Pope St. Leo the Great was the latest Church Father that Pope Benedict XVI focused on as he held his weekly general audience on Wednesday. Leo the Great, according to Pope Benedict, was one of the greatest pontiffs of all time because of his work as a pastor and his strength during difficulty.
Before beginning his audience with the 6,000 pilgrims gathered in Paul VI Halla, the Holy Father briefly visited with the pilgrims in St. Peter’s Basilica.
As he began his talk on St. Leo the Great, Pope Benedict reflected on the fact that he is referred to as “the Great,” a title which is rarely given and only done so by the popular acclaim of the people.
Pope St. Leo “was one of the greatest incumbents of the See of Rome, the authority and prestige of which he strengthened. He is also the earliest Pope whose sermons have come down to us, sermons he would address to the people who gathered around him during celebrations", the Holy Father explained.
"It is natural we should think of him also in the context of these Wednesday general audiences, which have over recent decades become a customary way for the Bishop of Rome to meet with the faithful and with many visitors from all over the world," said Benedict XVI.
St. Leo the Great, who was elected as Pope in the year 440, was not a stranger to adversity, Benedict pointed out.
His pontificate lasted more than two decades and included “difficult times” during which "repeated barbarian invasions, the progressive weakening of imperial authority in the West and a lengthy social crisis forced the Bishop of Rome ... to take on an important role also in civil and political affairs", said Pope Benedict.
“For example, in 452 Leo the Great met with Attila the Hun in Mantua to dissuade him from continuing the invasion which had devastated parts of northern Italy. In 455 he similarly sought to dissuade Genseric the Vandal and, though he did not prevent him invading and sacking Rome, he did convince him not to raze the city and to respect the basilicas of St. Peter's, St. John Lateran and St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, where part of the population had taken refuge,” the Holy Father recalled.
St. Leo the Great’s letters and sermons also provide us a window into his work as a theologian and pastor, the Pope said. He was “Constantly concerned for his faithful and for the people of Rome, but also for communion between the various Churches and for their needs, he tirelessly supported and promoted Roman primacy".
The Holy Father explained how during Leo's pontificate the Council of Chalcedon took place, "the most important assembly in the history of the Church up to that time", which "affirmed the union in the one Person, without confusion and without separation, of the two natures, human and divine".
"It is clear", Benedict XVI went on, "that this Pope felt particularly acutely his responsibility as Peter's Successor, whose role in the Church is unique because 'just one Apostle is entrusted with what is communicated to all the Apostles'".
Leo the Great was also an advocate of the unity of the Churches of the East and West, said Pope Benedict. He "showed himself capable of exercising this responsibility in both West and East, intervening prudently, firmly and coherently in various circumstances, both through his writings and by his legates. Thus he showed how the exercise of Roman primacy was necessary then, as it is now, as an effective service to communion, which is a characteristic of the one Church of Christ.
"Conscious of the historical moment in which he lived and of the move that was taking place - in a period of profound crisis - from a pagan to a Christian Rome, Leo the Great remained close to the people and to the faithful with pastoral activity and prayer". He also "related the liturgy to the daily life of Christians", showing how "Christian liturgy is not a recollection of past events but the realization of invisible truths that act upon the life of each individual".