Christ's Faithful People
847 - 855 AD
With St. Peter's standing forlorn and desolate, the Romans, terrified at the Saracen peril, hastened to elect the holy priest Leo. After two months' delay, they decided to go ahead with his consecration without waiting for imperial confirmation. But they sent to Emperor Lothair to assure him that they did not mean to lessen his prerogative.
Though Leo was a Roman, his father's name Radoald might possibly be an indication of Teutonic descent. Educated in the monastery of St. Martin, Leo made such a reputation for holiness that Gregory IV took him for the papal service. Sergius II made him cardinal-priest of the Four Crowned Martyrs' Church.
Leo, though a spiritual man, had to devote a great deal of time to temporal matters. Determined that the sack of St. Peter's should not be repeated, Leo started to build a wall around the Vatican Hill and district. It was a great undertaking for those rude times, but the energy of the Pope was unflagging. He got money from the Emperor and workers from the agricultural estates of the patrimony. But while the walls were rising, news came that near Sardinia a great Saracen fleet was being readied to sail against Rome. This time, however, the Italians took measures to defend the Eternal City. A fleet from the Southern seaports of Naples, Amalfi and Gaeta, sailed into the Tiber. Since these cities were nominally under the Eastern Emperor, the Romans wondered whether the fleet had come to help them or attack them. When Admiral Caesarius reassured the Pope, Leo led a Roman army to Ostia to join the fleet. He celebrated Mass and gave Holy Communion to all hands. Thus fortified spiritually and ready with their arms, the Christians met the Saracens. After some indecisive fighting, a strong wind blew up, separated the fleets, and completely wrecked the Saracen fleet; Rome was saved.
Leo did not remain idle. He kept the walls rising, and finally in 852, they were ready. The new enclosed area, justly called the Leonine City, was dedicated by the Pope with a solemn procession around the walls and a Mass. Leo also built a fortified town at Portus near the mouth of the Tiber and settled Corsican refugees there to man the walls. He rebuilt Centumcellae, sacked by the Saracens back in 813, in a better location. He also did what he could to restore St. Peter's and adorn other churches.
Leo held a synod in 853 which renewed the reform canons of Eugene's synod in 826. He gave added solemnity to the feast of Mary's Assumption by giving it an octave. He protected his subjects from rapacious underlings.
Two monarchs were crowned by Leo. Louis, Lothair's son, was crowned emperor in 850. In 853 a far more interesting coronation took place. Ethelwulf, king of the West Saxons, sent his young son Alfred to be crowned by Pope Leo. The Pope made Alfred his spiritual son.
St. Leo died July 17, 855, with a great reputation for sanctity. Indeed he was credited with working miracles. His feast is kept on July 17.