True Historical Stories for Catholic Children – Saint Leo the Great

detail of a painting of Saint Leo Magnus; by Francisco de Herrera el Mozo, 17th century; Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsBut little is known of this great pontiff, whom God raised up to guide his Church through many dangers and much adversity. We first learn of Leo, a Roman arch-deacon, going on an important mission to Gaul. During his absence, on what was then a long and tedious journey, Pope Saint Sixtus III died, and Leo was unanimously chosen to succeed him. A deputation was sent to notify the new pope of his elevation to the throne of Saint Peter, and when Leo appeared in Rome, he was received with extravagant demonstrations of joy, a fact which proves how much beloved he was by his flock.

The great pontiff had, indeed, been chosen to rule the Church in trying times. The Faith was beset by enemies from without and from within, enemies temporal (perhaps the less dangerous of the two) and enemies spiritual. The Arian heresy which stirred up so much dangerous speculation concerning the nature of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, had been followed by various other heresies, every one of which had many adherents. The Nestorians in the East and the Pelagians in the North, were working havoc among the Christians. Saint Leo’s first act after his elevation to the pontificate was to write to the bishops of Northern Italy, solemnly warning them against admitting to the communion of the Church any one from the Pelagian ranks who had not previously made a full abjuration of his error.

The temporal enemies who threatened Rome, were the vast hoards of northern barbarians, Vandals, Huns and Goths, some of whom had already carried their depredations into Italy.

Saint Leo despatched two holy missionaries, Saint Germanus and Saint Severus to combat Pelagianism in Britain. Their preaching and miracles overcame the heresy, and they had the satisfaction of converted large numbers of the native Britons, before their departure from the island. The invasion of Britain by the pagan Saxons, which occurred about a century later, all but extinguished the light of faith, which the two missionaries had labored so zealously to kindle. It remained for the great Saint Augustine to convert the Anglo-Saxons of Britain in the seventh century.

In the year 448, Eutyches, superior of a monastery near Constantinople, originated the Eutychian heresy. He insisted that there was but one nature in Jesus Christ – the divine nature – stubbornly refusing to abandon his error, even when commanded by ecclesiastical authority to do so. The true reason for his course of action, was disappointed ambition, for Eutyches had aspired to the bishopric of Constantinople, and when he failed to attain the coveted honor, became a heresiarch. When Eutyches wrote to Saint Peter, Bishop of Ravenna, to win him over to his cause, he received the following reply: “When Jesus Christ uttered his first infant wail in the manger, the heavenly host was chanting ‘ Glory be to God in the highest/ and now, when, at the name of Jesus, every knee is bent in heaven, on earth and in hell, a question is raised concerning His origin. We exhort you above all things, to submit to what has been written by the Holy Roman Pontiff, for Saint Peter lives and presides in his See, and gives the truth of faith to all who sincerely ask it.”

Eutyches was afterwards excommunicated and deposed from the priesthood, and from the government of his monastery.

While Saint Leo was directing matters of such grave importance to the Church, the whole civilized world was menaced with destruction. The Huns, a wild tribe from the remote forests of Tartary, had begun to migrate from their original home, moving westward in immense numbers. Their terrible leader, Attila was called the “mower of men,” and the “scourge of God,” so great was the fear he inspired. lie was short of stature, with a broad chest, and an immense head, a thin heard and swarthy features. His capital was a camp situated in a field near the Danube, and the kings he had conquered kept guard at the door of his tent. His soldiers played games with the gold and silver vases of which they had despoiled their captives, while Attila himself ate the coarsest food from wooden platters.

The Roman emperors, Valentinian and Theodosius, thinking it would be an easy matter to turn the barbarian from his avowed intention of marching against Rome, sent ambassadors to the camp of Attila, to treat with him. The “scourge,” seated on a low stool in his tent, received the polished Romans, whose credulity he took advantage of, in the most practised manner. Referring to himself, he said: “The star falls, the earth trembles. I am the hammer of the universe, the grass never grows again, where Attila’s horse has once trod.”

The Roman emperors foolishly thought to stop the barbarian at their gates, by bestowing upon him the title, General of the Empire,” and by paying him a tribute, which they pretended to regard as his pay. But the Hun refused the proffered honor with disdain, and said that, “to be an emperor’s general, is to be a servant. Attila’s servants are emperors.”

