13 - 18 minutes readJuly 3 – St Leo II, Pope & Confessor ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

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July 3 – St Leo II, Pope & Confessor

It were fitting that our attention should not be diverted, on this Vigil, from the august object which is occupying the Church in the preparation of her chants. But the triumph of Peter will shine out with all the more splendor in proportion as the testimony he rendered to the son of God is shown to have been maintained with all fidelity, during the long series of succeeding ages, by the Pontiffs, inheritors of his primacy. For a considerable time, the twenty-eighth of June was consecrated to the memory of Saint Leo the Great; it was the day chosen by Sergius I for the Translation of the illustrious Doctor, and indeed a more magnificent usher into tomorrow’s Solemnity could hardly be desired. From no other lips but his has Rome ever set forth, in such elevated language, the glories of these two Princes of the apostles and her own fame; never since the incomparable scene enacted at Cesarea Philippi, has the mystery of the Man-God been affirmed in manner so sublime, as on that day wherein the Church, striking the impious Eutyches at Chalcedon, received from Leo the immortal formula of Christian Dogma. Peter once more spoke by the mouth of Leo; yet far was the cause from being then ended: two centuries more were needed; and another Leo it was, even he whom we this day celebrate, who had the honor of ending it, at the Sixth Council.

The Spirit of God, ever watchful over the development of the sacred liturgy, by no means wished any change to be effected on this day in the train of thought of the faithful people. Thus when towards the beginning of the fourteenth century, the 11th of April was again assigned to Saint Leo I (for that was really the primitive place occupied by him on the cycle), Saint Leo II, the anniversary of whose death was this 28th of June, and who hitherto had been merely commemorated thereon, being now raised to the rank of a semi-double, came forward, as it were, to remind the Faithful of the glorious struggles maintained both by his predecessor and by himself, in the order of apostolic confession.

How was it that Saint Leo’s clear and complete exposition of the dogma and the anathemas of Chalcedon did not succeed in silencing the arguments of that heresy which refused to our nature its noblest title, by denying that it had been assumed in its integrity by the Divine Word? Because for Truth to win the day, it suffices not merely to expose the lie uttered by error. More than once, alas! history gives instances of the most solemn anathemas ending in nothing but lulling the vigilance of the guardians of the Holy City. The struggle seemed ended, the need of repose was making itself felt amidst the combatants, a thousand other matters called for the attention of the Church’s rulers; and so while feigning utmost deference, nay, ardor even, if needful, for the new enactments, error went on noiselessly, making profit of the silence which ensued after its defeat. Then did its progress become all the more redoubtable at the very time it was pretending to have disappeared without leaving a track behind.

Thanks, however, to the Divine Head, who never ceases to watch over his work, such trials as we have been alluding to, seldom reach to such a painful depth as that into which Leo II had to probe with steel and fire, in order to save the Church. Once only has the terrified world beheld anathema strike the summit of the holy mount. Honorius, placed on the pinnacle of the Church, “had not made her shine with the splendor of apostolic doctrine, but by profane treason, had suffered the faith, which should be spotless, to be exposed to subversion;” Leo II, therefore, sending forth his thunders, in unison with the assembled Church, against the new Eutychians and their accomplices, spared not even his predecessor. And yet, as all acknowledge, Honorius had otherwise been an irreproachable Pope; and even in the question at stake, he had been far from either professing heresy or teaching error. Wherein, then, did his fault lie?

The Emperor Heraclius, who, by victory had reached the height of power, beheld with much concern how division persistently lived on between the Catholics of his Empire and the late disciples of Eutyches. The Bishop of the Imperial City, the Patriarch Sergius, fostered these misgivings in his master’s mind. Vain of a certain amount of political skill which he fancied himself to possess, he now aimed at re-establishing, by his sole effort, that unity which the Council of Chalcedon and Saint Leo the Great had failed to obtain; thus would he make himself a name. The disputants agreed in acknowledging two Natures in Jesus Christ; hence to reply to these advances of theirs, one thing were needed, thought he, viz., to impose silence on the question as to whether there are him Him two Wills or only one. The enthusiasm with which this evident compromise was hailed by the various sects rebellious to the Fourth General Council showed well enough that they still preserved and hallowed all the venom of error; and the very fact of their denying, or (which came practically to the same thing) hesitating to acknowledge that in the Man-God there is any other Will than that proper to the Divine Nature, was equivalent to declaring that He had assumed but a semblance of Human Nature, since this Nature could by no means exist devoid of that Will which is proper to It. Therefore, the Monophysites, or partisans of the one Nature in Christ, made no difficulty in henceforth being called by the name of Monothelites, or partisans of the one Will. Sergius, the apostle of this novel unity, might well congratulate himself; Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, hailed with one accord the benefit of this “peace.” Was not the whole East here represented in her patriarchates? If Rome in her turn would but acquiesce, the triumph would be complete! Jerusalem, however, proved a jarring note in this strange concert.

