Holiness rises out of the ashes of Depravity and Heresy
Two great saints marked this period of history in the 5th Century: Pope St. Leo the Great and Saint Patrick of Ireland. Together they restored sanctity as the order of the day for every Christian to strive for.
Continuing where we left off in the last chapter, we saw the beginning of the fall of the Roman Empire with the barbaric invasions at the beginning of the 5th Century. After the death of Saint Augustine in 430 and Pope Saint Celestine I on July 27, 432, a new evangelism took shape for it was in 432 that Saint Patrick, sent to Ireland by Celestine, claimed the emerald isle for Holy
Mother Church adding that remote island to the list of Christian nations, one of Holy Mother
Church's strongest supporters from that time on to the present. It is also interesting to note that
Ireland was the only country where the Church was established peacefully without martyrdom.
Pagan- born in Britain near Wales around 385, Patrick earned his stripes, so to speak, before being
assigned to Ireland. At 16 he was kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave to the Irish Celts. There
he learned the language and converted to Catholicism. Aided by friends, he was able to flee to
France where he met Saint Germanus, Bishop of Auxerre. There he spent the next 15 years
before being ordained a priest. Shortly after that Patrick was consecrated a bishop by Germanus to
fill the void left by Palladius whom Celestine had first sent to Ireland. Patrick followed him there at
Celestine's order in 432 and, as Monsignor Canon Ryan writes in his description of St. Patrick,
the Apostle of Ireland in "Cabinet of Catholic Information", "St. Patrick lived through the fifth
century of the Christian era, and died within a few years of its close. It was a time of wonders and of
wonder-workers; yet his marvelous life-span of a hundred and twenty years was even then without
rival, while his miracles stood unapproached by the most astounding even of that age." There is much
legend attributed to Patrick, from who his mother was - Conchessa niece to Saint Martin of
Tours - to how long he lived. Some accounts say he was 76 when he died while others, such as
Msgr. Ryan, place him at 120 when he died. There is also the legend of the snakes that Patrick
drove the poisonous reptiles out of Ireland. Whether they were real or the imagery of satan from
Genesis that Patrick preached in bringing the True Faith to Ireland, it is a fact that he used nature to
express God's goodness and power, as well as explaining the mysteries such as the Trinity in which
he utilized the prominent and famed three-leaf shamrock to better describe the Triune Divinity. There
are also innumerable accounts of miracles wrought by the Apostle of Ireland which cannot all be
substantiated but suffice it to say this warrior of God could not have peacefully conquered the entire
pagan isle of Celts without the miraculous Divine Intervention of his Lord and Master. He
established monasteries that still stand today and when he did die, either in 461 or 499, he was
buried at Down in Ulster. Little did Patrick realize the fruits of his labors that would be harvested
down through the ages as Ireland would play a pivotal role in the conversion of America and
Australia, all due to the undying faith and zeal of the ancestors of St. Patrick.
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 Ghost. 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.
Twenty years after Ephesus, Saint Pulcheria played a key role in the fourth General Council; this time influencing her husband Marcian, then the Roman Emperor of the East, to coordinate with Pope Saint Leo the Great in convening the Council at Chalcedon in Thessalonica just northwest of Constantinople in 451. There Leo 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. Once again a false teaching was at the heart of the meeting. This time Monophysitism (the false teaching that Christ had only one nature) was at the forefront of controversy. This heresy was taught by the Abbot Eutyches who also sought discord, causing confusion so that the Council asserted that Constantinople should be on an equal basis with Rome ecclesiastically. Vigorously opposing this and Eutyches, Pope Leo determined in his Dogmatic Epistle of October 10, 451 that the See of Peter in Rome is and always shall be the Seat of Primacy with no equal and that Eutyches was a heretic. Leo was proclaimed the 'Soul of Chalcedon' and the Council agreed unanimously that through Leo, Peter had spoken and Eutyches was condemned. But the Byzantine Court did not convey his words to the people and the heresy grew stronger among the Eastern monks and bishops.
made it necessary for Leo to convene the Fifth Ecumenical Council, this time at The Second Council of Constantinople
where he condemned in no uncertain terms the Three Chapters or heresies running rampant. The "Three Chapters" was a collection of statements by three deceased disciples of the deposed Nestorius. The Council determined that the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and Ibas of Edessa were soundly condemned. This Council also affirmed the condemnations declared at the Council of Carthage in 416 and previous condemnations by Popes of heresies. Leo 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. How refreshing. If only we had a Pope today who had half the courage of Leo. 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.