Not long after this fruitless interview, Attila sent an emissary to Rome, who said to the emperor: “Attila, my master and yours, orders you to prepare him a palace.” The Romans, in an agony of fear, understood that this meant that the long-dreaded invasion was at hand. Attila started, with a train of tributary princes and five hundred thousand soldiers, on his expedition of rapine and pillage. The vast army crossed the Rhine, and marched through the province of Gaul. City after city suffered the horrors of the barbarian invasion. Metz was provoked to resistance, and was laid in ashes, while the streets ran red with the blood of its murdered inhabitants. The few survivors, among them the bishop of Metz, were led away captives.

Troyes was threatened with a fate similar to that of Metz. The bishop, Lupus, after fasting and praying to avert the threatened calamity, went forth, in his pontifical robes, to meet and speak with the barbarian leader. “Who art thou?” he asked, “who overcomest so many nations and subduest the world?” Attila answered, “I am King of the Huns, the scourge of God.” “If thou art the scourge of God,” returned the holy bishop, “remember to do only what is allowed thee by the hand that moves and governs thee.” Attila was astonished at the boldness, and awed by the dignity of the good bishop, to whom he made a promise to spare the city, through which he marched his men, without doing it the least harm.

When Attila approached the city of Paris, the inhabitants prepared to fly to a place of safety. Saint Genevieve, a humble shepherdess, was the means of saving the city. She exhorted the panic-stricken people to remain and give themselves up to prayer and fasting, promising them, in the name of God, that the dreaded Hun would not enter Paris. Precisely as the saint had foretold, Attila suddenly changed the direction of his march, away from Paris, advancing on the city of Orleans.

Orleans was governed by the holy bishop, Saint Aignan, and he had been warned of the approach of the Huns in time to seek the aid of the Roman general, Aetius. Just as Attila’s army reached the gates of Orleans, the soldiers of Aetius appeared. Attila, beside himself with rage, withdrew from the city to the neighboring plain of Chalons, where he prepared to meet his opponents. The two armies numbered about a million, and one of the bloodiest battles recorded in history, was fought. Three hundred thousand slain w T ere left upon the field, and a small neighboring stream was swelled into a fair-sized river, by the torrents of blood that flowed into it from the battle-field. Attila was utterly defeated, and fled across the Rhine with the remnant of his army.

Christendom then enjoyed a respite of one year, at the end of which, the dreaded Huns appeared, stronger than ever. This time, they entered northern Italy, whose cities were wasted by fire and sword. Padua, Verona, Milan, were pillaged and destroyed. The Huns pushed on through the ruins of the cities they had burned, until they reached Aquileia, whose terrified inhabitants fled to some marshy islands in the Adriatic Sea, where they laid the foundation of the city of Venice.

Hear Mantua, the barbarians halted, and Saint Leo went forth to meet the “scourge of God,” as the bishop of Orleans had done before him. But how much more difficult was the task of the great pontiff! Orleans was but an insignificant village, compared with the great and rich city of Rome, which lay, almost within the ruthless grasp of the barbarians. Leo’s mission was, indeed, a desperate one, but he never faltered. Arrayed in full pontifical attire, but quite alone, for he would not expose any of his flock to the danger he himself ran, the brave pontiff went out to beg the cruel conqueror for mercy.

It was a meeting of Spirituality with Materialism, of Compassion with Cruelty. What passed between the saint and the cruel warrior during their curious interview, is not known. It would appear that Attila was awed by the ascetic appearance and majestic bearing of the holy pontiff. He lent a favorable ear to his petition, and, turning his army back from Rome, withdrew to the plains of the Danube.

Some of Attila’s soldiers, astounded to see him abandon the rich prize of Rome, at the mere word of an old man, asked him the reason for his extraordinary conduct. Attila answered, that he saw, during the interview, two venerable personages, supposed to be Saint Peter and Saint Paul, standing behind Leo, and that the vision impelled him to spare Rome, even against his inclination.

Upon Leo’s return to Rome, he was received with triumphant rejoicing by the grateful people, who hailed him as their deliverer, and bestowed upon him the title of “Great.”

