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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters (Leo the Great) > Letter 12

Letter 12

Leo, bishop of the city of Rome, to all the bishops of Mauritania Cæsariensis in Africa, greeting the Lord.

I. The disorderly appointments of bishops which have been made in the province are reprehensible.

Inasmuch as the frequent accounts of those who visited us made mention of certain unlawful practices among you with regard to the ordination of priests, the demands of religion required that we should strive to arrive at the exact state of the case in accordance with that solicitude which by the Divine command we bestow on the whole Church: and so we delegated the charge of this to our brother and fellow priest, Potentius, who was setting out from us: and who, according to what we wrote and addressed to you by him, was to make inquiry as to the facts about the bishops whose election was said to be faulty, and to report everything faithfully to us. Wherefore, because the same Potentius has most fully disclosed all to our knowledge, and has by his truthful account made clear to us, under what and what manner of governors some of Christ's congregations are placed in certain parts of the province of (Mauritania) Cæsariensis, we have found it necessary to open out the grief wherewith our hearts are vexed for the dangers of the Lord's flocks, by sending this letter also to you beloved: for we are surprised that either the over-bearing conduct of intriguers or the rioting of the people had so much weight with you in a time of disorder, that the chief pastorate and governance of the Church was handed over to the unworthiest persons, and such as were farthest removed from the priestly standard. This is not to consult but harm the peoples' interests: and not to enforce discipline but to increase differences. For the integrity of the rulers is the safeguard of those who are under them: and where there is complete obedience, there the form of doctrine is sound. But an appointment which has either been made by sedition or seized by intrigue, even though it offend not in morals or in practice, is nevertheless pernicious from the mere example of its beginning: and it is hard for things to be carried to a good issue which were started with a bad beginning.

II. In no case ought bishops to be ordained hastily.

But if in every grade of the Church great forethought and knowledge has to be employed, lest there be any thing disorderly or out of place in the house of the Lord: how much more carefully must we strive to prevent mistakes in the election of him who is set over all the grades? For the peace and order of the Lord's whole household will be shaken, if what is required in the body be not found in the head. Where is that precept of the blessed Apostle Paul uttered through the Spirit of God, whereby in the person of Timothy the whole number of Christ's priests are instructed, and to each one of us is said: Lay hands hastily on no one, and do not share in other men's sins 1 Timothy 5:22? What is to lay on hands hastily but to confer the priestly dignity on unproved men before the proper age , before there has been time to test them, before they have deserved it by their obedience, before they have been tried by discipline? And what is to share in other men's sins but for the ordainer to become such as is he who ought not to have been ordained by him? For just as a man stores up for himself the fruit of his good work, if he maintains a right judgment in choosing a priest: so one who receives an unworthy priest into the number of his colleagues, inflicts grievous loss upon himself. We must not then pass over in the case of any one that which is laid down in the general ordinances: nor is that advancement to be reckoned lawful which has been made contrary to the precepts of God's law.

III. The Apostolic precept about the marriage of the clergy based upon the marriage of Christ with the Church of which it is a figure.

For as the Apostle says that among other rules for election he shall be ordained bishop who is known to have been or to be the husband of one wife, this command was always held so sacred that the same condition was understood as necessary to be observed even in the wife of the priest-elect: lest she should happen to have been married to another man before she entered into wedlock with him, even though he himself had had no other wife. Who then would dare to allow this injury to be perpetrated upon so great a sacrament , seeing that this great and venerable mystery is not without the support of the statutes of God's law as well, whereby it is clearly laid down that a priest is to marry a virgin, and that she who is to be the wife of a priest Leviticus 21:13 is not to know another husband? For even then in the priests was prefigured the Spiritual marriage of Christ and His Church: so that since the man is the head of the woman Ephesians 5:23, the spouse of the Word may learn to know no other man but Christ, who did rightly choose her only, loves her only, and takes none but her into His alliance. If then even in the Old Testament this kind of marriage among priests is adhered to, how much more ought we who are placed under the grace of the Gospel to conform to the Apostle's precepts: so that though a man be found endowed with good character, and furnished with holy works, he may nevertheless in no wise ascend either to the grade of deacon, or the dignity of the presbytery, or to the highest rank of the bishopric, if it has been spread abroad either that he himself is not the husband of one wife, or that his wife is not the wife of one husband.

