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November 10th is the 1550th anniversary of Pope Leo the Great, remembered for penning the world’s shortest “tome” and for giving Christianity a desperately-needed house-cleaning that affects the world even still.

Up on his celestial cloud, Saint Leo (391-461 AD) may be irked that people call his masterwork a tome, since he went to considerable effort to keep it short at four sides of a modern sheet of stationery. However, since “tome” is Latin for a mere letter, he’s probably just nettled that modern people assume it’s too long to bother reading.

Leo is the patron saint “against snakes and backward children” (so Saint Patrick reduced Leo’s workload while The National Education Association increases it daily) but fans of literary concision should light candles beseeching him to help strike senseless almost every journalist in modern America.

British historian Eamon Duffy calls Leo’s Little Letter “the most important document ever issued by a pope;” and the splendid Christopher Howse explains why: “Without Leo, the council could hardly have brought the clarity it did to the creed that Anglican and Catholics still recite Sunday by Sunday.” In it, “Leo takes to task a monk called Eutyches for not paying attention to the Bible but making up his own version of what to believe about Jesus.”

Pope Leo the Great seems to have been rather a cut-the-crap sort of fellow. Busy writing letters urging Attila the Hun to shove-off (Attila did), he took a few moments to sort out conferences full of heretics, time-wasters, gas-bags, political-jockeys, the corrupt and the fully bewildered (much like conferences today).

The issue was Christ as both God and Man. Nestorians maintained that Jesus had two utterly unrelated natures (think: bipolar). Other heretics later called Monophysites insisted that Jesus had one new, unique nature that was simultaneously goddish-and-mannish (recalling Sarah Palin’s wisecrack, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”). Mr. Howse and Saint Leo explain, “Leo says that this would be bad news for humanity, which would not have been saved unless God had really taken our complete human nature, ‘for we could not have overcome the author of sin and of death unless he who could neither be contaminated by sin nor detained by death had taken upon himself our nature and made it his own.’” Leo used Gospel stories as examples.

Pope Leo wrote his memo and gave it to a guy on a horse who took it to modern-day Turkey. Conferees at the Second Council of Ephesus (449 AD) didn’t bother to read it (they were probably too busy planning the Third and Fourth Conferences of Ephesus, finding donors, identifying the best hotels and choosing the wine-list). He finally got his word in edgewise at the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), where surprised delegates declared, “Peter has spoken thus through Leo…This is the faith of the fathers. Why were not these things read at Ephesus?” Then the grumpy Eastern Church stalked off into small working-groups and missed the bus-tour to the carpet-factory.

Ultimately Leo, besides clearing up those little misunderstandings of whether Christ was a schizophrenic or a space-alien, asserted the universal primacy of the Bishop of Rome: that required his famous tome, more letters, and 96 surviving orations. A lot of work.

The aristocrat was buried in his own tomb stuck on the porch of the old Saint Peter’s Basilica, then dug up and reburied in a sort of condo with three other dead popes named Leo (if they’d grouped all the popes named John they’d have needed a high-rise), then in the 17th Century he was reinterred in his own chapel in the Vatican. He sleeps today under Alessaandro Algardi’s handsome marble relief “Fuga D’Attila” in which Saint Leo, backed up by pretty tough-looking angels, tells the cowering Hun to get on his Harley and buzz-off.

So on November 10th raise a prayer and a glass to a man who drove the Huns from the gates of Rome, and sorted out Christianity in a four-page memo clobbering some cleric for “making up his own version of what to believe about Jesus.” If Saint Leo isn’t too busy these days, a lot of modern Christians warrant a similar clouting. And come to think of it, modern barbarians outside and inside the walls.

You might also read the collected Daily Telegraph columns of Christopher Howse, a staunch Catholic and a true conservative who has the beard of George Bernard Shaw but the sensibilities of G.K. Chesterton. You may enjoy his recent “Paganism, from the Beast to Buffy,” in which he concludes drily that any value from recently-concocted witchcraft cults “depends on the myths they convey and whether those myths embody truth.” Ouch. For concision, too, he almost gives Saint Leo a run for his money.

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Published: Nov 10, 2011
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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6 replies to this post
  1. Many thanks. I get the impression that Gregory I was quite the wit. Maybe I can work something up. Any ideas from your side?

  2. He was Gregory the Great, after all! Even John Calvin liked him!

    In terms of our emphasis on locality (and one of my favorite stories): he wanted to go to England and be a missionary; apparently, during a visit, a locus sat on the Bible he was reading. He said, Ecce locusta! – and thought it to be a homonym to "loco sta" which means "stay in place." Then, within the next hour, a person from the pope arrived to get him. Bam! God's will be done.

    I do not know much of his wit, but I do not doubt it!

    p.s. working on a post as prompted now!

  3. Romulus, hard to tell from the photo, but you may be right. Attila was maybe enough of a threat to roll out all the "big guns!"

  4. I do so love the story of Leo sending Atilla packing! And to think I first learned of this story from the old classic PC game "Age of Empires II: Age of Kings"

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