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!

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Puny Mites, Threshing-Sleds and Glow-Worms

I may as well admit that this morning I feel knee-high to a worm. I am indeed one of the puny mites Isaiah is speaking of, yet the thought of being transformed by grace into a threshing-sled is not an attractive prospect. Far too effortful! (Isaiah 41.13–20) But there is something in this scripture passage that I, and perhaps you also, need to take to heart. It is that the Holy One of Israel is holding us by the right hand, and with him all things are possible. It is easy to forget that God is with us every moment of our lives. He is not a God afar off, but one near at hand: a God who loves us, sustains us, and ultimately redeems us from sin and death. We are preparing for his birth in time, the moment when, as St Leo says, the Creator became part of his creation. That is more than just a glittering paradox. It is an assurance both of God’s essential goodness — he is not, like the pagan gods of old, a fickle and sometimes malevolent being — and of our ability to relate to him. Sometimes that seems so hard. We know him by his absence more than by his presence, and we wish it were otherwise.

We can take scant comfort from today’s enigmatic gospel (Matt 11.11–15). Who are these people taking the kingdom of heaven by storm and being greater than John the Baptist? Surely not wimps like me. I was thinking about that, and the description elsewhere of John as a lamp, a lamp that prepares the way for the true Light coming into the world, when illumination struck. The glow-worm is, zoologically speaking, an insect, but we think and talk about it as a worm: a small, humble creature, wingless and rather unremarkable in daylight, though the female glows in the dark. If I cannot be a threshing-sled but must remain a worm, may the Lord make me a glow-worm, so that I too can say, ‘The hand of the Lord has done this . . . the Holy One of Israel has created it.’

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Bearing False Witness

The Newsnight debacle will be picked over by the media, but I wonder how many will sit down and think through the implications of what we Christians call ‘bearing false witness’? Reporting of the grilling given to George Entwistle, Director General of the BBC, by M.P.s yesterday sometimes gave the impression that he was being held personally responsible for every shortcoming of the Corporation since its inception. I understand that on BBC Radio 4 this morning he was again put through the mill by John Humphrys. What troubles me is that all the righteous indignation surrounding the Savile case and the role of Newsnight in that and the false accusations against Lord McAlpine may not be helping anyone.

I don’t get the impression that children will be any safer, or that the reputation of individuals will be any better protected. Ultimately, programmes like Newsnight and investigative journalism generally depend on the integrity and judgement of those who produce them. And that’s where my worry about bearing false witness comes in. Everyone has a right to his or her good name. In Britain, at least, we seem to have got into the habit of condemning, as loudly as possible, anyone who has not acted as we think they should, without really taking into account whether a case has been proved or whether the level of indignation being manifested is warranted or not. It is as if we quieted our own consciences by being vocal about the shortcomings, real or presumed, of others. It may make ‘good’ T.V. or gripping newspaper copy, but does it serve to advance truth and justice?

Today is the feast of St Leo the Great. He is the pope who wrote so movingly about the Incarnation, teasing out the mystery of God made flesh and its transformation of our human existence. If we really believe in what the Incarnation signifies, I do not see how we can be so careless about truth or justice towards our fellow human beings. I suspect that investigation into the BBC’s editorial failures will merely give the government of the day an excuse to clip its wings and everyone, British or not, will be the poorer. In the meantime, I think we could all usefully examine our own conduct in the matter of gossip, tittle-tattle and innuendo. Bearing false witness begins in the heart long before it reaches the lips.

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