IV. Premature promotions are to be avoided.

But when the Apostle warns and says: and let these also first be proved, and so let them minister 1 Timothy 3:10, what else do we think must be understood but that in these promotions we should consider not only the chastity of their marriages, but also the deserts of their labours, lest the pastoral office be entrusted to men who are either fresh from baptism, or suddenly diverted from worldly pursuits? For through all the ranks of the Christian army in the matter of promotions it ought to be considered whether a man can manage a greater charge. Rightly did the venerable opinions of the blessed Fathers in speaking of the election of priests reckon those men fit for the administration of sacred things who had been slowly advanced through the various grades of office, and had given such good proof of themselves therein that in each one of them the character of their practices bore witness to their lives. For if it is improper to attain to the world's dignities without the help of time and without the merit of having toiled, and if the seeking of office is branded unless it be supported by proofs of uprightness, how diligently and how carefully ought the dispensing of divine duties and heavenly dignities to be carried out, lest in anything the apostolic and canonical decrees be violated, and the ruling of the Lord's Church be committed to men who being ignorant of the lawful constitutions and devoid of all humility wish not to rise from the lowest grade, but to begin with the highest: for it is extremely unfair and preposterous that the inexpert should be preferred to the expert, the young to the old, the raw recruits to those who have seen much service. In a great house, indeed, as the Apostle explains , there must needs be various vessels, some of gold and of silver, and some of wood and of earth: but their purpose varies with the quality of their material, and the use of the precious and of the cheap kinds is not the same. For everything will be in disorder if the earthen ware be preferred to the golden, or the wooden to the silver. And as the wooden or earthen vessels are a figure of those men who are hitherto conspicuous for no virtues; so in the golden or silver vessels they no doubt are represented who, having passed through the fire of long experience, and through the furnace of protracted toil have deserved to be tried gold and pure silver. And if such men get no reward for their devotion, all the discipline of the Church is loosened, all order is disturbed, while men who have undergone no service obtain undeserved preferment by the wrongful choice of the electing body.

V. He distinguishes between laymen who have been raised to the bishoprics and digamous clerks, forgiving the former and not the latter.

Since then either the eager wishes of the people or the intrigues of the ambitious have had so much weight among you that we understand not only laymen, but even husbands of second wives or widows have been promoted to the pastoral office, are there not the clearest reasons for requiring that the churches in which such things have been done should be cleansed by a severer judgment than usual, and that not only the rulers themselves, but also those who ordained them should receive condign punishment? But there stand on our one hand the gentleness of mercy, on our other the strictness of justice. And because all the paths of the Lord are loving-kindness and truth , we are forced according to our loyalty to the Apostolic See so to moderate our opinion as to weigh men's misdeeds in the balance (for of course they are not all of one measure), and to reckon some as to a certain extent pardonable, but others as altogether to be repressed. For they who have either entered into second marriages or joined themselves in wedlock with widows are not allowed to hold the priesthood, either by the apostolic or legal authority: and much more is this the case with him who, as it was reported to us, is the husband of two wives at once, or him who being divorced by his wife is said to have married another, that is, supposing these charges are in your judgment proved. But the rest, whose preferment only so far incurs blame that they have been chosen to the episcopal function from among the laity, and are not culpable in the matter of their wives, we allow to retain the priesthood upon which they have entered, without prejudice to the statutes of the Apostolic See, and without breaking the rules of the blessed Fathers, whose wholesome ordinance it is that no layman, whatever amount of support he may receive, shall ascend to the first, second, or third rank in the Church until he reach that position by the legitimate steps. For what we now suffer to be to a certain extent venial, cannot hereafter pass unpunished, if any one perpetrates what we altogether forbid: because the forgiveness of a sin does not grant a licence to do wrong, nor will it be right to repeat an offense with impunity which has partly been condoned.

VI. Donatus, a converted Novatian, and Maximus, an ex-Donatist, are retained in their episcopal office.

Donatus of Salacia, who, as we learn, has been converted from the Novatians with his people, we wish to preside over the Lord's flock, on condition that he remembers he must send a certificate of his faith to us, in which he not only condemns the error of the Novatian dogma, but also unreservedly confesses the Catholic truth. Maximus, also, although he was culpably ordained when a layman, yet if he is now no longer a Donatist, and has abjured the spirit of schismatic depravity, we do not depose from his episcopal dignity, which he has obtained irregularly, on condition that he declare himself a Catholic by drawing up a certificate for us.

