Leo the Great and Benedict XVI

In the back of Saint Peter's Basilica is a side altar that serves as the final resting place for Pope Saint Leo the Great, who reigned as Vicar of Christ from 440 until 461. As one would expect of a pope with the rare title of "Magnus", Leo's achievements were many. At the Council of Chalcedon, he authoritatively clarified the Church's teaching regarding the human and divine natures of Christ. In addition, he relentlessly defended papal authority and theological orthodoxy in times of upheaval and uncertainty as the Western Roman Empire was crumbling. But Leo the Great is also beloved by Catholics for a unique intervention in the history of the Church, an intervention that saved the city of Rome from savage destruction at the hands of a merciless barbarian horde led by Attila the Hun.

Directly above the altar containing Leo's revered mortal remains is a breathtaking, larger-than-life marble rendition of the Pope's famous encounter with Attila in 452. Against all odds, Leo's dramatic intervention was successful, and Attila turned his fury elsewhere, giving the Eternal City a temporary respite from the pervasive fifth-century sieges. In this stunning outpouring of Baroque intensity, set majestically above Leo's sarcophagus, Attila's gaze is fixed not on the resolute Pope, but on two sword-wielding Apostles, Peter and Paul, hovering above on a cloud and accompanied by an army of angels descending from heaven. Attila is frozen in mid-turn away from Rome. His head is bent upward while his Herculean body is twisted away from the Pope. The feared conqueror has had enough and decides it would be best to leave Rome in peace.


The work of art is a brilliant study in potent contrasts. In the category of sheer physical strength, the aged Leo is clearly outmatched by the burly Attila. But what he lacks in brawn, Leo makes up for through the fervor of his resolution, captured magnificently in his steely gaze. Attila's expression is a delicate mixture of timidity and incredulity. The nervous countenance etched on his face, coupled with his massive arm, elevated in the defensive position shielding him from the Apostles, diminishes the bulky impact of his muscular body. In contrast to Attila's pose, Leo's arm is gracefully outstretched before him, as though to signal a halt to the advancing army. Leo's steady hand appears as a strikingly gentle sign of rebuke, considering the high tension of the moment. The Pope's generous and elegant accoutrements contrast well with the crude military garb in which Attila is depicted.

crouching figureBehind the imposing figure of the Pope, a young man is crouching, perhaps in fear of the mighty king. But surprisingly, his face is defined with a decidedly confident glare. Maybe he symbolizes the population of Rome or the faithful of the universal Church in general, sheltered securely behind the successor of Saint Peter.

At another, more symbolic, level, I believe this work of art is highly relevant for the present time. While the days of dramatic showdowns between Popes and belligerent tribal leaders have long since passed, the Church faces current dangers: forces that gravely threaten her moral authority and, by extension, the dignity of the human person.

We have another great pope in Benedict XVI, whose peerless force of mind and intellect is matched by the fervor of his profound spirituality. And he is just as determined to face down enemies of truth and defend the prerogatives of the Church as Pope St. Leo the Great was to face down Attila the Hun. Only now, the enemies are not foreign armies or tribes but rather, and perhaps more ominously, seductive ideologies and cultural pathologies.

The human person and the family are threatened both by the utilitarian and sentimental perspectives.  One kills in the name of the greater good, the other in the name of compassion.  "Political correctness" makes it extremely difficult to discuss these issues outside the cramped template of these two creeds. Destructive exploitation of embryos for stem-cells is perhaps one of the most highly-controversial and cutting-edge issues of the day. Utilitarians embrace it under the slogan "The greatest good for the greatest number." Sentimentalists ask us to look at victims of diseases and "tell them that we are going to deny them a cure."  The Church answers strongly that the dignity of the person precludes any and all unethical means of research.

The nature of family life has also been a heated topic for discussion. Nature and nature's God arranged it so that one man and one woman partake in a union and thus become co-creators of new human life. Marriage is the oldest natural institution in human history. Movements to overturn this order are populated by those who do not hide their militant hostility to the Church. In a remarkable display of irony, these self-proclaimed advocates of tolerance seek to impose their distorted vision of love and marriage on society via judicial fiat, despite overwhelming public opposition, witnessed to in election after election. They shirk rational discussion and rely heavily on rhetorical tricks and emotion-tugging platitudes to advance their cause. The result is often an embarrassing tumble toward an unseemly but logical conclusion. For example, if there are no limits as to what marriage actually is, then why can't eight or twenty people who "love" each other marry, live together in a sexual relationship, adopt children and claim benefits from the state? To deny that such conclusions must be reached once the premise of "gay marriage" is accepted is to commit what George Weigel calls "rational bigotry", that is to say, bigotry against reason.

Given such a survey of the situation, what chances of success are there for a "simple and humble worker in the Lord's vineyard" and for those aligned with him? The modern armies of Attila, powerful and numerous, often seem difficult to confront, let alone overcome. But, just as in the sculpture, Divine Assistance and hope appear, even as things seem on the brink of collapse and despair. Taking shelter behind the successor to Peter, we are strengthened by Christ's promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against his Church. Keeping that in mind, we can confront with confidence the moral confusion of our day and even its concomitant violent aggressions. The enemies of the Church, seemingly as powerful and unstoppable as Attila and his army, will be confounded and forced into an ignominious retreat just as they appear on the verge of a final march on Rome.

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  • Guest

    Although parallels like this can be multiplied, I've always thought of our own John Paul the Great as going out to meet the great scourge of his day, atheist-communism.  Talk about being unmatched from a worldly / temporal perspective!  Nonetheless, like Leo the Great, he goes out to meet this mortal enemy.  But, like evil itself, when he turned the light of Christ upon it, communism just disappeared! 

    We are truly blessed to live in an age with these two great ones, John Paul and Benedict!  Viva Il Papa!

  • Guest

    What a powerful story.  And how true for today.  I alone can't do anything about what is happening, but Christ through me can!!  Thanks for the article.