Rome enjoyed two years of comparative peace, after the death of Attila, a period which Leo spent in adjusting the affairs of the Church. The Roman calendar was arranged, and the time regulated for the celebration of Easter. Up to the time of Leo, the sins of persons subjected to canonical penance, were published in the churches. This custom he abolished, making private confes- sion to an approved priest and the performance of the prescribed penance, the only conditions to be fulfilled by the penitent.

After this brief interval of calm, the storm burst once more over Rome. Yalentinian, the weak and wicked emperor, had become very jealous of the popularity of the great general Aetius, who had won imperishable glory on the field of Chalons, where he defeated the Huns under Attila.

During an interview at the palace, between the emperor and the general, a quarrel occurred, and Valentinian killed Aetius. One of his courtiers had the courage to rebuke the murderer; saying “you have cut off your right hand with your left.” A few days later, Yalentinian himself fell by the hand of a hired assassin of the senator Maximus, who wished to become emperor. Being a man of great influence in public affairs, he gained his end, was not only proclaimed emperor, but forced Yalentinian’s widow Eudoxia, to marry him. Eudoxia, crazed with hatred and a desire for revenge, resolved to sacrifice her country’s welfare, to satisfy her resentment. She wrote to Genseric, king of the barbarian Yandals, to come to Rome, promising her aid in the capture of the city.

The Vandals were fierce warriors something like the Huns. They had no knowledge nor appreciation of art or literature, and the word, vandalism, which means the wanton destruction of any precious thing, still reminds us of the ruthless destruction of the many priceless treasures of Roman art by these barbarians.

Genseric had led his army into Africa, and was established near Carthage, when Eudoxia’s message reached him. He seized at once upon a prospect so alluring, and sailed for Home with a large force. When the tidings of Genseric’s approach were brought to Rome, the cowardly Maximus prepared for flight. One of his own courtiers, in disgust, killed him, before he could carry his plan into execution, and threw the bodv into the Tiber.

Amid the general excitement and alarm, caused by the approach of the Vandals, the Romans looked for help to the only man who could be of use in the crisis. Leo the Great had saved Rome from the fury of the Huns, and again he saved the city from destruction at the hands of the Vandals. He met Genseric outside the walls of Rome, and exacted from him a promise, to respect the lives of the Romans, and to spare the public monuments. More than these concessions could not have been obtained, because the Vandal soldiers, during the long voyage from Africa, had promised themselves the sacking of Rome, as their reward.

It took fourteen days to accomplish the work of pillage. The richest treasures which the Vandals carried away with them, were the sacred vessels brought from Jerusalem by the Roman general, Titus. The invaders took several thousand prisoners, among them the Empress Eudoxia and her daughters, whom they forced to accompany them, on their return to Africa. The bishop of Carthage did everything in his power to render more bearable, the lot of the wretched Roman captives, in Africa. Two of the churches were converted into hospitals, where the good prelate spent his entire time, ministering, with his own hands, to the poor exiled prisoners. Some of them he ransomed with money obtained from the sale of the gold and silver furnishings of the altar. After the death of this saintly bishop, Genseric closed all the churches of Carthage, and exiled the priests, thus depriving his Christian captives of their only source of consolation.

It would appear, that Genseric prided himself upon his cruelty, for, as he was sailing out of Carthage, upon one of his frequent voyages of rapine and bloodshed, his pilot asked, to what country should he steer the ship. Generic answered: “To that country on which God’s anger rests.”

The Roman empire was in the throes of its death-struggle. Only the Church stood unchanged and unchangeable, amid the havoc wrought by the barbarians – the comfort and support of her children in their trials, not the least of which was the loss of the good pontiff. Saint Leo’s long and useful pontificate came to an end, April 11, 461, death relieving him of the cares and labors that had filled his life. One hundred and seventy-three letters, and sixty-nine discourses of Saint Leo, on the mysteries of the Catholic Faith, are still extant – a lasting memorial of the great pontiff’s piety, learning and eloquence. He rendered valuable and permanent service to the Church, as well as to the city of Rome – and is justly regarded as one of the greatest popes that ever occupied the chair of Saint Peter. Saint Leo’s feast is celebrated on the anniversary of his death, April 11.

– text taken from True Historical Stories for Catholic Children, by Josephine Portuondo, 1907