Leo is one of two Popes to have been acknowledged for centuries as “Great.” The other, Gregory I, Bishop of Rome from 590 to 604, lived quite a while after Leo, who was born about the year 400, and died in 461.
Leo was a native of the city of Rome. As a boy of 10 years or so, he would have experienced the trauma of Rome’s being captured and plundered for the first time since the establishment of the Empire by the first Emperor, Augustus, contemporary of Jesus Christ. This catastrophe occurred in 410 at the hands of the Goths.
As a young man, Leo would have been party to debates about the “relevance” and “patriotic spirit’ of Catholicism; about the weakening effects its strict moral code had on the aggressive, and even cruel spirit that had made the Roman Empire vast and powerful. Consequently, since the pagan “establishment” was still numerous, articulate, and forceful in Rome, he would have heard the Catholic community made answerable for the decline that had sapped Roman verve and led to the ultimate horror and humiliations, the sack of Rome.
His decision, in his twenties, to work in the public administration of the Church and in its diplomatic service, might have seemed a waste of time and talent to many of his peers.
Leo was thirty-nine years old and still a deacon, absent on a mission in Gaul (now France) when he was elected Bishop of Rome. This election would have reflected the wishes of the clergy, the Catholic “first families,” and the ordinary people.
His style established the pattern for Popes from that day to the present. First of all, he was a Pastor, a shepherd of souls, leaving behind many homilies for us to savor their practical qualities. Leo was a Public Administrator, of necessity, since imperial functionaries were by this time less and less visible in Rome, as on much of the Italian peninsula, far from the capital city of Constantinople. The slack had to be taken up by someone, for the common good; by Leo’s choice this was to be done by the Church and its own personnel. He was a Theologian, contributing at a distance, from Rome, decisively to the Council of Chalcedon (in what is now Turkey) in 452, in the formulation of the “Nicene Creed,” which is the same we use at Mass today. He was a man of forceful character, negotiating personally with Attila the Hun to avert the plundering of Rome.
In doctrinal teaching, in pastoral leadership, in public administration, and in dealing with threats to peace, Leo was a pacesetter among Popes. In our time, for the last two hundred years, we have been beneficiaries of a series of Bishops of Rome as remarkable as any in the two-thousand-year history of the Church. Their mentor, in every good respect, is our patron, St. Leo the Great. He was the first Pope, after Saint Peter, to have his remains interred in St. Peter’s Basilica.