“God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.”
This poem by William Cowper, written in 1773, could be taken as a motto for our present time. And it is most certainly applicable to the Saint whom we venerate today, the day of his death over fifteen hundred years ago.
Saint Leo was a man of many contradictions from our vantage point all these years later. So it is important to remember the times in which he lived, and the chaos and turmoil which all Europeans faced.
Saint Leo became Pope, the Bishop of Rome, in 440. The Roman Empire was threatened and attacked on all sides by people who wanted what Rome had and was no longer willing to share as it once did. The Vandals, Goths, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Huns, and other tribes invaded Roman lands either for plunder or because they were being pushed out of their own lands. Rome had been sacked in 410 and was under constant threat, while its legions were retreating back toward Italy.
The authority of the Roman State was palpably disintegrating and Christians, as both participants in the government and critics of it, were at everyone’s mercy.
So here comes Leo, from an aristocratic family and used to authority, in his thirties he was sufficiently powerful that he was honored with a dedication to a treatise against heresy and asked for political help by Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria. At the age of 40 he was elected Pope.
A man of deep learning and broad education, Leo was constantly working to explain and elucidate the theology surrounding the person of Jesus Christ and his role as mediator and savior. There was not a conflict among theologians of the Christian world that he was not privy to and willing to give his opinion about.
In his Christmas Day Sermon he preached:
Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life…
We find him ecumenical in his ideas and joyful in his message. And his other writings as well show a true man of God and shepherd of his flock.
But here we find this deacon of the church embroiled in geopolitics that rivaled almost anything we have today. Sent as a legate on a diplomatic mission, he was away from Rome when Pope Sixtus III died and he was unanimously elected Pope. As Pope, he worked diligently to consolidate the power of the Roman Church as the central repository of the mandate from Jesus through Peter, the singular head of all Christian churches. So his zeal in saving souls and bringing them joy through the Gospel was equaled by his zeal in building a powerful organization capable of withstanding the tempests of the time.
And this is where I had to step back and re-evaluate my initial assessment of Leo.
Who am I, I thought, to question his secular machinations? Who am I to judge him by today’s standards?
What I mean is, in Leo I saw a conniving, albeit compassionate power player, politician, diplomat, and shepherd. For example, when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, he was instrumental in persuading them not to murder the population, which they were accustomed to doing after a victory. Before that, in 452, he had also persuaded Attila, leader of the Huns, to refrain from sacking the city. Attila and his army withdrew. These are examples of diplomacy of the highest and most significant level.
Could he have saved his flock had he not been such a powerful presence in the secular world?
All of which is a long way to get to today’s Gospel.
Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God would come,
Jesus said in reply,
“The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed,
and no one will announce, ‘Look, here it is,’ or, ‘There it is.’
For behold, the Kingdom of God is among you.”
If the Kingdom of God was during Jesus’ time among the Pharisees, then it was certainly among the Romans and the Vandals and the Huns. Therefore, perhaps Leo was helping the church to bear much fruit, as we heard in the Alleluia of today’s Mass. Perhaps he was the lightning needed in the European sky to settle the darkness of constant warfare and terror of that time.
And perhaps Paul’s letter to Philemon can be seen as “God moving in a mysterious way” in Leo’s life as well. Paul is asking his friend Philemon to take back his slave, Onesimus, who is now a Christian and worker in Christ with Paul. What a transformation! How unlikely at the time that a master would see a slave as an equal and a brother in Christ. How unlikely that a bishop would be placed in the position of geopolitical power.
Therefore we do not know when the Son of Man will appear, or where, or how. We only know that the Holy Spirit is at work among the most unlikely, or sometimes most truly likely, people and situations. In today’s world it is harder and harder to trust our fellow men and women. Maybe we are entering the same chaos of 1500 years ago.
And if so, we can trust in the Lord, as it says in today’s Psalm.
The LORD secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob.
Lord, protect us in this time and for all time. Help us to remember that you are with us now and even to the end of time. Help us accept your love and do our best to pass it on to others. In Jesus’ name.