It’s easy to be frightened by our times. We see dangers all around us: A divided nation. A loss of faith. A rise in terrorism. The pandemic. The loss of civility. We can easily think that our times are the worst ever and that the Church which triumphed in the past is finally seeing an era of diminishing returns.
We shouldn’t worry. God remains in charge. The Church has faced much worse and there is every reason to believe that its best days are still ahead.
That’s what the stories of the saints tell us — from St. Leo the Great, who we celebrate Nov. 10, to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, to the saint each of us is called to be.
First, consider the divided realms Pope Leo I and Elizabeth found themselves in.
Leo reigned as pope from 400-461. In the year 400, the Roman Empire was already split into two halves, one Latin and one Greek. The fall of the Western Roman Empire would come in 476. That means he spent all of his papacy in a compromised, divided regime on the verge of destruction.
Elizabeth Ann Seton was born in 1774 in New York — a date which we recognize for being on the eve of another empire’s defeat. The American colonies fought off the British Empire starting in 1776 and things got very difficult for one group: British loyalists still living in the new United States of America.
Elizabeth’s father, Richard Bayley, was a loyalist doctor who traveled between England and America. In 1777, he enlisted in the British army as a surgeon, but his service was cut short when Elizabeth’s mother died that year. William Seton, who married Elizabeth, also came from a loyalist family.
We worry now about family disputes over political matters and a nation divided — but we have it far better than Pope Leo and Elizabeth, and they showed how to handle these disputes: By focusing on the kingdom of heaven, which is undivided under Jesus Christ.
And that is a second similarity: Each of them faced a crisis of faith in their time not unlike our own.
We worry about polls showing a lack of belief in the fundamentals and declining church attendance. But Pope Leo saw the Church nearly wiped out by heresies that denied that Christians should even revere Jesus or look to Him for help.
In the hugely significant Tome of Leo, the Pope argued against Nestorians that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures — fully one, yet fully human and fully divine — and against Pelagians that we need His grace.
“The proper character of both natures was maintained and came together in a single person” in Jesus, he wrote. “Each nature kept its proper character without loss.” This was necessary, he said, so that “the man Christ Jesus could both on the one hand die and on the other be incapable of death.”
Just as Peter’s proclamation of Christ was answered by Jesus proclaiming him “the rock on which I will build my Church,” Leo’s proclamation of Christ and the primacy of the Pope went hand in hand.
When the Tome of Leo was read out at the 451 Council of Chalcedon, voices shouted: “It is Peter who has spoken through Leo!”
Jesus and Peter went hand in hand in Elizabeth’s life, also.
The research of Rodney Finke and Rodney Stark shows that Church adherence in those days was as low or lower than it is today, but the Setons were churchgoing Episcopalians. Then Elizabeth faced a personal faith crisis when she took her husband William to Italy to try to heal from his tuberculosis.
The dying man kept reminding himself, “This day my Redeemer took pain and sorrow that I might have Peace; this day he gained eternal life for me” and kept crying out, “My Christ Jesus have mercy,” and “My dear wife, my little ones.”
He died two days later, and Elizabeth found her own solace in the Blessed Sacrament — seeing the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist eventually led her to accept Peter’s successor and join the Catholic Church.
Leo and Elizabeth both saw forms of terrorism in their time also.
In 2020, Pope emeritus Benedict XVI remembered the 100th anniversary of Pope John Paul’s birth by speculating as to whether or not he should be called “the great.” Right now, very few popes are called “the great.” Leo I is one of them.
In part, said Benedict, this is because, “Through dialog, Leo the Great was able to convince Attila, the Prince of Huns, to spare Rome…Without weapons, without military or political power, through the power of his conviction for his faith, he was able to convince the feared tyrant to spare Rome. In the struggle between the spirit and power, the spirit proved stronger.”
Later, Leo had to face another hostile force in the Vandals, and again at Leo’s intervention spared Rome’s destruction. Benedict XVI saw the story repeated in John Paul’s prayerful confrontation with communism and, we can add, terrorism.
For her part, Elizabeth’s letters are filled with references to Napoleon Bonaparte, whose army was sweeping across the nation and who was a constant threat to the Church. Sisters of Charity in France were unable to come to the United States because of him, and he too threatened the Pope.
At one point, Catholics thought the Pope had been assassinated by Napoleon’s forces. “The Church is in great distress[. I]t is said that Pope Pius VII has gained the paten of martyrdom and probably there is now no pope, or if there is it is a relation of Bonaparte’s,” Elizabeth wrote.
Leo the Great and Pope Pius VII had the same response to the terrors and incivility of their time that we should in ours.
Pope Leo is remembered for his great Christmas exhortation to Christians to welcome the newborn king by being models of dignity and rectitude in a world that needed good examples.
“Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member,” he wrote. “By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Spirit: do not put such a guest to flight from you by base acts.”
Pope Pius VII also gave Europe an example of being great-souled in the face of difficulty. The humble pope went toe-to-toe with Napoleon and won. Cornered into being present at Napoleon’s coronation as emperor, Pius VII refused to crown Bonaparte, so Napoleon had to crown himself — disastrous optics for a supposed royal. Later, though Napoleon had forced Pius VII into exile in the past, the Holy Father protected Napoleon’s family from harm when they were exiled. At the end of her own life, Elizabeth found solace in a prayer popularized by Pius VII: “May the most high, most holy, most amiable will of God be done, be exalted in all forever.”
We face deep divisions and frightening conflicts. We face sickness and faithlessness. So did St. Leo the Great and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in their time. They show us the way to react — and the place to find hope.
This reflection was originally published in 2020
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image Credit: Leo the Great and Attila by Raffael