Leo III, Pope, St.

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Pontificate: Dec. 26, 795 to June 24, 816. Son of a non-noble and perhaps non-Roman family, Leo made a career in the papal administration, eventually becoming a cardinal priest and an important official in charge of the personal possessions of the pope. Elected pope with the support of the clerical party in Rome and perhaps uncertain of his position in the eyes of the Roman aristocracy, Leo quickly sent a letter to charlemagne asking renewal of the Frankish-papal friendship alliance. The new pope also sent the keys to the tomb of St. Peter and the standards of the city of Rome along with a request that the king send an official to accept oaths of obedience and loyalty from the Romans. At least symbolically, these acts suggested that the pope recognized some special status for the king extending beyond the role of protector of the Papal State. Charlemagne indicated his willingness to renew the friendship alliance, but he also made clear in somewhat ominous terms his conception of the relationship between king and pope: As king, his was the responsibility to take whatever measures were necessary to defend the true faith against external attacks by pagans and infidels and to enhance its practice and restrain its detractors within the Christian community, while it was the pope's responsibility to pray for the success of the king in his efforts to safeguard and promote the Church.

Leo was soon in need of a protector, this time from within the Papal State. Almost from the beginning of his pontificate, there was unrest among the nobility in the Papal State stemming from what was perceived as the harshness of the papal administration. In April 799 a band of dissidents, led by a papal official who was a nephew of Leo's predecessor, Pope adrian i, attacked Leo while he participated in a religious procession. They sought to render him unfit for office by blinding him and cutting out his tongue. Rescued from that fate by supporters, including Frankish agents, Leo was summoned to Paderborn to meet with Charlemagne. His enemies also appeared there to bring charges of adultery and perjury against Leo. Charlemagne ordered the pope back to Rome, escorted by Frankish bishops and counts. At the Frankish court there was growing concern about the seriousness of the crisis and a sense that only Charlemagne was in a position to guarantee the welfare of Christendom. Once back in Rome, Leo was reinstalled as pope. The Frankish officials who escorted him undertook an investigation of the charges against the pope, but the final settlement of the case was left to Charlemagne, who arrived in Rome in late November 800. He summoned a synod of Frankish and Roman dignitaries to examine the charges against Leo. That body took the position that no earthly authority was qualified to judge the Vicar of Christ. Instead, on December 23, Leo appeared before another synod and cleared himself by swearing on oath that he was innocent of the charges against him.

On Christmas Day 800, during Mass at St. Peter's, Leo placed a crown on the head of Charlemagne while the assembled crowd acclaimed him "emperor of the Romans." Songs praising Charlemagne as emperor (the laudes ) were intoned and the pope prostrated himself before the new emperor. The responsibility for and the implications of this momentous event have long been debated. Despite a claim made later by Charlemagne's biographer, Einhard, that the king would not have attended Mass that day had he known what was going to happen, the evidence leaves little doubt that the event was jointly planned by pope and king. In view of the tenuous position of the pope at the moment and of Charlemagne's usual mode of action, perhaps it can be assumed that the king was the prime mover. The coronation offered advantages for both. To Charlemagne and his advisers the new title was one befitting the king's accomplishments and his exalted place in Christendom, and it reinforced the ideology of rulership being shaped at the Frankish court. As emperor Charlemagne's legal position in the Papal State was clearer than that defined by his previous title of patricius Romanorum. His new title gave him a status equal to that of the emperor in Constantinople. For Leo the coronation established on a clearer basis a legal authority capable of dealing with the enemies of the pope within the Papal State as well as his external enemies. That aspect of the coronation became obvious when early in 801 Charlemagne tried the conspirators, found them guilty of treason under Roman law, and sentenced them to death, a sentence commuted to exile at the request of Leo. Leo's role in bestowing the imperial crown served to exalt papal authority and acted as a precedent for later papal claims to rights in the selection of emperors. Some contemporaries claimed that in 800 the imperial office was vacant because a woman, the Empress irene, occupied the throne. But despite Byzantine suspicions to the contrary, Charlemagne and Leo had no intention of usurping the crown of the eastern emperors or of transferring the office from new Rome back to old Rome. Instead they created a second empire comprised of all who were loyal to the Roman faith and its guardians, the pope, and the emperor in the West. The coronation linked the pope and the emperor in the West more closely together in guiding the Christian people, but it also posed the issue of which held the superior authority.

After 800 Leo remained on friendly terms with Charlemagne despite occasions when the pope complained about the intrusion of Frankish agents into papal affairs. Although the Roman Church provided models for the shaping of Christian life in Charlemagne's empire, the emperor continued to act as the directive force in renewing religious life in his realm without deferring to the pope. Charlemagne paid no heed to the pope in matters relating to his imperial title, which the pope had played some part in creating. In 806 he arranged for his own succession by dividing his empire among his three sons without reference to the imperial office; perhaps Leo was informed of the emperor's intention in this matter when he visited Francia in 805806, but that was the extent of papal involvement. In 813 Charlemagne himself crowned as emperor his one surviving son, Louis the Pious, again acting without papal participation. Charlemagne carried on his long struggle to gain recognition from Constantinople for his imperial title without any significant participation by the pope; only when the treaty successfully ending that quest was worked out in 812 was Leo given a copy of it. Leo was able to act independently in some religious affairs, not always with the emperor's approval. He stoutly resisted Charlemagne's efforts to gain papal approval for the introduction of the filioque clause into the text of the Nicene Creed used in the Roman liturgy. Leo did cooperate with Charlemagne and his theologians to end the heresy of adoptionism in Spain.

Although most of his attention was focused on his own Papal State and the Frankish court, Leo was able to exert influence in other areas. He played an important role in establishing the ecclesiastical organization of Bavaria. He collaborated with Charlemagne in restoring King Eardulf of Northumbria to his throne, in disciplining the archbishop of York for his intrigues against Eardulf, and in restoring territory to the jurisdiction of the archbishop of Canterbury that had been detached by Pope adrian i. Dissident factions in the Byzantine Church, especially one led by theodore the studite, repeatedly appealed to Leo for help against alleged abuses by Byzantine emperors and patriarchs; Leo usually tried to be conciliatory in these cases, in part because he was conscious of Charlemagne's ongoing effort to gain from Constantinople recognition for his imperial office. These cases indicate that Leo sustained his position as primate in Christendom, albeit vaguely defined and in spite of the towering shadow of Charlemagne and his caesaropapism.

With the tacit consent of Charlemagne, Leo ruled the papal state as a sovereign. He was active in increasing papal revenues in order to continue the rebuilding the city of Rome and its churches, an effort made possible in part by generous gifts from Charlemagne. Despite the benefits his pontificate brought to Rome and the Papal State, his regime continued to meet resistance. The end of his pontificate was marked by another rebellion followed by a rural uprising, both vigorously suppressed by the papal administration. Amidst indications that he was less inclined toward the papacy than was his father, Emperor Louis the Pious was sufficiently concerned about the situation in the Papal State to order an investigation and then to summon the king of Italy, Bernard, to settle the problem. The Republic of St. Peter still needed a protector, one increasingly called upon to settle disturbances within the papal state threatening its existence.

Feast: Jan.12.

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[r. e. sullivan]