St. Peter and the Keys–St. Leo the Great

St. Peter and the Keys

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

This excerpt from a sermon by Pope St. Leo the Great (Sermo 4 de natali ipsius, 2-3: PL 54, 149-151) is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast of the Chair of Peter on February 22. This liturgical celebration of Peter’s special authority over the universal Church was celebrated in Rome from at least the 4th century. Pope Leo’s sermon dates from the middle of the fifth century.

Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church. Though there are in God’s people many shepherds, Peter is thus appointed to rule in his own person those whom Christ also rules as the original ruler. Beloved, how great and wonderful is this sharing of his power that God in his goodness has given to this man. Whatever Christ has willed to be shared in common by Peter and the other leaders of the Church, it is only through Peter that he has given to others what he has not refused to bestow on them.

The Lord now asks the apostles as a whole what men think of him. As long as they are recounting the uncertainty born of human ignorance, their reply is always the same.

But when he presses the disciples to say what they think themselves, the first to confess his faith in the Lord is the one who is first in rank among the apostles.

Peter says: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus replies: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona, for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in heaven”. You are blessed, he means, because my Father has taught you. You have not been deceived by earthly opinion, but have been enlightened by inspiration from heaven. It was not flesh and blood that pointed me out to you, but the one whose only-begotten Son I am.

He continues: And I say to you. In other words, as my Father has revealed to you my godhead, so I in my turn make known to you your pre-eminence. You are Peter: though I am the inviolable rock, the cornerstone that makes both one, the foundation apart from which no one can lay any other, yet you also are a rock, for you are given solidity by my strength, so that which is my very own because of my power is common between us through your participation.

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And upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. On this strong foundation, he says, I will build an everlasting temple. The great height of my Church, which is to penetrate the heavens, shall rise on the firm foundation of this faith.

The gates of hell shall not silence this confession of faith; the chains of death shall not bind it. Its words are the words of life. As they lift up to heaven those who profess them, so they send down to hell those who contradict them.

Blessed Peter is therefore told: To you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth is also bound in heaven. Whatever you lose on earth shall be loosed also in heaven.

The authority vested in this power passed also to the other apostles, and the institution established by this decree has been continued in all the leaders of the Church. But it is not without good reason that what is bestowed on all is entrusted to one. For Peter received it separately in trust because he is the prototype set before all the rulers of the Church.

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 aDoctor of the Church” by Pope Benedict XIV. (bio by Dr. Italy)