Regarded as one of the best administrators of the ancient Church, St. Leo the Great displayed tireless dedication as pope. From securing true Christian beliefs and settling doctrinal controversies as a Doctor of the Church, to defending Rome against barbarian attack and his commitment to the spiritually centered pastoral care of his people, St. Leo the Great provides a wonderful — and historically significant — example of a Church administrator who used his skills to reinforce the essential connections between spirit and structure. This resolute upholding of the faith earned him the title of “the Great.” Indeed, Leo himself held that everything he did as pope was to represent St. Peter, in whose place he acted, and to represent Christ, the head of the Mystical Body.
A native of Tuscany, Leo was believed to have been born around the year 400. The earliest known information about Leo is that he was a deacon under Pope Celestine I and Pope Sixtus III. During his time as a deacon, he was already recognized for his skills in mediation when the emperor designated him with the task of settling a dispute between the two highest officials in Gaul.
In the year 440, upon the death of Pope Sixtus III, Leo was unanimously elected by the people as the pope’s successor. Just weeks later, he would enter upon a pontificate lasting 21 years. This timespan would prove to be a crucial era for the centralization of the government in the Roman Church.
Importantly, Leo’s recorded papal letters and sermons have survived through the centuries, thus providing key historical sources regarding his career and personality. In fact, his particular prose style — cursus leonicus — would have a lasting impact on ecclesiastical language.
A major priority during Leo’s papacy was to sustain the unity of the Church — he was devoted to combating the heresies that threatened this unity. He was also a tireless champion of almsgiving, fasting and prayer, while clearly and concisely expounding Catholic doctrine. Leo put much of what he said and wrote into action as well, inviting and encouraging bishops to meet and consult with him in person. These committed efforts took place largely in the shadow of the Western Empire’s approaching collapse, and Leo would serve as a steadfast representative of lawful authority during this turbulent era.
Indeed, a crucial point of Leo’s papacy occurred during the invasion of Italy in 452. As Attila and his forces made their way to Rome, having already overrun several cities, the ruler of the Huns demanded a dowry from the reigning emperor. As a result, three envoys were sent to negotiate with Attila — one of which was Pope Leo I. While the exact nature of the envoys’ negotiations with Attila are not known, historians often credit Leo with compelling Attila to withdraw from invading Rome. And while the Vandals would sack the city of Rome just three years later, it is believed that Leo’s assertiveness and influence also helped to repress murder and bloodshed during this invasion.
Even as he maintained courage in the face of such challenges, Leo continually worked to address the everyday needs, concerns and interests of his people. He died in the year 461, most probably on Nov. 10 — which is celebrated in the Catholic Church as the feast day of St. Leo the Great.