Friday, April 19, 2013

Saint of the Month: Saint Leo IX!

A stained-glass portrayal of St. Leo IX
in his hometown, Egisheim, currently on the French
side of the border of France and Germany.
Saint Leo IX

AKA: Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg, "The Apostolic Pilgrim."
Feast Day: April 19.

Really Existed? Without a doubt.
Timeframe: June 21, 1002 – April 19, 1054.
Place: Europe

Credentials: Canonized by Pope Gregory VII in 1082.
Martyrdom: None, although captivity and some high-profile failures presumably made his final months pretty frustrating.

Patron Saint of: no clear tradition.
Symbolism: no clear tradition.

It’s kind of hard for we moderns to imagine a Pope personally leading an army into the field, but then we haven’t seen a lot of Popes elected in their forties and also the nature of warfare has changed quite a bit in the interim. But Pope Leo IX was nothing if not vigorous, at peace as well as at war. He pushed through significant church reform during his five-year tenure and covered thousands of miles to oversee the church hierarchy, partner with the civic leadership, and participate in military action all over Europe.

As a reformer, Leo (a German, born Bruno of Egisheim-Dagsburg in 1002) did not by any means have the last word, but he is generally considered a strong administrator who was on the winning side of major debates (at least as they have evolved to our point in history). He was against simony (the selling of religious office, which seems to have waned quite a bit lately) and in favor of clerical celibacy (still Vatican policy today).

As a military leader, he was somewhat less effective. Nervous about the Norman kingdom in the south of Italy (those Normans really got around) and egged on by the Byzantines, St. Leo led an army south against Christian forces that apparently really didn’t want to get in a fight with their own spiritual leader (although sources differ on this point). When he insisted on battle and the outnumbered but tactically savvy Normans won the day, they were very polite and respectful to their honored prisoner, and didn’t keep him captive for a day longer than it took to extract a hefty suite of political concessions from various involved kingdoms.

He would only live a few months after his Norman misadventures, but in that short time he managed to squeeze in another colossal error of judgment. This time, it involved the “Donation of Constantine.” You may have heard of the D of C, a great medieval forgery that convinced people for centuries that the Emperor Constantine had bequeathed the Western Roman Empire and authority over all of Christianity to the Roman Papacy. The internal flaws in this document eventually seemed pretty obvious, and it seems kind of weird that nobody ever wondered whether the Roman Empire and ultimate Christian authority were really Constantine’s to give, but the document was considered totally legit at the time.

The Vatican post office celebrates
St. Leo IX's 1000th birthday
What Leo did, though, was to try to enforce it. He sent a legation to Constantinople to demand that the Patriarch of that city henceforth follow the Roman lead in all matters doctrinal and administrative. Since there was no conceivable way that Leo could enforce this sweeping demand, the Patriarch dissolved into giggles (metaphorically speaking), and before you know it there were mutual excommunications and an increasing realization that the Western and Eastern churches had broken up for good. The split wouldn’t be fully consummated for 150 years, when – in one of history’s most colossal fiascos – the flower of Western Europe decided it would be a lark to sack Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Leo’s ultimatum however, is generally regarded as the moment when, as the (1908) Catholic Encyclopedia has it, “the East was finally cut off from the body of the Church.” Or perhaps when the West was.

But wait – can we really pin all this on St. Leo? Most Catholic sources argue that Leo “fought the coming Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches,” and merely responded to an aggressive Byzantine Patriarch, who was the real troublemaker. “That ambitious prelate,” says the old Catholic Encylopedia,
was determined, if possible, to have no superior in either Church or State. As early as 1042, he had struck the pope's name off the sacred diptychs, and soon proceeded, first in private and then in public, to attack the Latin Church because it used unfermented bread (azymes) in the Sacrifice of the Mass. At length, and that, too, in a most barbarous manner, he closed the Latin churches in Constantinople.
It would be easy to dismiss this he-said/he-said debate as trivial and argue that the big split was going to happen eventually, regardless of what was done by individuals. But that’s reasoning backwards. We are enough accustomed to the Great Schism after nine and a half centuries that it seems like it must have been inevitable. For as much as there were powerful historical forces pushing Rome and Constantinople apart in late medieval times, it is still conceivable that had Leo and the Patriarch (his name was Michael; no relation) merely hit it off better in their correspondence, the foundation could have been lain for a united Christianity, or at least a more united Christianity, that would have evolved through a very different sort of second millennium. (You can scoff at great-man history, friends, but it can scoff right back at you.)

St. Leo brought a fellow named Hildebrand, another energetic, can-do administrator, to Rome as his personal assistant. Hildebrand later became Pope Gregory VII, and canonized Leo in 1082. Gregory would eventually be canonized too, but not until 1728, by Pope Benedict XIII. As of this writing, Benedict XIII is not considered a saint.

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