Saint Leo the Great Confronts Attila

Pope St. Leo I fought heresies and confronted the barbarian kings who devastated the Roman Empire in the 5th century. Such was the magnificence of his teachings and his struggle that he received the title of Great.

Newsroom (August 17, 2021, 12:30 PM, Gaudium Press) We know very little about his origins. He was born in Tuscany, Italy, around the year 390. He became a cleric, and Pope St. Sixtus III chose him as his advisor.

In 440, when there was a great conflict in Gaul, now France. The conflict was between Aetius, a general who enjoyed enormous prestige in the Western Empire, and the Roman prefect of that region. The Empress Galatis Placidia turned to St. Sixtus III, who sent St. Leo to solve the problem.

However, Saint Sixtus died a few months later; and St. Leo, who was still in Gaul, was elected to be his successor.  He returned to Rome, became pope, and chose as his counselor St. Peter Chrysologus. St. Peter would later be declared a Doctor of the Church. Because of his outstanding talent for oratory, they called him “Chrysologus,” which means “word of gold.

The heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches plagued the empires of the West and the East. St. Leo mobilized the clergy and laity to fight them. He also enlisted Theodosius II, St. Pulcheria, Marcian, Leo the Thracian in the East, Galatius Placidia, and Valentinian III in the West.

He helped St. Toribio, Bishop of Astorga, Spain, combat Priscillian, who denied the Holy Trinity and credited the devil with the formation of human bodies.  This Gnostic heresy advocated the ruin of the Church and the temporal order.

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Attila, king of the Huns, marches towards Rome…

St. Leo also faced the barbarians who devastated several regions of the Empire. In 452, Attila, king of the Huns, and his troops marched toward Rome to conquer it.

The Roman army officer and historian Ammianus Marcellinus (330-395) wrote that the Huns had horrible features. And that they wore coats made of the skin of wild rats and only changed them when they had torn apart. They ate, drank, and slept on their horses. They fed on plant roots and “cooked” meat between their legs and the horses’ backs. They did not work, nor did they own houses. They lived a permanently wandering life.

After conquering Venetia and Liguria – Northern Italy – Attila was approaching Rome. But St. Leo the Great, full of faith and trust in God, went to his encounter.

… he had no soldiers and no weapons

Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira wrote:

“The image of the famous Hun chief has passed into history and legend as the embodiment of the destructive force at the height of its momentum, its universality, its invincibility.

“He reportedly called himself the ‘scourge of God’ and boasted such a force of destruction that not even grass was reborn under his horse’s paws.

“By invading Europe, he had already destroyed all the lines of defense of the Christianized Roman Empire. The conquest of Rome represented for him the defeat of the civilized world.

“The capital of Christendom was without soldiers, without weapons, without defense. In this tragic situation, Pope St. Leo I went out to meet the Hun king, followed only by a small committee, and trusting only in the Divine Providence.

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“According to ancient documents, when Attila approached the Holy Pontiff, he saw St. Peter and St. Paul in the sky, who, with terrible expressions, ordered him to go back.

“The ‘scourge of God’ obeyed them, and so Rome was saved. By confronting Attila, St. Leo I embodied, for all the centuries to come, the virtue of trust by which the faithful, even in the most extreme situations, do not lose heart and continue to fight; calmly hoping in God.”

Genseric, king of the Vandals, invades Rome

Attila withdrew to other regions and died in 454. That same year, Emperor Valentinian III – a weak and envious man – killed General Aetius with a dagger. The following year they killed him, and the throne passed to the hands of a senator named Maximus.

But the barbarians kept invading and plundering parts of the Empire. Genseric, king of the Vandals, had taken Carthage, Sicily, the Balearic Islands, Sardinia, Corsica, and Malta.  In 442, Valentinian III signed a treaty that gave him half of Roman Africa.

In 455, he reached the mouth of the Tiber. Almost all the inhabitants of Rome fled. The soldiers murdered Maximus just as he was preparing to escape.

Saint Leo, the Great, accompanied by the clergy, went to meet Genseric and obtained a promise from him that he would not burn the city or kill its inhabitants.

He plundered Rome for 14 days, but he avoided the slaughter and burning. He took thousands of prisoners, including the Empress Licinia Eudoxia, widow of Valentinian III, and her two daughters.

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In 461, after 21 years of pontificate, Saint Leo died. He then received the title Doctor of the Church.

What would he say about the heresies widespread today?

Regarding this great warrior of God, Dr. Plinio commented:

“Saint Leo the Great was one of the greatest popes in the records of history. He fought during his pontificate against numerous heresies that were agitating the Church at that time.

“With the authority of a Pope combined with the qualities of a saint, whose holiness was confirmed by one of the greatest miracles in the History of the Church – the victory over Attila and his troops who intended to invade Rome – he preached sermons warning the people against heretics. He asked the people to denounce them to priests and vicars, to suffer the canonical penalties and, eventually, the temporal ones. Therefore, he practiced a virtue that would be very unappreciated today because it opposes a misunderstood ecumenism.

“What would St. Leo the Great say in the face of the heresies in our days?

Let us ask him to rekindle in the Church that spirit of discernment, of intransigence, and of struggle, which would be enough to prevent the world from the terrible punishments through which it will inevitably pass if it is not converted. May that spirit be immensely lit at the dawn of Kingdom of Mary and last until the end of time.”

By Paul Francis Martos

Compiled by Ena Alfaro

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