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Saint Leo the Great and the “Stronger Spirit”


“Beyond our grasp, He chose to come within our grasp. Existing before time began, He began to exist at a moment in time.” ~ Saint Leo the Great

Today our Church celebrates the Memorial of Saint Leo the Great, a man with two very impressive “firsts” on his heavenly resume. Saint Leo is the first Pope to garner the title of The Great ~ there are but only three others ~ while also becoming the 1st Pope to be named a Doctor of the Church.

A sublime evangelist and prolific writer, his most famous work, commonly known as the Tome of St. Leo (449) was the basis of the Council of Chalcedon's dogmatic definition of Christ as one Divine Person possessing two complete natures, human and divine. Many of his homilies can still be found on line, and in fact it was his storied Christmas Homily, believed to have been penned and delivered in the early stages of his 19 year Papacy (441-460), that served as the focal point for my Christmas Day Reflection last year . Saint Leo the Great is the Patron Saint of Popes and Confessors.

When asked to comment on the “greatness” of Saint Leo, his fellow former Vicar of Christ Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stated “Through dialog, Leo the Great was able to convince Attila, the Prince of Huns, to spare Rome. Without weapons, without military or political power, through the power of his conviction for his faith, he was able to convince the feared tyrant to spare Rome. In the struggle between the spirit and power, the spirit proved stronger.”

Saint Leo the Great’s stronger spirit calls to mind a similar tale involving another storied member of the Papal Fraternity, Pope Pius VII, who also gave Europe an example of courageous nobility in the face of trial and tribulation. Pius VII went toe-to-toe with Napoleon and emerged victorious. Strong-armed into being present at Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, Pius VII refused to crown Bonaparte, reducing Napoleon to rather awkwardly crown himself, a disastrous optic for an alleged royal. Napoleon would in turn force Pius VII into exile, but that did not stop the Holy Father from protecting Napoleon’s family from harm when they too were ultimately exiled.

How providential it is then that we would read from the Book of Wisdom (6:1-11) on this the day we memorialize Saint Leo, a pastor, teacher, and administrator, as we delve into the topic of power and authority. All authority comes from God, measured out meticulously and given generously to each of us in accordance with His divine will so that we can participate in God’s governance of life. Authority brings order. Without order we swim in chaos, order’s petulant and perpetually distracted stepbrother. But authority must be administered with holiness, which, coincidentally enough, was a topic of reflection yesterday

Whatever we have, whatever we are, whatever we shall be, it all originates from God. Scripture tells us that to whom much is given, much is required (Luke 12:48). Not “expected,” as I often say when misquoting this seminal passage, but required. Our author today in the Book of Wisdom doubles down on this edict when he states in rather point-blank fashion that “judgment is stern for the exalted.” (Wisdom 6:5). Our Holy Father Pope Francis, the previously aforementioned Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, our bishops, priests, and religious all need our constant prayers. Needless to say our secular leaders need them as well. Some need them desperately.

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I’d like to close with a plea to all of you to pray for our Holy Father Pope Francis. I encourage you for that matter to make it part of your daily prayer routine. The prayers of the flock that he loves and serves are powerful.

“Dear Jesus, our eternal Priest and Shepherd, before ascending into heaven You entrusted the care of Your sheep to Peter to tend and feed them. Send the Holy Spirit to our holy father the Pope. Enlighten his mind, enflame his heart and strengthen his will so that he may lead us in the fulfillment of your holy will. Console him in his trials, assist him in his labors, and make him a Saint.” ~ Amen

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