“Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God’s own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God.” (Pope St. Leo the Great, CCC #1691)
I offer the words of Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461), leading off the third part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as a pivotal point for our opening reflection in our Catholic Life magazine for the new year. Our beloved pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, teaches us that the papacy of Pope St. Leo was undoubtedly one of the most important in the Church’s history.
“God is being ‘recalculated,’ deliberately left out of a resolution for the human conundrum.”
Pope St. Leo and Pope St. Gregory (590-604) were the only two popes called “the Great.” (Pope St. John Paul II, while not officially given the title, is often referred to as “the Great.”)
Pope St. Leo further serves as the teacher and focal point for our troubled and confused spiritually, socially and relativistic time. As we begin the new year, we find ourselves struggling with resolutions and mantras, hip-hop social contrivances, political bickering fueled by social media and instant communication. While this is not new in contemporary society, so many of us are noting that in the midst of all this prattle, humanity is less focused on matters Divine—God is being “recalculated,” deliberately left out of a resolution for the human conundrum.
O, there are so many practical, solid, genuine and factual points of recent human history, to which we may point—but since I’m looking to St. Leo the Great and offering him to you as a contemporary ecclesial and social elder prophet, we might do well to consider Pope St. Leo has been here before and offered practical, Faith-based solutions for the same issues. The moral and natural orders of law are held firm and strong over the years with Pope St. Leo’s talents, strengths, personal holiness and dynamic Faith.
Heresies still infect the Church—the same heresies that St. Augustine, St. Athanasius and St. Ireneus, among others, fought against, taught against and rallied the faithful to resist because the Truth was not to be found in heretical false teachings. The Truth is found in Jesus Christ and in His Church.
I have chosen Pope St. Leo as a leader for the beginning of this new year, primarily since he led the efforts and cleared the Church of his time from the heresy called Pelagianism. Pelagius and his followers believed and taught that we can perfect ourselves without God’s grace and Divine assistance. Pelagianism denied Original Sin and thus the significance of baptism. Pelagianism, in one way or another, still affects the society of today since we still believe, erroneously, that we can “save ourselves.” Thus, our reliance on things and devices other than God, prayer, a spiritual life and, indeed, the sacraments themselves, are not necessary in our lives. It is not too difficult to see the trail of this destruction in our age. Pope St. Leo and St. Augustine are still the principle teachers in refuting this heresy. We seriously need their help and can still learn greatly from their wisdom.
One other heretical teaching that was beaten back by Pope St. Leo, and the Fathers of his times, was called Manichaeism. This error is also prevalent in our own time. This heresy denied the goodness of the human body. We are still effected by this error in our basic failure to understand and respect human life and our tendencies to objectify sex and the misuse of human sexuality, in general. Our great Pope St. Paul VI attacked this evil among us when he wrote the incredibly important and significant encyclical Humane Vitae in 1968, addressing the beauty of human sexuality and the importance of marriage and human family love.
Finally, if you ever make a trip to Rome and ponder the beautiful places to pray and consider our Church history, stop into St. Peter’s Basilica. Visit the altar dedicated to Pope St. Leo. He is portrayed taking his stand against Attila the Hun, protecting the gates of Rome and leading to peace for the city and its people. Leo protected the people by standing for the teachings of Jesus and bringing a sense of Christ’s laws to establish peace.
As we begin a new year in the midst of such confusion and trouble in the world, we do well to remember that the Catholic Church has taught with the light of the Gospel and the wisdom of our leaders—to this very day—a sense of profound goodness and a true sense of the Divine Presence of God and His protection over us. Happy New Year!
Most Reverend William Patrick Callahan,
Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse
Published in the January/February 2022 Issue of Catholic Life Magazine