St Leo the Great and the Sorry State of Europe Today

What do you associate with St Leo the Great, whose feast is today — if you think of him at all, that is? Do you remember the beautiful prose of his Christological treatises, letters and sermons, or his facing down of Attila the Hun, or his work for the unity of the Church; or do you perhaps think of the sacramentary that bears his name, (although most of the Sacramentarium Veronense is not attributable to him) and the sober splendour of the Roman rite in its earliest form? For me, he is the most Roman of popes, a link to a time when the unity of the countries we now think of as making up Europe was much harder to pin down but still real and important. The Church is the only institution of Roman antiquity to have survived to the present day and in the time of Leo (c.400—461) was a much-needed symbol of lawful authority, filling the vacuum left by the increasingly weak emperors.

So far so good; but we do not live in the time of St Leo. Europe today is more plural, one might say more divided, than it has been for more than seventy years, and a major source of that division is the weakness of her institutions. The BBC regularly speaks of Theresa May’s ‘fragile government’. Other countries of Europe, even the mighty Germany, have not yet managed to form a government at all but are locked in endless discussions. Spain teeters on the brink of breaking up. Parts of Italy wish to follow suit. The rise of the far right has sent a shiver down the spines of many and is no longer to be dismissed as mere fantasy. The survival of the European Union is itself in doubt. To the East there is the spectre of Russia, and further East, the growing power of China; to the West, the fading star of an increasingly isolationist U.S.A. One remedy proposed for this state of affairs is a novel fuga mundi, a reversion to a time that never was, to a self-sufficient nation-state of ever-smaller proportions. Others propose a rather selective reading of the Rule of St Benedict, and a return to a kind of domestic monasticism we have not seen since Late Antiquity. Is there, perhaps, another and better way— a way that engages with rather than flees from the present political reality?

This morning I think of the example of St Leo. So much depends on those who hold office and their conception of their duty towards those they serve. If there is to be a revitalisation of our institutions, it can surely only come about because those elected to office take seriously the obligation they have assumed. In the current atmosphere of apportioning blame/wriggling out of responsibility, examining charges of sexual harassment and abuse, uncovering attempts to avoid tax and so on, we are in danger of losing sight of the common good, that there are matters that demand our attention both as individuals and as a society. The Church has her role to play, if only as ‘conscience of the nation.’ That is why she can never be indifferent to anything that concerns any of us and must constantly point to the ideal, to what is in the best interest of all. For myself, I think we have a duty to pray and pray hard for those entrusted with the work of government. On them depends the peace and security of the nations and our freedom to live with dignity and mutual respect. St Leo, pray for us!