Have you ever wondered how the Pope came to be The Pope? If Jesus had twelve Apostles, how did spiritual leadership get concentrated into one person? When did the Pope inspire such concentrated devotion as to become the “Holy See?” The answer may surprise you for not being nearly as “spiritual” as you might think.
Although the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church did not define the role of the Pope as a “successor to Peter” until the First Vatican Council (1870), history indicates that the concept of papal rule over the whole church was established by slow and painful stages. Bruce Shelley, in Church History in Plain Language, sets the initial spark of a singular man developing into the official title of the “Vicar of Christ” in June of 452.
Attila the Hun had led his cavalry and well-armed foot soldiers from the pastures of central Asia to invade the western half of the Roman Empire. After a sudden raid over the Alps, Attila’s army poured into northern Italy where no one could resist his advancing army. The Roman Army could do nothing to stop Attila since plague and moral decay had turned the once world dominating Roman Army into a ragged group of ill-prepared soldiers. Rome, in a last act of desperation, sent an emissary to meet Attila at the Po River to fend off the unthinkable – the sacking of Rome.
Attila was about to send the delegation away when he was told that a spiritual representative, Bishop Leo, was apart of the delegation. A dialogue with a spiritual leader of the Roman Church seemed to intrigue Attila and led to a private meeting between the two. The future of the Roman Empire now rested on the shoulders of Leo. The Emperor, back in Rome, could only pray that Leo would find favor with Attila and divine intervention from the terror that would rain down on Rome if his delegation was not successful.
The pious religious leader now sat across from the vicious, conquering warrior and, somehow, convinced Attila to do something he had not done all through Eastern Europe and central Asia – to have mercy. We don’t know exactly what was said during the private meeting, but we do know that Leo secured the agreement of Attila to not only spare Rome, but to retreat from Italy altogether. Rome had been rescued by a religious leader when Rome’s Emperor had been reduced to an impotent spectator. Rome was now safe and the seeds of power had been planted for the Bishop of Rome to gather the acclaim that would eventually crystalize his position into a singular power that we call today, the Pope.
Bishop Leo may have avoided the sacking of Rome in 452 when Attila the Hun agreed to Leo’s plea to have mercy, but Leo soon found that other marauders did not hold the position of Bishop in the Christian Church influential enough to curb their appetite for plunder. In March 455, Gaiseric, King of the Vandals, set sail with over a hundred ships from the coast of North Africa. His army landed north of the Tiber River and Rome was thrown into unbridled terror. The imperial troops mutinied. Emperor Maximus was killed by one of his bodyguards. His body was dragged through the streets, torn to pieces, and thrown into the river. Rumors of the invading marauders sent the generals of Rome running for their lives. On June 2, 455 the Vandals entered Rome, meeting no resistance. Bishop Leo met Gaiseric at the city gate. Leo led a group of priests to plead for Rome. Just three years after Leo’s private meeting with Attila, he now faces the King of the Vandals. Leo begged for mercy. He urged the King to restrain his troops; he implored him to not burn the city. Leo even went so far as to offer money. This must have looked odd to the Vandal warlord – a city clearly offering no resistance now offering money to avoid resistance? Geiseric nodded silently. Then, spurring his horse away, calling out to the leader of the church: “Fourteen days looting!”
The Vandals plundered the city. Everything belonging to the Emperor was taken: Roman Temples, the gilded roof of the Capital, sacred vessels from the Temple of Solomon brought from Jerusalem, marble and bronze columns, images of gods-everything was loaded on the Vandals ships by the end of the fourteen day period. The Vandals also took human prisoners: the empress and her daughters, senators, members of the Roman aristocracy, all to be held for ransom. After 14 days the ships sailed away bound for Carthage. After Geiseric set sail, the Romans held a service to thank God for His protection from massacre and that only a very few Christian churches had been touched. Although Leo made no reference to himself in his prayer to God, it was clear to everyone that he acted as the protector of Rome when all other protectors had abandoned them. Everyone understood that Bishop Leo had shouldered the responsibility for the Eternal City and now should rightly wear the title, Pontifex Maximus. The Pope had come to power.