Spirituality for Today – August 2014 – Volume 19, Issue 1

The 96th Pope
St. Leo III

An image of Pope Saint Leo III, the 96th PopePope St. Leo III, the 96th Pope

St. Leo III (795–816) – In studying the history of the papacy, it becomes evident that one of the most dangerous positions to hold in the world was that of being pope. The election of Pope Leo III was unanimous, but that did not stop an angry aristocracy from having him attacked with the intent of cutting out his tongue and removing his eyes. After being deposed, he was sent into exile, but escaped to the friendly confines of the court of Charlemagne. Finding refuge, the charges of perjury and adultery that were weighed against him by his enemies in Rome were refuted. Actually, it was general policy that the Apostolic See was exempt from judgment by any other worldly authority. Charlemagne had Pope Leo restored to his throne and went to Rome to clear up the issue once and for all, but no one wanted to sit in judgment of the pope. Days later, as Charlemagne was about to enter Christmas Day Mass (800 A.D.), the pope crowned him as Emperor of the Romans. Thus was set in place the beginnings of what was to become the Holy Roman Empire.

The pope and the emperor – the Church and the State – now had to feel their way in their relations with one another. Charlemagne had gained much greater legitimacy and power in regard to his status in Europe and with Constantinople. Pope Leo III had the stability and secular protection that would assist him in his mission as pope. The big "but" in this equation would be the future challenges in defining and safeguarding ecclesiastical and secular boundaries.

As both an ecclesial and secular ruler himself, Pope Leo did a good job conducting the affairs of the Church, but on the secular plane he subjected a new set of conspirators to capital punishment. He was an adroit manager of the vast charitable work of the Church, did much in addressing the structural needs of the local churches. Pope Leo also focused on the well-being of the Church in England and handled a number of important pastoral and secular matters within that country.

Pope Leo III is buried in the Basilica of Saint Peter.

Habemus papam