Jerusalem, the witness of the anguish suffered by the Man-God in his Human Nature, had heard him cry out in the Garden of His Agony: Father, if it be possible, let this Chalice pass from me; yet, not My Will, but Thine be done! The City of dolors knew better than any other what to hold concerning these two Wills brought there face to face, yet which had, by the heroism of Incomparable Love, been maintained in such full harmony; the time for her to bear testimony was come. The Monk Sophronius, now her bishop, was by his sanctity, courage, and learning, up to the mark for the task that lay before him. But while, in the charity of his soul, he was seeking to reclaim Sergius, before appearing against him to the Roman Pontiff, the bishop of Constantinople already took the initiative; he succeeded thus, by a hypocritical letter, in circumventing Honorius, and in getting him to impose silence on the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Hence, when at last, Saint Sophronius, at the head of the bishops of his province assembled in council, thought it had become a positive duty on his own part to turn towards Rome, it was but to receive for answer a confirmation of the prohibition to disturb the peace. Woeful mistake! yet withal, it by no means directly implicated the Infallible Magistracy; it was a measure exclusively political, but one which was, all the same, to cost bitter tears and much blood to the Church, and was to result, fifty years later, in the condemnation of the unfortunate Honorius.

The Holy Ghost, indeed, who has guaranteed the infallible purity of the doctrine flowing officially from the Apostolic Chair, has not pledged himself to protect in a like degree, from all failure, either the virtue, or the private judgment, or even the administrative acts of the Sovereign Pontiff. Entering into the views of this marvellous solidarity which the Creator made to reign both upon earth and in heaven, the Man-God, when he founded the society of saints upon the authentic and immutable basis of the Faith of Peter, willed that to the prayers of all should be confided the charge of completing his work, by obtaining for the successors of Peter such preservative graces as do not of themselves necessarily spring from the divine Constitution of the Church.

Meanwhile Mahomet was just letting loose his hordes upon the world. Heraclius was now to learn the worth of his Patriarch’s lying peace, and was to come down lower in shame than he had been exalted in glory by his victories over the Persians, in the days when he had acted as the hero of the Cross. Palestine, Syria, and Egypt fell simultaneously beneath the blows of the lieutenants of the Prophet. Sophronius, placed as he was in the very midst of the scene of invasion, grew still greater under trial. Abandoned by the emperor, where the defense of the empire was at stake, disavowed by Rome, as regarded Faith, he alone intrepidly treated with Omar, as power opposed to power; and when about to die, still hoping against all hope in Rome, though thence had come a blow harder far to bear than that of the Caliph, he confided to Stephen of Dora the supreme, which the latter thus relates: “In his justice strong as a lion, contemning calumnies and intrigues, blessed Sophronius took me, unworthy as I am, and conducted me to the sacred spot of Calvary. There he bound me by an indissoluble engagement, in these words: Thou shalt have to render account to him who being God was voluntarily crucified for us according to the Flesh on this spot, when on the day of his terrible Coming he will appear in glory to judge the living and the dead, if thou defer or neglect the interests of his Faith now in peril. Well knowest thou, that I cannot in the body do this thing, being hindered by the incursion of the Saracens which our sins have deserved. But do thou set out as soon as possible, and go from these confines of the earth unto the furthest extremity, until thou reach the See Apostolic, there where are set the foundations of orthodox dogma. Go again and again, not once, not twice, but endlessly, and make known to the holy personages who reside in that place, the shock that these lands of ours have sustained. Importunately, ceaselessly, implore and supplicate, until Apostolic prudence at length determine, by its canonical judgment, the victory over these perfidious teachings.”

