Pope Celestine I was succeeded on July 31, four days after his death, by Pope Saint Sixtus III who was the third pontiff in succession who had been born in Rome. Sixtus enlarged and embellished the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. Lawrence and was the author of several epistles. Probably his greatest accomplishment was upholding the jurisdiction of Rome over Illyria against the Eastern Emperor who wanted it dependent on Constantinople. He died on August 19, 440. We leave it to Msgr. Ryan to set the scene for the age we are covering in this installment: "Roman Imperial civilization had done its work as a channel of Christianity, and, like its own mighty aqueducts which had brought for centuries the pure mountain waters to the thirsty multitudes, was now falling into picturesque decay. In the west, in Gaul and Britain, the Cross, which had advanced with the Roman eagles, fell back with them when they retired. The scattered Christians that remained when the Legions had retreated, were either lapsing into heresy, or were being swallowed up in the wave of triumphant barbarism rolling from the north." He was, of course, refering to the Visigoths and the barbarian leader Alaric who had taken Rome and plundered the city in 410 and then twenty years later Augustine's beloved city of Hippo in northern Africa. The people were ripe for conquest, falling into disarray morally and materially. It was a walk in the park for Alaric and he continued unabated. This encouraged other barbaric tribes to go a-plundering.
One such was the King of the Huns Attila who, born in 405, soon became the "Scourge of God." As Msgr. Ryan relates, "But the same Providence that let loose that avenging flood upon the sullied Empire, was not without a care for His own. As the Frank and Goth pushed into the fertile lands of Italy, other conquerors as mighty rose in the lands those had left. Saintly heroes were given by God to the stricken peoples, and by Him strengthened with the power which is made perfect in infirmity."
One of these saints was Pope Saint Leo the Great who became the 45th in the line of Peter when he was chosen to succeed Sixtus III on September 29, 440. Born in Tuscany, Italy near the very end of the 4th Century, Leo came up through the ranks of the Deaconate and was in France attempting to reconcile the warring factions there when he was elected Pope. Though, like most pontiffs, he did not feel worthy, he nevertheless accepted the privileged and august duties of leading God's people through the middle of a most turbulent century. Naturally the people looked to him for leadership and to save them from the plights that would afflict them, yet Leo, as a humble but effective deacon knew he couldn't do it by and of himself. He placed everything in God's hands and constantly sought the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thus, in the hands of God, Leo became a powerful instrument to protect and honor the Church during the decay of the Roman Empire, the assaults of Arians, and the invasions of heathens. Three years into his papacy Leo convened an assembly to rebuke and endorse Pope Saint Innocent I's condemnation of Manicheanism as well as exposing Nestorianism, Priscillianism, and Arianism. In 451 he called the Fourth General or Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon where he staunchly defended the Incarnation, defining the revealed teaching of faith that in Christ there are two distinct natures, the divine and the human, hypostatically united in one person. He also condemned the heresy of Eutyches. But the Byzantine Court did not convey his words to the people and the heresy grew stronger among the Eastern monks and bishops. This made it necessary for Leo to convene the Fifth Ecumenical Council, this time at Constantinople where he condemned in no uncertain terms the Three Chapters or heresies running rampant. He garnered the signatures of all the Bishops, proclaiming "Peter has spoken by Leo." He admonished his bishops to know their faith and to assure that their priests in each diocese were knowledgable in Dogma and Doctrine so that the people would not fall into the heresies that had assaulted the Church during the Third, Fourth and Fifth Centuries. Leo not only assured unity within ecclesiastical ranks, but re-established harmony among the faithful. He is called "great" because of his energetic work in maintaining unity, his involvement in the liturgy, politics, preaching and writings, which have been cherished and passed on through the ages. But to historians his greatest accomplishment came in 451.
The year before a barbaric horde known as the Huns had overrun the Empire, pillaging and plundering Gaul and moving rapidly from the north through Italy to the gates of Rome. Fearing no man, Leo chose to meet Attila face to face at the gates. Many felt it was suicide and that Rome's fall was a fait accomplis, but Leo knew God would protect him and so he bravely confronted the pagan king at the gates of Rome, pursuading Attila to abandon his plans to sack the city. To everyone's astonishment Attila rounded up his horde and turned away from Rome. It was another in the many encounters down through the centuries where, through the grace of God, a superior force is turned away, evidence David slaying Goliath, the victory at Lepanto under the pontificate of Pope Saint Pius V, the brave Saint Clare holding aloft the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance to protect the city, and many more such cases where the power of God was manifested. Leo took very seriously his charge handed down from Saint Peter to rule Christ's Church as Christ instructed. Leo knew it was not him who convinced Attila to forego his attempts on Rome, but the miraculous vision God allowed Attila to behold of Saints Peter and Paul standing behind Leo. The "Scourge of God" knew that any power this great was not to be messed with or he would be scourged by God, and so, totally overcome mentally by the vision he had seen, he retreated. It was the end of the threat so feared throughout Europe as the Hun king died two years later while Leo ruled another ten years, 21 in all, receiving his Heavenly reward on September 10, 461. In 1754 St. Leo was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XIV, honoring this great Pope for his great writings and wisdom at a pivotal time in Church and world history. He had shown great courage and his skills at governing the Church and emphasizing spirituality while juggling the political footballs of his time. His actions strengthened the Vatican's position in the world while bringing the people to a closer understanding of what Jesus meant in His words to Peter in Matthew 16: 18-19, "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven; and whatever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven."
Leo was succeeded by Pope Saint Hilary on November 19, 461 and he died after seven years on February 29, 468 leaving behind the accomplishments of possessing great political thought like his holy predecessor. Hilary determined that a certain level of culture was needed to foster the priesthood, and that popes and bishops should not nominate their successors. Besides establishing the concept of a seminary, he also reached out toward the missions instituting apostolic vicariates in the west in Spain, Ireland and Britain.
Tivoli-born Pope Saint Simplicius followed Hilary on March 3, 468 and held the papacy until March 10, 483. It was during his papacy that the Fall of the Roman Empire occured in 476 as Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was forced to surrender everything. Much has been written about the Fall of the Roman Empire, but the fact is that when it finally did happen it was a mere footnote in history for the Decline had been in process for centuries, decaying from within, finally stumbling on the stone of barbarianism which we shall cover in the next issue and how, ironically, the fall led to the rise of Christianity as God rose up great saints to touch the vandals, convert them and procreate the true faith throughout all the land.