Treasures of Justice-St Leo the Great

The Treasure of Christian Justice

Pope Saint Leo the Great
Early Church Father and Doctor of the Church

Pope Saint Leo the Great here (excerpt from Sermon 92, 1.2.3: PL 54, 454-455) comments on the right use of earthly treasure to store up heavenly treasure. This reflection appears in the Roman Catholic Church’s Office of Readings for Monday of the last (34th) week of the liturgical year with the accompanying biblical reading taken from 2Peter 1:1-11.

The Lord says: Unless your justice exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Mat 5:20). How indeed can justice exceed, unless compassion rises above judgement? What is as right or as worthy as a creature, fashioned in the image and likeness of God, imitating his Creator who, by the remission of sins, brought about the reparation and sanctification of believers? With strict vengeance removed and the cessation of all punishment, the guilty man was restored to innocence, and the end of wickedness became the beginning of virtue. Can anything be more just than this?

This is how Christian justice can exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, not by cancelling out the law but by rejecting earthly wisdom. This is why, in giving his disciples a rule for fasting, the Lord said: Whenever you fast do not become sad like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces in order to seem to be fasting. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. What reward but that of human praise? Such a desire often puts on a mask of justice, for where there is no concern for conscience, untruthful reputation gives pleasure. The result is that concealed injustice enjoys a false reputation.

For the man who loves God it is sufficient to please the one he loves; and there is no greater recompense to be sought than the loving itself; for love is from God by the very fact that God himself is love. The good and chaste soul is so happy to be filled with him that it desires to take delight in nothing else. For what the Lord says is very true: Where your treasure is, there also will your heart be (Luke 12:23). What is a man’s treasure but the heaping up of profits and the fruit of his toil? For as a man sows, so will he reap (Gal 6:7), and each man’s gain matches his toil; and where delight and enjoyment are found, there the heart’s desire is attached. Now there are many kinds of wealth and a variety of grounds for rejoicing; every man’s treasure is that which he desires. If it is based on earthly ambitions, its acquisition makes men not blessed but wretched.

But those who enjoy the things that are above and eternal rather than earthly and perishable, possess an incorruptible, hidden store of which the prophet speaks: Our treasure and salvation have come, wisdom and instruction and piety from the Lord: these are the treasures of justice. Through these, with the help of God’s grace, even earthly possessions are transformed into heavenly blessings; it is a fact that many people use the wealth which is either rightfully left to them or otherwise acquired, as a tool of devotion. By distributing what might be superfluous to support the poor, they are amassing imperishable riches, so that what they have discreetly given cannot be subject to loss. They have properly placed those riches where their heart is; it is a most blessed thing to work to increase such riches rather than to fear that they may pass away.

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)