The Bishop of Dora was faithful to the behest of Sophronius. When, twelve years later, he gave this touching narrative at the Council of Lateran in 649, it was then the third time that despite the snares and other difficulties of the times, he could say: “We have taken the wings of a dove, as David speaks, and we have come to declare our situation to this See, elevated in the sight of all, this sovereign, this principal See, where is to be found remedy for the wound that has been made upon us.” Saint Martin I, who received this appeal, was one worthy to hear it; and soon afterwards he repaired by his own martyrdom the fault committed by Honorius, in suffering himself to be tricked by an impostor. His glorious death, followed by the tortures endured for the Truth by the saintly Abbot Maximus and his companions, prepared the victory which the heroic faith of Sophronius had announced to the Roman Pontiff. Admirable was this amends received by Holy Church for an odious silence: now were Her Doctors to be seen, with tongue plucked out, still continuing by divine power to proclaim that Christian dogma which cannot be enchained; still with lopped off hands, finding means, in their indomitable zeal, to affix to the mutilated arm the pen whose function, now made doubly glorious, continued thus to carry throughout the world the refutation of falsehood.

But it is time to come to the issue of this memorable contest. It is to be found in him whose feast we are this day celebrating. Saint Agatho had assembled the sixth General Council at Constantinople, at the request of another Constantine, an enemy of heresy and a victor over Islam. Faith and justice now did the work, hand in hand; and Saint Leo II could at last sing aloud: “O holy Mother Church, put off thy garb of mourning, and deck thee in robes of gladness. Exult now with joyous confidence: thy liberty is not cramped.”

The holy Liturgy devotes the following lines to the history of this pontificate, short indeed, but well filled:

Leo Secundus, Pontifex Maximus, Siculus, humanis et divinis litteris græce et latine doctus, musicis etiam eriditus fuit: ipse enim sacros Hymnos et Psalmos in Ecclesia ad concentum meliorem reduxit. Probavit acta sextæ Synodi, quæ Constantinopoli celebrata est, præsidentibus legatis Apostolicæ Sedis, præsente quoque Constantino imperatore, et duobus patriarchis Constantinopolitano et Antiocheno, ac centum septuaginta episcopis: quam et in latinum transtulit. Pope Leo the Second was a Sicilian. He was learned in sacred and profane letters, as also in the Greek and Latin tongues, and was moreover an excellent musician. He rearranged and improved the music of the sacred hymns and psalms used in the Church. He approved the acts of the sixth General Council, which was held at Constantinople, under the Presidency of the legates of the Apostolic See, in the presence of Emperor Constantine, the patriarchs of Constantinople and Antioch, and one hundred and seventy bishops: Leo also translated these said acts into Latin.
In eo concilio Cyrus, Sergius, et Pyrrhus condemnati sunt, unam tantummodo voluntatem et operationem in Christo prædicantes. Hic fregit superbiam antistitum Ravennatum, qui Exarchorum freti potentia, Sedi Apostolicæ non obtemperabant. Quamobrem decrevit, ut electio cleri Ravennatis irrita esset, nisi Romani Pontificis auctoritate comprobaretur. It was in this Council that Cyrus, Sergius, and Pyrrhus were condemned for teaching that there is in Christ only one Will and one Operation. Leo broke the pride of the Archbishops of Ravenna, who had puffed themselves up, under the power of the Exarchs, to set at naught the power of the Apostolic See. Wherefore, he decreed that the elections of the clergy of Ravenna should be nothing worth, until they had been confirmed by the authority of the Bishop of Rome.
Vere pater pauperum fuit: non enim pecunia solum, sed opera, labore, et consiliis, egentium, viduarum, et pupillorum inopiam ac solitudinem sublevabat. Qui dum singulos non magis prædicatione, quam vita, ad pie sancteque vivendum adhortaretur; mense sui pontificatus decimo et diebus decem et septem, obdormivit in Domino: sepultusque est in basilica sancti Petri, quarto Kalendas Julii. Ordinatione una mense Junio, creavit presbyteros novem, diaconos tres, episcopos diversis in locis viginti tres. He was a very father to the poor. Not by money only, but by his deeds, his labors, and his advice, he relieved the poverty and loneliness of widows and orphans. He was leading all to live holy and godly lives, not by mere preaching, but by his own life, when he fell asleep in the Lord, having sat as Pope, nine months and twenty-seven days, and was buried in the church of Saint Peter, the fourth of the kalends of July. In the month of June, he held one ordination, whereat he ordained nine priests, three deacons, and twenty-three bishops, for divers places.

