November 10th is the feast of St. Leo the Great, a 5th century pope buried in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome in the front of the church on the left side of the main altar.
A large picture over his tomb shows him meeting Atilla, the Hun, and his warriors who came in 452 to attack and plunder Rome. Barbarian tribes were then pouring through Rome’s defenses along the Rhine River and its northern frontier, threatening the Italian peninsula. In fear, most of Rome’s elite left for the safety of Constantinople, the new center of the empire. The rest of its people, convinced the world was ending, barricaded themselves in their homes with everything they had. The army was too weak to defend the city.
Leo became Rome’s defense, persuading Atilla to leave Rome untouched by offering him tribute money. He was less successful when, a few years later, in 455 the Vandals returned to plunder Rome for 14 days.
Yet that’s not why Leo’s called great. A holy, learned man, he knew the church’s best defense was to hope in Jesus Christ and the mysteries of his life, death and resurrection. In his sermons on the Incarnation, preached in the course of the church year, he urged Christians to find their strength in Jesus Christ.
Leo believed, as Peter the Apostle did, that the church founded by Jesus had a future, despite the perilous circumstances it faced. As Bishop of Rome, he encouraged the bishops of the western church to hold on. In great suffering, he found his support in the Passion of Jesus Christ. Here’s one of my favorite quotes from him:
“True reverence for the Lord’s passion means fixing the eyes of our heart on Jesus crucified and recognizing in him our own humanity…Who cannot recognize in Christ his own infirmities? Who would not recognize that Christ’s eating and sleeping, his sadness and his shedding of tears of love are marks of the nature of a slave?
“It was this nature of a slave that had to be healed of its ancient wounds and cleansed of the defilement of sin. For that reason the only-begotten Son of God became also the son of man. He was to have both the reality of human nature and the fullness of the godhead.
“The body that lay lifeless in the tomb is ours. The body that rose again on the third day is ours. The body that ascended above all the heights of heaven to the right hand of the Father’s glory is ours.
“If then we walk in the way of his commandments, and are not ashamed to acknowledge the price he paid for our salvation in a lowly body, we too rise to share his glory. The promise he made will be fulfilled in the sight of all: Whoever acknowledges me before others, I too will acknowledge him before my Father who is in heaven.”
Sermon, Leo the Great