Leo IV, St. Pope
LEO IV, ST. POPE
Pontificate: Jan. 847 to July 17, 855. Of Roman origin, Leo became a Benedictine monk as a youth. Pope gregory iv called him to service in the Lateran administration, and Pope sergius ii made him a cardinal priest. At the time of his election the Papal State was in dire need of strong leadership. It was torn by internal strife resulting from what many perceived as oppressive misgovernment by papal officials during the pontificate of Sergius II. It was recovering from a Saracen raid in 846, which witnessed the sack of the basilica of St. Peter and the ravaging of countryside surrounding Rome. As a consequence of the Treaty of Verdun in 843, which divided the previously unified Carolingian Empire into three competing kingdoms, it remained to be seen who would serve as St. Peter's protector. The new Pope's response to these challenges opened the way for a remarkable expansion of papal prestige during the next three decades.
Leo IV's first concern was the defense of Rome against the Saracens. He undertook to strengthen the existing city walls and to ensure the future safety of St. Peter's by constructing a wall enclosing the basilica and its associated ecclesiastical structures, and by attaching the enclosure to the city's main fortifications. This project, requiring four years (848 to 852) and a vast outlay of money and labor, created the Leonine city (Civitas Leonina ), a stronghold which for centuries to come served as a place of safety for the papacy. Leo took steps to improve the fortifications of port cities guarding the papal state, especially those at the mouth of the Tiber. He even built a new city, Leopolis, as a refuge for the inhabitants of Centumcellae (Civita-vecchia) who were in danger of Saracen attack. In 849 the Pope was instrumental in organizing a naval campaign by the combined fleets of the cities of Naples, Amalfi, and Gaeta that, with the aid of a storm, inflicted a major defeat on a Saracen fleet preparing to attack Rome. All of these efforts played an important part in elevating papal prestige and marked a significant contribution to a larger effort that, during the last half of the ninth century, prevented the Saracen occupation of southern and central Italy.
Leo IV's relationship with his Frankish protectors was outwardly orderly, but often marked by tensions. Within the already established framework marking Frankish-papal relationship, Leo recognized Emperor lothair I as his overlord. Lothair, who resided in Aachen after he succeeded Louis the Pious as emperor in 840, increasingly entrusted directions of affairs in Italy to his son, Louis II, who served as king of Italy until 850, when at the request of Lothair I he was crowned co-emperor by Pope Leo IV, thus affirming once again the role of the papacy in authenticating the assumption of the imperial office. The authority of Lothair I and Louis II in Rome continued to be defined by the Constituto Romana, an accord reached in 824 between Pope Eugenius II and the Carolingian government. In general, Leo IV respected its provisions, which defined for the Papal State a privileged position within the Empire. However it also placed limits on papal sovereignty and allowed the emperor specific rights in the governance of the Papal State, rights that Louis II was inclined to press. Yet Leo IV guarded his ability to control the governance of the Papal State. He challenged unwarranted intrusions of his protector's agents into affairs rightly belonging to the pope as governor of the Republic of St. Peter. Recent analysis of his benefactions in Rome reveal that he worked hard to keep the favor of nobles whose support was required to assure continued papal control over the Papal State, but who were increasingly resentful of the Frankish presence in Rome. He was especially concerned with instituting reforms; a Roman synod of 853 issued a series of canons aimed at limiting the involvement of the Roman clergy in secular affairs, defining and enforcing the spiritual responsibilities of clerics, improving clerical education and morals, and protecting church property. Leo's efforts to maintain control of affairs in the Papal State and to improve the quality of governance not only set him at occasionaly odds with Emperor Louis II, but also met opposition from a circle of educated nobles centered around a certain Bishop Arsenius of Orte and his nephew, Anastasius the Librarian. Although Arsenius and his circle were primarily interested in personal power, they also nurtured aspirations of restoring Rome to its ancient role as political capital of world. These nostalgic dreams inclined them toward Emperor Louis II as a more suitable ruler of Rome than Pope Leo IV. Anastasius reflected this inclination when he sought the protection of Louis II after Leo's dissatisfaction with his exercise of his priestly duties caused him to flee Rome. Despite Leo's repeated sentences of excommunication intended to force his return to Rome, Anastasius remained with Louis II and was widely viewed as the Emperor's choice to succeed Leo.
Leo IV's activities extended beyond defense of the Papal State against external enemies and resistance to its absorption into the Carolingian Empire. A careful analysis of his correspondence, surviving only in fragments, suggests that by the middle of the ninth century the bishop of Rome was increasingly viewed as an authority to whom those seeking guidance in the conduct of religious life, broadly defined, might turn.
Most often Leo IV was asked to intervene in cases involving the actions taken by powerful ecclesiastical potentates in the exercise of their offices. On the basis of complaints from various sources, he was forced to take firm action to curb the efforts of Archbishop John of Ravenna to escape Roman control. In response to appeals to Rome Leo challenged the actions of Archbishop Hincmar of Reims on various issues: excommunicating a vassal of Emperor Lothair I for violating his marriage vows; threatening to excommunicate Emperor Lothair I; and acting on decisions concerning the legality of episcopal ordinations reached in local councils held without papal participation or approval. In these cases the Pope ruled that Hincmar had exceeded his canonical authority and was subject to correction by the higher authority of the bishop of Rome. On the basis of appeals by the injured parties, Leo IV challenged the authority of Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople for his action in deposing three Sicilian bishops. Leo died before the cases involving Hincmar and Ignatius were fully resolved, but his actions reflected an expanded definition of papal authority.
On occasion Leo IV confronted secular rulers. Emperor Lothair I's requested that Leo designate Hincmar as papal vicar of Gaul and Germany. Leo refused, stating that another already had that honor. In 853 Alfred, the young son of King Ethelwulf of Wessex, appeared in Rome as a pilgrim; Leo anointed him as future king and adopted him as his spiritual son by serving as his godfather. The Pope reprimanded the duke of Brittany for his treatment of the bishops of Brittany who resisted the duke's efforts to promote political independence from the West Frankish kingdom by establishing an autonomous Breton metropolitan see free from the jurisdiction of the archbishopric of Tours. Leo IV responded to still other appeals to Rome by sending instructions intended to provide proper direction in matters of ecclesiastical discipline to inquiring parties; such instructions went to a bishop in Africa, to bishops in England, and to bishops in Brittany.
In the responses coming from Rome to an ever widening circle in the Christian world, a certain message began to emerge, a message by no means new, but articulated again in terms reflecting new realities. Ultimate authority in ecclesiastical affairs rested in the hands of bishops. Their decisions were subject to appeal to the bishop of Rome who had a right to render final, binding judgments on the issues at stake. So too were the decisions of bishops sitting in council subject to approval and correction by the pope. The judgments of the bishop of Rome became, in effect, additions to the body of canon law, thereby expanding Rome's right to legislate for the entire Church. The bishop of Rome had the authority to take whatever action he deemed necessary to assure the safeguarding of the faith and proper Christian discipline. In brief, Leo IV's actions in these cases gave powerful impetus to a hierarchical view of governance of the Christian establishment, with the vicar of St. Peter placed at the apex of the hierarchy in possession of the final authority to assure that God's will would prevail.
Aside from his efforts to strengthen the defenses of Rome, Leo IV took a strong interest in rebuilding and beautifying churches in Rome and elsewhere in the papal state. In this respect he earned an important place among the late eighth– and early ninth–century popes who created the medieval city of Rome. His biography notes that he made important changes in the Roman liturgy, did much to encourage the development of Church music, and was famous as a preacher.
Feast: July 17.
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[r. e. sullivan]