Sermon: Leo the Great

The Meeting of Leo I and Attila by Raphael

From a Medieval Sourcebook: “Attila, the leader of the Huns, who was called the scourge of God, came into Italy, inflamed with fury, after he had laid waste with most savage frenzy” cities and towns all across Asia and Europe. When he came to Italy, it was feared that he would do the same there. The burden of negotiations fell to one man: the Bishop of Rome, later known as Leo the Great.

The text continues: “Leo had compassion on the calamity of Italy and Rome… went to meet Attila. The old man of harmless simplicity, venerable in his gray hair and his majestic garb, ready of his own will to give himself entirely for the defense of his flock, went forth to meet the tyrant who was destroying all things. He met Attila… saying “The senate and the people of Rome, once conquerors of the world, now indeed vanquished, come before thee as suppliants. We pray for mercy and deliverance. O Attila, thou king of kings, thou couldst have no greater glory than to see suppliant at thy feet this people before whom once all peoples and kings lay suppliant. Thou hast subdued, O Attila, the whole circle of the lands which it was granted to the Romans, victors over all peoples, to conquer. Now we pray that thou, who hast conquered others, shouldst conquer thyself. The people have felt thy scourge; now as suppliants they would feel thy mercy.”

As Leo said these things Attila stood looking upon his venerable garb and aspect, silent, as if thinking deeply. And lo, suddenly there were seen the apostles Peter and Paul, clad like bishops, standing by Leo, the one on the right hand, the other on the left. They held swords stretched out over his head, and threatened Attila with death if he did not obey the pope’s command. Wherefore Attila was appeased he who had raged as one mad. He by Leo’s intercession, straightway promised a lasting peace and withdrew beyond the Danube.”

Leo became Pope in the year 440 and served until his death in 461. For his writings and teachings he is one of the Doctors to the Church (there are only 36 total) and for his piety and holiness he is known as “the Great.” Finally, for facing off Atilla, he also known as “The Shield of God.”

It is incidents like this that are so impressive in conveying the Spirit of God working through a person: Atilla and his armies put to death over 3,000,000 people, yet Leo road out unarmed and in great courage to meet him. Not only did he meet him, he turned the attacker away through his witness and the presence of God as seen in the saints.

Such great faith in the face of the enemy is an inspiration to us. It demonstrates to us that not only does God go with us into our daily lives, but that he sends his saints and angels to protect us along the way. And even if we should be overtaken, we are not forsaken, because the God and Father of our Savior Jesus and of Leo is also ours. These words of the Psalm (91:1-7) are our confidence:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
You will not fear the terror of the night,
nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness,
nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

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