Saturday we celebrated the feast day of St. Leo the Great who was pope from 440 to 461. We can think that we have difficulties, but just in those 21 years Leo would have to address numerous heresies, stress that the bishop of Rome was the heir of Peter, and also face two attempted sackings of Rome. I guess that may have something to do with his gaining the title ‘Great’.
I have no doubt that we suffer from the threat of many heresies in our Church today, but fortunately I don’t think there are as large of groups in the Church who are promoting a fundamental theological teaching that is different from our common faith. Three heresies that he had to fight were Pelagianism, Manichaeism, and Monophysitism. In the simplest of terms you could summarize them as: Pelagianism – not believing in original sin and believing we can conquer sin and gain eternal life without grace; Manichaeism – a dualistic belief of good and evil that also asserts that we can achieve our salvation by knowledge and that all material things are intrinsically evil and knowledge is intrinsically good; and Monophysitism – the belief that Christ had only one nature and the denial that he had both human and divine natures. That is really an over simplification but shows some of the challenges in the Church at the time.
This is also why the stressing of the centrality of the Bishop of Rome was so important. To support the unity of the Church throughout the world in our beliefs and in our practice. Pope Leo would not only bring this out by his referring to the Pope as heir of Peter, but also in his sermons by addressing his concern and responsibilities not only for the people of Rome, but for those throughout the world. And he would also address disputes between bishops, defending the rights of bishops in their diocese against that of other bishops, while demonstrating the primacy of the Pope.
Beyond the theological concerns, Pope Leo also had the physical concerns that there were attempts at sacking Rome. In 452 Attila the Hun was marching on Rome and Leo convinced him to accept a sizable gift instead of sacking the city. He wasn’t as fortunate with Gaiseric the Vandal in 455 who did sack the city, but the Church and the city would survive.
Fortunately, I don’t think we have to worry about the sacking of Rome today, but other challenges Leo faced are things we can relate to today. Reflecting on the need for the unity in the Church and understanding heresies of the past might help us recognize and address those concerns today. And while we may not have sacking, we have seen bankruptcies of some dioceses, and they also survived.