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SIN AND CONVERSION – Timely lesson of Pope Leo the Great

– Aurelio Porfiri

During the course of its long history, the Catholic Church has had many Popes of exceptional human and spiritual value. There have also been humanly unworthy Popes, but this is part of the things of this world. We are always called to conversion, we and the Popes. Among the great ones a special place is occupied by Leo I, whom we all know by the name of Leo the Great (390-461) and whom the Catholic Church celebrates on November 10th.

This Pontiff, whose origins are not clear, found himself working in a time of trial for the life of the Church, a time of trial which is basically the whole history of salvation, a stage for the struggle between good and evil. With Emperor Constantine the Church had a new freedom after the persecutions of the first centuries, with a particularly bloody persecution right at the beginning of the fourth century. The Edict of Milan, as mentioned, had opened a new page for the action of the Church, but this did not stop the problems, such as heresies.

Pope Leo found himself fighting against the barbarian invasions that threatened Rome and against the heretical tendencies in the Church, at the time represented especially by Eutyches and Nestorius. The two represented two opposite heretical tendencies: Eutyches affirmed that human nature in Christ was completely absorbed by the divine nature (monophysitism) while Nestorius placed emphasis on the humanity of Christ at the expense of his divinity (Nestorianism). The Council of Chalcedon convened in 451 under Pope Leo will serve precisely to reaffirm the perennial Catholic doctrine: “So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.”

This concept had been well presented by Pope Leo in his Letter to Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople: “In order to discount the debt of our guilt of origin plunged into the earthly condition, the divine nature that does not suffer variations of sorts, it wanted to unite to ours that is passable. To do what was congruent to remedy our being, the one and the same mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ, caused that, on one hand, he could die, and, for another, die could not” (The Dogmatic Letters of Leo the Great, Italian edition edited by Giulio Trettel for Città Nuova Editrice and published in 1993). In the same Letter Leo states: “Birth in the flesh is clear proof of human nature; the birth of a virgin is proof of the divine power. The newborn becomes manifest in the humility of the crib, but the sublimity of the Most High finds testimony in the voice of the angels.”

Now, the propagators of heretical theses clearly denounced by the great Pope are in grave sin but can always be forgiven, if they repented. This is clearly stated by Leo, when he says about Eutyches: “If he returns to the faith in a coherent way, because he is repentant, he will easily understand why the bishop’s authority had to resort to disciplinary interventions, though – for him – belatedly. If he comes to a correct and complete rejections, and he will do it verbally, but also by means of a signed declaration, he will no longer be scolded and there will be mercy towards him, however magnanimous it may be.” In short, mercy is true when it is based on justice that manifests itself in the identification of sin and its rejection. Mercy passes from conversion. Always referring to Eutyches, Leo said: “As for Eutyches, who has fallen into such a grave error, because more consistently he will be helped to get back to his senses, – in case he repents -, so he must correct himself by starting right where he had started the mistake; and where he had been rightfully condemned, let him being allowed to deserve pardon from the same point.” Forgiveness must be deserved, it cannot be achieved by changing the nature of sin, making what was sinful, sinful no more. And this not to go against the sinner, but it is the right move in his favor, as Pope Leo explains in his letter to the Empress Pulcheria: “Since I have great confidence in your pity that I know unshakable, I implore you with great force that as you have always favored the Catholic faith, now is the right time for you to protect its freedom as well. It may be that the Lord allowed such proof for those who have nested within the bosom of the Church to be unmasked. But never one should proceed with a light heart towards them, so that the loss must not be regretted.”

In his general audience on March 5, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI has spoken in this way about his predecessor, Leo the Great:  “Aware of the historical period in which he lived and of the change that was taking place – from pagan Rome to Christian Rome – in a period of profound crisis, Leo the Great knew how to make himself close to the people and the faithful with his pastoral action and his preaching. He enlivened charity in a Rome tried by famines, an influx of refugees, injustice and poverty. He opposed pagan superstitions and the actions of Manichaean groups. He associated the liturgy with the daily life of Christians:  for example, by combining the practice of fasting with charity and almsgiving above all on the occasion of the Quattro tempora, which in the course of the year marked the change of seasons. In particular, Leo the Great taught his faithful – and his words still apply for us today – that the Christian liturgy is not the memory of past events, but the actualization of invisible realities which act in the lives of each one of us. This is what he stressed in a sermon (cf. 64, 1-2) on Easter, to be celebrated in every season of the year ‘not so much as something of the past as rather an event of the present.’ All this fits into a precise project, the Holy Pontiff insisted:  just as, in fact, the Creator enlivened with the breath of rational life man formed from the dust of the ground, after the original sin he sent his Son into the world to restore to man his lost dignity and to destroy the dominion of the devil through the new life of grace. This is the Christological mystery to which St Leo the Great, with his Letter to the Council of Ephesus, made an effective and essential contribution, confirming for all time – through this Council – what St Peter said at Caesarea Philippi. With Peter and as Peter, he professed: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And so it is that God and man together ‘are not foreign to the human race but alien to sin’ (cf. Serm. 64). Through the force of this Christological faith he was a great messenger of peace and love. He thus shows us the way:  in faith we learn charity. Let us therefore learn with St Leo the Great to believe in Christ, true God and true Man, and to implement this faith every day in action for peace and love of neighbour.”

So we have liturgy, conversion and forgiveness. These elements go together and cannot be separated. We need to be careful to discern new heretical tendencies in the life of the Church, they are still at work and Eutyches and Nestorius are just resurfacing from time to time. We need to be always on guard: this is the timely lesson of this great Pope.


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