Baptismal Priesthood, Ministerial Priesthood–Leo the Great

The Baptismal Priesthood and the Ministerial Priesthood

Pope St. Leo the Great
Early Church Father and Doctor of the Church

This excerpt from a sermon by St. Leo the Great (Sermo 4, 1-2; PL 54, 148-149) on the occasion of the anniversary of his episcopal consecration is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the liturgical memorial of St. Leo on November 10. Leo was Pope during the middle of the 5th century and is one of the Doctors of the Church as well as a Father of the Church.

Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still, in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists as an integral whole, just as the Apostle says: We are all one in Christ. No difference in office is so great that anyone can be separated, through lowliness, from the head. In the unity of faith and baptism, therefore, our community is undivided. There is a common dignity, as the apostle Peter says in these words: And you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And again: But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people set apart.

For all, regenerated in Christ, are made kings by the sign of the cross; they are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood. For what is more king-like than to find yourself ruler over your body after having surrendered your soul to God? And what is more priestly than to promise the Lord a pure conscience and to offer him in love unblemished victims on the altar of one’s heart?

Because, through the grace of God, it is a deed accomplished universally on behalf of all, it is altogether praiseworthy and in keeping with a religious attitude for you to rejoice in this our day of consecration, to consider it a day when we are especially honoured. For indeed one sacramental priesthood is celebrated throughout the entire body of the Church. The oil which consecrates us has richer effects in the higher grades, yet it is not sparingly given in the lower.

Sharing in this office, my dear brethren, we have solid ground for a common rejoicing; yet there will be more genuine and excellent reason for joy if you do not dwell on the thought of our unworthiness. It is more helpful and more suitable to turn your thoughts to study the glory of the blessed apostle Peter. We should celebrate this day above all in honour of him. He overflowed with abundant riches from the very source of all graces, yet though he alone received much, nothing was given over to him without his sharing it. The Word made flesh lived among us, and in redeeming the whole human race, Christ gave himself entirely.

Leo the Great, St.

It is regrettable that so little is known about the early life of this man who proved to be such an extraordinary shepherd of the Catholic Church that he came to be known not only as Pope Saint Leo I, but also is one of the only two Popes in two thousand years to be called “the Great.”  What we do know is that as a deacon of the Roman Church, before being elevated to the office of Pope in 440 AD, St. Leo the Great had opposed the heresy of Pelagianism which taught that grace was not necessary for salvation, but was rather a bonus that God granted to those who earned it by their good works.  As Pope, St. Leo the Great was forceful and unambiguous in his Christological teaching which affirmed the full divinity and humanity of Christ.  In fact his most famous writing, commonly known as the Tome of St. Leo (449), was the basis of the Council of Chalcedon’s (451) dogmatic definition of Christ as one Divine Person possessing two complete natures, human and divine.   St. Leo the Great was Pope during the middle of the fifth century, a troubled time when barbarian armies were ravaging the once mighty Roman Empire.  For all intents and purposes, the Western Empire was in total political and military collapse and there was a vacuum of political leadership.  Pope St. Leo filled the void and became the advocate for the temporal as well as spiritual needs of his flock.  He is perhaps most famous for persuading Attila the Hun to abandon his plans to sack the city of Rome and to withdraw his forces beyond the Danube river (452).  St. Leo once again was the spokesperson for the Roman citizenry in 455 when the Vandal barbarians swept into Central Italy, securing concessions from them.   Through both his powerful teaching and his leadership, Pope St. Leo the Great very much strengthened the office of the Papacy and made a strong biblical case for the Divine institution of this ministry by examining the biblical evidence for Peter’s unique role among the apostles.     The writings that survive by St. Leo, besides his famous Tome, consist of 143 letters and 96 sermons.  His sermons cover every season of the liturgical year and are indeed a treasure.  Excerpts from these letters and sermons are included below to you a taste of this man’s clear and vigorous way of preaching and teaching the faith passed down from the apostles.  St. Leo the Great died in 461, is regarded as one of the most important of the Western Fathers of the Church and was declared a Doctor of the Church” by Pope Benedict XIV.