige of the papacy.
His surviving letters, some 143 in all, reveal a similar care for the Church in Spain, Gaul, and Africa. He issued orders to limit the powers of one overreaching metropolitan, reasserting the tradition whereby bishops had a right of appeal to Rome. He confirmed the rights of another bishop over his vicars and selected candidates for holy orders.
Hist greatest achievement was the acceptance of his letter to the Council of Chalcedon in the year 451, in which he demonstrated, as in his other writings, a remarkable clarity of though and felicity of wording. Jesus Christ, he taught, is one Person, the Divine Word, in whom the two natures, human and divine, are permanently united without confusion of mixture. When the Council heard the letter read by Leo’s legates, they declared, “Peter has spoken by Leo”, and affirmed his definition as the orthodox teaching of the whole Church.
Leo showed similar strength and wisdom when in the year 452 the Huns, having already sacked Milan and having caused terror throughout northern Italy, threatened the city of Rome. In negotiations with their leader, Attila, Leo persuaded the Huns to withdraw from Italy and to accept an annual tribute. Three years later, Genseric led the Vandals against Rome. Again Leo came out of the city to meet a barbarian leader, as Rome was almost without defense. Unable to turn them away or to prevent their plundering the city for two weeks, Leo did dissuade them from burning the city and slaughtering the inhabitants. Many captives were taken to Africa, and Leo sent presbyters and alms to the captives. He worked to repair the damage done by the Vandals, to replace the holy vessels in desecrated churches, and to restore the morale of the people of Rome.
One historian described Leo’s character as one of indomitable energy, magnanimity, consistency, and devotion to duty. He died on the tenth of November 461 and was buried in Saint Peter’s Church in Rome.
Some of the collects in the Leonine Sacramentary were inspired by his thought and may actually be his own compositions. A number of these collects were translated by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and taken over into the Book of Common Prayer.
prepared from Lesser Feasts and Fasts (1980)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
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.
The image of the icon of Saint Leo the Great is taken from the website of the Western Saints Icon Project of the All-Merciful Savior Orthodox Mission. The icon was written by Mother Justina at the Greek Old Calendarist convent of Saint Elizabeth in Etna, California.