VII. The case of Aggarus and Tyberianus (ordained with tumult) is referred to the bishops.

But concerning Aggarus and Tyberianus, whose case is different from the others who were ordained from among the laity, in this that their ordination is reported to have been accompanied by fierce riots and savage disturbances, we have entrusted the whole matter to your judgment, that relying upon your investigation of the case, we may know what to decide about them.

VIII. Maidens who have suffered violence are not to compare themselves with others.

Those handmaids of God who have lost their chastity by the violence of barbarians, will be more praiseworthy in their humility and shame-fastness, if they do not venture to compare themselves to undefiled virgins. For although every sin springs from the desire, and the will may have remained unconquered and unpolluted by the fall of the flesh, still this will be less to their detriment, if they grieve over losing even in the body what they did not lose in spirit.

IX. These injunctions to be carried out without contentiousness.

And so now that you see yourselves, beloved, fully instructed through David, our brother and fellow bishop, who is approved to us both by his personal character and his priestly worth, on [nearly] all the points which our brother Potentius' account contained, it remains, brothers, that you receive our healthful exhortations harmoniously, and that doing nothing in rivalry, but acting unanimously with entire devotion and zeal, you obey the constitution of God and His Apostles, and in nothing suffer the well-considered decrees of the canons to be violated. For what we from the consideration of certain reasons have now relaxed must henceforward be guarded by the ancient rules, lest, what we have on this occasion with merciful lenity conceded, we may hereafter have to visit with condign punishment , acting with special and direct vigour against those who in ordaining bishops have neglected the statutes of the holy fathers, and have consecrated men whom they ought to have rejected. Wherefore if any bishops have consecrated such an one priest as ought not to be, even though in some measure they have escaped any loss of their personal dignity, yet they shall have no further right of ordination, nor shall ever be present at that sacrament which, neglecting the judgment of God, they have improperly conferred.

X. The appointment of bishops over too small places is inexpedient and must be discontinued.

That of course which pertains to the priestly dignity we wish to be observed in common with all the statutes of the canons, viz., that bishops be not consecrated in any place nor in any hamlet , nor where they have not been consecrated before; for where the flocks are small and the congregations small, the care of the presbyters may suffice, whereas the episcopal authority ought to preside only over larger flocks and more crowded cities, lest contrary to the divinely-inspired decrees of the holy Fathers the priestly office be assigned over villages and rural estates or obscure and thinly-populated townships, and the position of honour, to which only the more important charges should be given, be held cheap from the very number of these that hold it. And this bishop Restitutus has reported to have been done in his own diocese, and he has with good reason requested that when the bishops of those places where they ought not to have been ordained die in the natural course, the places themselves should revert to the jurisdiction of the same prelate to whom they formerly belonged and were attached. It is indeed useless for the priestly dignity to be diminished by the superfluous multiplications of the office through the inconsiderate complaisance of the ordainer.

XI. Virgins violated against their will are to be treated as somewhat different to the others, but not to be denied Communion.

Now concerning those who, having made a holy vow of virginity [as we said above, chap. viii.], have suffered the violence of barbarians, and have lost their spotless purity not in spirit but in body, we consider such moderation ought to be observed that they should be neither degraded to the rank of widows nor yet reckoned in the number of holy and undefiled virgins: yet, if they persevere in the virgin life, and in heart and mind guard the reality of chastity, participation in the sacraments is not to be denied them, because it is unfair that they should be accused or branded for what their wishes did not surrender, but was stolen by the violence of foes.

XII. The care of Lupicinus is in part dealt with and in part referred to them.

The case also of bishop Lupicinus we order to be heard there, but at his urgent and frequent entreaties we have restored him to communion for this reason, that, as he had appealed to our judgment, we saw that while the matter was pending he had been undeservedly suspended from communion. Moreover there is this also in addition, that it was clearly rash to ordain one over his head who ought not to have been ordained until Lupicinus, having been placed before you or convicted, or having at least confessed, had opportunity to submit to a just sentence, so that, according to the requirements of ecclesiastical discipline, he who was consecrated might receive his vacant place.

XIII. All disputes to be dealt with on the spot first and then referred to the Apostolic See.

But whenever other cases arise which concern the state of the Church and the harmony of priests, we wish them to be first sifted by yourselves in the fear of the Lord, and a full account of all matters settled or needing settlement sent to us, that those things which have been properly and reasonably decided, according to the usage of the Church, may receive our corroborative sanction also. Dated 10th August.

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Source. Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3604012.htm>.

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