O glorious Pontiff, to thee was granted the privilege of completing the Apostolic confession, by giving the furthest development to the testimony rendered by Peter to the Son of the Living God, who is at the same time, Son of Man. Worthy wast thou to finish the work of a Sylvester, of a Celestine, and of that other Leo, a Pontiff beloved of earth and of heaven. Convoking, inspiring, confirming the illustrious Councils of Nicæa, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, they had triumphantly proved in our Emmanuel, both his Divinity Consubstantial with the Father, and his Unity of Person, which causes Mary to be truly his Mother, and, furthermore, his twofold Nature, without which he could not have been our Brother. Now Satan, who had allowed himself to be more easily overcome on the first two points, defended the third with utmost rage. As on that great battle-day when he was hurled from heaven, the form of his revolt had been a refusal to adore God under human features; so now, together with all hell, enforced by Holy Church to bend the knee, his jealousy would fain pretend that at least God had taken of man but a mutilated nature. Let it be granted that the Word was made Flesh, but in this Flesh allow not that he had other impulses, other energies, save those of the Divinity Itself; such an inert nature as this, uncrowned of its proper Will, would in reality be no Human Nature, even though It were to retain all the rest. Then would Lucifer, in his pride, have less cause to blush; for then man, the object of his infernal envy, would have naught in common with the Divine Word, save a vain appearance! Thanks be to thee, O Leo, thanks be to thee, in the name of all mankind! By thee, in face of Heaven, earth, and hell, is promulgated authentically the incomparable title whereby, without any restriction, our nature is established at the Right Hand of the Father, in the highest heavens; by thee, Our Lady consummates her crushing of the vile serpent’s head.

But what craft was displayed by Satan in this campaign, prolonged as it was during two centuries, and so noiselessly too, the better to secure success! What exultation rang through the abyss, when one sad day saw the representative of Him who is essential Light appear to side for a moment with the powers of darkness in bringing on a cloud which would interpose itself betwixt Heaven and those mountains of God, where He dwells with His Vicar; it is but too probable that the social aid of intercession was weaker just then than it should have been. Be ever at hand, O Leo, to ward off all similarly dangerous situations. Uphold, in every age, the Pastor who rules Christ’s Church that he may keep himself aloof from the darkening mists that earth exhales; keep ever alive in the breast of the faithful flock that strong prayer, which should continually be made without ceasing for him by the Church: and then, Peter, were he even chained in the depths of the darkest dungeon, will be reached by the Sun of Justice and clearly see his way in that pure ray; then, will the whole body of the Church be lightsome. For, Jesus hath said, the light of the body is the eye: if the eye be single the whole body will be lightsome.

Taught thus by thee how great is the price of the benefit conferred by Our Lord on the world, when he gave her to rest on the infallible teaching of Peter’s successors, we are all the better prepared to celebrate tomorrow’s feast. We realize more fully the strength of the Rock whereon the Church stands; we know that the gates of hell shall never prevail against her. For surely the efforts of the spirits of darkness never went to such lengths as they did in that sad crisis to which thou didst put an end: nor was their success, however great in appearance, contrary to the divine promise: for it is to the teaching of Peter, not to his silence, that the unfailing assistance of the Holy Ghost is guaranteed. O loving Pontiff, obtain for us, together with uprightness of faith, that heavenly enthusiasm wherewith it behooves us to hail Peter and the Man-God, blended together in such unity as the same Jesus Himself hath made to exist between the two. Deeply is the Liturgy indebted to thee; grant us, then, to relish ever more and more the hidden manna it contains; and may our hearts and voices fittingly render these sacred melodies!


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)