Today is the memorial of St. Leo the Great. I have long defended that it’s time for a new Pope to adopt the name Leo again. There’s not been seen a Leo in these parts for over a hundred years, and some Popes with the name have done great things. Of course, there was also an infamous Leo who is chiefly known for his inadequate response to a Augustinian priest somewhere in the Electorate of Saxony.
Out of curiosity, I have looked more closely into the thirteen Popes who adopted the name Leo, with an overview of their role in history. It is an interesting journey through time.
Leo I (440-461): called ‘the Great’, this Pope was both a theologian and a protector of civilization. He wrote the Tomus Leonis (‘Tome of Leo’), a book which explained the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus Christ. This was sent to the Council of Chalcedon (451), where the assembly of bishops greeted it with the chorus, ‘Peter has spoken through Leo!’
As patriarch of the West, he insisted on his own authority over the churches of Gaul, bringing about greater unity with Rome. He also made it clear that the Pope had been entrusted with the care for all churches in the world, writing to an Eastern bishop, ‘The care of the universal Church should converge towards Peter's one seat, and nothing anywhere should be separated from its Head.’
Leo also increased political unity in Gaul by mediating a dispute between the two highest officials in Gaul. One of those officials was Aëtius, first the friend and later the rival of Attila the Hun, who lived in Rome as a young man. It was that time.
In 452, Attila headed towards Rome, burning cities along the way. Leo rode out to northern Italy to talk to him at Lake Garda, as a consequence of which Attila halted his march and went elsewhere. Or so the story has always gone; Raphael even made a painting about it. It was a bit of a disappointment to read that Leo was only one of three imperial envoys.
For the literature lovers among us: Leo had a good ear for the sound of words, and his prose style (the cursus leonicus) had a long-lasting influence on ecclesiastical Latin.
Leo II (682-683): in his time, the Eastern Roman Empire had a lot of influence in papal elections. He was from Sicily, which was Byzantine territory. There were many Sicilian refugees in Rome, because the island suffered attacks from the Islamic Caliphate.
During his brief reign, he gave official approval to a Church council (Constantinople III).
In light of Leo I’s battle for papal authority, it is ironic that a quote from Leo II has provided an argument against papal infallibility. Leo II condemned Pope Honorius, who reigned half a century earlier, for being lax in the fight against heresy; in doing so, he described Honorius as ‘one who by unholy betrayal has tried to overthrow the unspoiled faith’.
Leo III (795-816): the Pope who on Christmas Day in the year 800 crowned Charlemagne, the first Emperor in the West after the downfall of the Empire three hundred years earlier. (Raphael painted the scene.) Charlemagne was convinced that it was his own duty to defend the Church, and that the Pope should pray for the safety and victory of the Empire.
As Leo I was active in Gaul, Leo III interfered in England – among other things, the home of the scholar Alcuin, whose intelligence and knowledge were invaluable to the school that Charlemagne started at his court. This school created a cultural unity in Europe that endured long after the Carolingian emperors dwindled.
As far as I am concerned, Leo III could be made a patron of ecumenical dialogue. When Charlemagne insisted that he should add the Filioque to the Nicene Creed, Leo refused; not because he disagreed, but because he was unwilling to change the profession of faith that Christians of the East and the West prayed in the liturgy. Not only did he refuse, but he gave the order to write the unchanged Creed on tablets of silver and display them outside St. Peter’s Basilica – a clear ‘in-your-face’ to his friend the Emperor.
Leo IV (847-855): a man whose reign was defined by the fight with the Arabs. These were not distant threats: a year before Leo’s ascension to the papal throne, Saracens invaded Rome and damaged the churches of St. Peter and St. Paul. Leo took the repairs in hand.
He also organized a naval league of ships from Naples, Gaeta and Amalfi, who defeated the Muslim pirates at the Battle of Ostia in 849. (Raphael painted this, too.) Just as a reminder: Ostia is the harbour where Augustine and Monica talked half a millennium earlier, in preparation for a voyage back to their home in North Africa.
The captives from the Battle of Ostia helped to build the protective Leonine Wall around Vatican Hill, of which a part still stands today.
Leo V (903): he became Pope a year after the completion of the Muslim conquest of Sicily. But he had enemies closer to home. He reigned for two months, and his chief feat is a tax exemption for the canons of Bologna.
After that, a cardinal named Christopher proclaimed himself Pope and threw Leo into prison. It is likely that both were killed in 904 by the next Pope, Sergius III. Thus began the saeculum obscurum, also known as the ‘Rule of the Harlots’: a period in which the papacy was regarded as a source of income and military strength, over which Italian aristocratic families were fighting like dogs over a bone.
Leo VI (928): a Pope who was chosen by the senatrix Marozia, formerly the mistress of Sergius III. Leo’s immediate predecessor had been imprisoned and killed by Marozia.
He does not seem to have been a very bad Pope, mostly concerning himself with the ecclesiastical situation in Dalmatia (in the modern-day Balkan). He also forbade castrates from marrying and sent out a plea for help against Arab raiders. It looks like he died a natural death.
Leo VII (936-939): also chosen by the temporal ruler of Rome. He was possibly a Benedictine and gave many privileges to monasteries, especially Cluny. He also asked them to mediate in disputes.
Leo VIII (964-965): was an antipope before he legitimately became Pope. He was an important official at the court of Pope John XII and served as an ambassador to Emperor Otto I. The two were engaged in a struggle about the Papal States. Ironically, when Leo was sent on his mission to Otto, the Emperor was just besieging the Italian king in his Castle of St. Leo.
