How Did a Man Become the Pope?

Dan Miller   -  

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 reveals that the concept of papal rule over the whole church was established through slow and, often, painful stages. The most dramatic and, likely, most significant step in this process occurred in June of 452 A.D. In the book Church History in Plain Language, Bruce Shelley outlines the initial spark of how an individual moved toward being given the official title, “The Vicar of Christ.”

It was the Spring of 452 A.D., and 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, and no one could stand in the way of his advance. The once unstoppable Roman Army could do nothing to stop Attila since the plague along with moral decay had turned the once world-dominating Roman Legion into a ragged group of ill-prepared soldiers. As a last act of desperation, The Emperor of Rome sent an emissary to meet Attila at the Po River to fend off the unthinkable – the sacking of Rome.

As the delegation approached Attila’s camp, the barbarian gave no indications that he was interested in turning away from the prize that would be the crown jewel of a lifetime of conquering, the city of Rome itself. Just as Attila was about to send the delegation from Rome away, he was told that a spiritual representative – Bishop Leo, was a part of the group. Attila paused. A dialogue with a spiritual leader of The Roman Church seemed to intrigue Attila… leading to a private meeting between the two. The future of the Roman Empire now rested on the shoulders of a bishop and a barbarian. All the while, back in Rome, the Emperor was reduced to a spectator, hoping that Leo would find favor with Attila.

The pious religious leader sat across from the vicious, bloodthirsty, conquering warrior and, somehow, convinced Attila to do something he had refused throughout all of 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 not only secured the agreement of Attila to spare the city of Rome but to retreat from Italy altogether. It was not the Augustus (venerable and divine) Ceasar who delivered Rome, nor was it a military general who defended the homeland of Italy; the savior of Rome was a singular religious leader. Both the Emperor and the Roman Army had been reduced to being impotent spectators. The city of Rome was safe, and the seeds of power had been planted for a singular Bishop in the Church in Rome to eventually blossom into a new role – a man that would wield vast authority, known to us today as the Pope.