Saint Leo the Great, Pope and Doctor – Readings

Commentary on Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 39:6-10; Psalm 36; Matthew 16:13-19

The Gospel reading is the famous passage (Matthew’s version) of the meeting between Jesus and his disciples when, through Peter, they acknowledge the identity of Jesus. We are told that they were in the region of Caesarea Philippi. It is perhaps significant that this region is on the eastern side of the Jordan River, to the east of Galilee and in the tetrarchy of Philip, a son of Herod the Great. As such, it was a region with a mixed population of Jews and Gentiles, whose communities would both be beneficiaries of the message to come.

Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied by giving the prevailing opinions among the population. Jesus was John the Baptist, come back to life (John had been executed by Herod not long before) or Elijah (who was expected to return to earth just before the coming of the Messiah) or that he was Jeremiah or some other prophet.

But Jesus then turns to them and asks: “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter, speaking for all of them, says: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God!” This is a very striking statement. Not only does Peter assert that Jesus is the long-expected Messiah (in Greek, Christos) but he also in effect announces the Jesus’ divine nature – Son of the Living God.

It is an awesome moment in Jesus’ relations with his disciples and they must have been shaken to the core. What thoughts must have been going through their minds at that moment? Jesus was the Messiah! What did that mean for them? As members of his inner circle, they have suddenly become very important and uniquely privileged people. That will not last for long when they hear soon after what Jesus has to say about himself and about them.

Before that, however, Jesus has words of praise for Peter. The confession he has just made did not come from himself, but is God the Father speaking through him. And then he goes on to give Peter his solemn commission as the leader of the Christian community when Jesus has left them. He is the Rock on which the community will be built. To whom will be entrusted the “keys of the Kingdom of heaven (that is, of God)”. In other words, as one entrusted with the message of Jesus he will be responsible for the passing on of all that is necessary for the building of the Kingdom of God on earth to get under way and reach out to the whole world.

To him will be given the authority to speak and act in the name of Christ the Lord. “Whatever you declare bound on earth shall be bound in heaven (i.e. by God); whatever you declare loosed on earth, will be declared loosed in heaven.”

The choice of this passage fits perfectly with the pope we are remembering today. Leo was one of the first popes to emphasise the unique role of the Bishop of Rome, as the centre for the faith of the whole Church. It is the role of the Bishop of Rome to be the faithful depository of the teaching of Christ, and it is this which gives the Catholic Church its unity and stability. It is the role of the papacy not to tell the Church what to believe but rather to tell it what it does believe. We speak today of papal infallibility but that infallibility is rooted in the infallibility that belongs to the Church in its entirety.

The First Reading from the Book of Sirach (or Ecclesiasticus) is a passage in praise of a person of true wisdom. The care of such a person, says the writer, is to seek the Lord his Maker… to open his lips in prayer, to ask pardon for his sins.

On the one hand, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding and in turn will pour forth his words of wisdom. Many, too, will praise his understanding and his fame will last indefinitely. “Unfading will be his memory, through all generations his name will live… While he lives he is one out of a thousand and when he died his renown will not cease.”

There are many great and holy theologians (one thinks of Thomas Aquinas or Augustine) of whom this could be said, but it certainly applies too to Leo. His statement on the theology of the Incarnation places him among the greatest of theologians. He was also a great and effective pope, giving great leadership to the Church, and perhaps for the first time, giving the papacy a distinctive and necessary role it has had ever since.

Let us pray that the Church may always be led by the kind of pope who provides the inspiration and leadership and unifying influence that it always needs.

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