Otto marched on Rome; John fled; Otto appointed Leo to the papacy.
Otto left; the Romans rebelled; Leo fled to Otto; another Pope (Benedict) was elected.
Otto came back; Pope Benedict’s staff was broken; Leo was installed again. He spent his papacy conferring favours on the Emperor. This was the end of the saeculum obscurum.
Leo IX (1049-1054): a German Pope, and a saint. He promoted the order of Cluny. After being elected Pope by the Emperor and Roman delegates, he insisted on being officially elected by the clergy and people of Rome.
He reinforced the practice of celibacy and fought against simony (the sale of important positions in the Church). He was also involved in a dispute about Eucharistic theology. It’s good to see the Popes returning to their original calling.
At the time the Byzantines held southern Italy, but they were under attack from the Normans. They asked the Pope for military intervention, thinking that the Normans would be reluctant to fight the Pope. So they were, but they still soundly thrashed the papal forces at the Battle of Civitate (no, Raphael didn’t paint this). After his defeat, Leo went out to the Normans and was received with reverence, even though he was also taken as a captive.
Unfortunately, Leo IX helped set in motion the events that would lead to the great schism of East and West. He quoted (in good faith) a forged letter, supposed to be from Constantine, who had purportedly given authority over the Western Roman Empire to the Pope. This was not accepted in the East, and the impatience of Leo’s legate led to the mutual excommunications of 1054. Leo himself had died shortly before.
Leo X (1513-1521): this one also lived at a time of great schism. This time it was the Reformation, which broke out in 1517. The Ecumenical Council held under Leo’s watch (Lateran V) encouraged reform of the Church, but was not well implemented.
Leo was cheerful, with a pleasant voice and an intellectual sense of humour. He was a patron of the arts (and a big spender), and commissioned Raphael to paint the Vatican stanze. He was involved with the university, with literature, music and antiquities.
He was also the last Pope who was not a priest at the time of his election to the papacy.
Because he wanted to increase his nephew’s political prestige, he joined Spain and England in a war with France. This was disastrous for the papal treasury and soured the relationship between the Pope and the College of Cardinals, which tried to poison Leo. He used the situation to his advantage by executing one Cardinal and nominating thirty-one of his own.
Feeling threatened by the Ottoman sultan, Selim I, Leo tried to organize a truce throughout Western Christianity for the sake of a crusade. This was in 1517. It was a valiant attempt, but it failed, and the religious turmoil that would soon break out made such a peace impossible forever.
In the movie Luther he is depicted as strict and cruel, but the picture I get is that he would be a great conversation partner for dinner (as long as you wouldn’t try to poison him).
Leo XI (1605): nephew of Leo X, from the Medici family. He reigned less than a month. He felt an early vocation to the priesthood, but his mother would hear nothing of it. He became a courtier, was knighted and struck up a friendship with a man twenty years his senior: Philip Neri (later canonized).
After his mother’s death he became a priest, then bishop and cardinal. He fulfilled a diplomatic position in France. Because he was popular with the French cardinals, he was elected Pope rather than Robert Bellarmine (also later canonized). But he was already 70, and the inaugural ceremony wearied him so much that he died within a month. That’s why they called him Papa Lampo, ‘Lightning Pope’.
Leo XII (1823-1829): as an indication of how much times can change, this Leo was the only Pope in his century with a Cardinal for a nephew. Like Leo XI, Leo XII also had experience in a diplomatic position, namely in Switzerland. During his lifetime, Napoleon abolished the Papal States, at which the future Leo secluded himself in an abbey for a few years.
He was conservative in his outlook and did not want to make any compromises with the new revolutionary order. Against French opposition, he was elected Pope, having served the preceding Pope as vicar-general. Because he was physically unhealthy, he had argued against his own election, but to no avail.
He lived frugally and tried to soften the financial strain on the inhabitants of the Papal States (reestablished in 1814) by reducing taxes and other measures. It did little good for the internal economy.
Leo’s conservatism fueled his attempts to get everything in the Papal States under direct Church control, such as schools (where he made Latin the obligatory language) and charitable institutions. Jews were not allowed to own property under his watch, and all residents of Rome were required to listen to expositions on the catechism, whether they were Catholic or not.
Leo XIII (1878-1903): the oldest Pope (died at 93) with the third longest pontificate. The first Pope who ascended the Holy See after the Papal States had been definitively abolished by Victor Emmanuel II. It took a while before the Popes could accept this, and so Leo lived in the uneasy time when the Pope considered himself to be ‘prisoner of the Vatican’.
He made great contributions in the realm of theology. With his encyclical Aeterni Patris, he gave a new impulse to the study of St. Thomas Aquinas, making it normative for seminaries as well as Catholic universities. The importance of Scripture for theology, too, was underscored in Providentissimus Deus. Leo was open to Eastern Christians and wanted to protect their rites, preventing the ‘latinization’ of Eastern Catholics. He also had a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary and was known as the ‘Rosary Pope’.
Of course, he is also (in a sense) the founder of Catholic social teaching, the first Pope to devote an encyclical to social inequality: Rerum novarum. This tried to sketch a middle road between capitalism and communism. Later Popes wrote new and ‘updated’ social encyclicals on various anniversaries of Rerum novarum.
He was the Pope with whom St. Therese of Lisieux had a brief audience.
Leo XIII rests in the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, whose dedication we celebrated yesterday.
To conclude, it is said in an Eastern kontakion to St. Leo the Great:
Seated upon the throne of the priesthood, glorious Leo,you shut the mouths of the spiritual lions.