In the last quarter of the fourth century began the
first of many massive migrations of Germanic peoples into the Roman Empire.
Within 100 years these migrations destroyed the Roman Empire in the West and
seriously strained the Church. Many of the pagan Germanic tribes were first
evangelized by Arian missionaries; so when they began to consolidate their new
kingdoms, the Arian Germans persecuted the Catholic Romans. Only the Franks had
converted to orthodoxy and allied themselves with Rome to subdue the heretics.
Ostrogoths, Burgundians, and Lombards were wiped out by the Franks and
Byzantines: only the Visigoths survived the Frankish and Byzantine pressure.
Confined to the Iberian peninsula by the Franks, the Arian Visigoths, always a
minority among the Hispano-Romans, eventually converted to catholic orthodoxy.
Instrumental in this conversion was St. Leander, Bishop of Seville.
St. Leander was born in Cartagena about 540 and
became bishop of Seville by 579 (he was succeeded by his better known younger
brother, St. Isidore). In 580, King Leovigild began to persecute the Catholic
majority in order to bring them to Arianism and thus unify the kingdom. During
this period, St. Leander travelled to Constantinople to enlist the help of the
Emperor. While he was there, he wrote several anti-Arian pamphlets and met the
papal legate, the future Pope Gregory the Great, with whom he became good
friends. Upon his return, the persecutions abated, and the new king, Recared,
converted to orthodoxy. In 589, the Third Council of Toledo was held where King
Recared formally recited the Nicene Creed and the remaining Arian bishops
converted to orthodoxy. At the closing of the council, St. Leander delivered a
rousing sermon that his brother, Isidore, entitled "On the Triumph of the
Church for the Conversion of the Goths." Along with an instruction to nuns
on religious life, those are the only writings of his to survive.
St. Leander's sermon was addressed principally to
the bishops at the council, and most likely the king and his court would have
been present. The recently converted Arian bishops and more important nobles
would have possibly been there also. It is unclear as to whether the general
population was there, but some of the language and the fact that it was
transcribed into the acts of the council could be an indication that it was
meant to be distributed widely throughout the kingdom. As the title suggests, it
exalts the triumph of orthodoxy over heresy, but it is much more than that.
Instead of being triumphalistic, St. Leander constantly underscores the theme of
unity, peace and love.
He begins by stressing the uniqueness of the
situation, which calls for rejoicing. Why? Because "the Church has suddenly
given birth to new peoples, and we may now be glad over the faith of those same
ones whose hardheartedness once caused us grief." Using typical patristic
typology, he uses the story Abraham and Sarah with Abimelech in Genesis 20 as an
example of the situation of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church with the
Visigoths. By her sufferings, the Church has made the Bridegroom richer by
winning the Visigoths over to Christ. This leads St. Leander to consider the
universality of the Church versus the covetousness of heresy.
St. Leander continues his exhortation to rejoicing
through a series of antithetical arguments: "make gain from your losses and
profit from your persecution ... dispossessed of a few things, yet He lets you
recover the spoils..." The greatest paradox is that Christ died to gather
all nations into one under God. Thus, Church unity is to be celebrated:
"How sweet is love and delightful is unity..." This unity had been
foreseen by "the foretelling of the prophets, through the divine word in
the Gospels, through the teaching of the apostles." Specifcally addressing
the bishops, he then exhorts the assembly to preach unity: "Therefore,
preach only the unity of nations, dream only of the oneness of all peoples,
spread abroad only the good seeds of peace and love." This Gospel of love,
peace, and unity is the fulfillment of all the prophecies. It is actually
bringing in the sheep of the other fold into one fold under one Shepherd. The
unity achieved at this council is only one stop on the way to bringing the whole
world over to Christ in one Church.
As good has replaced evil, so has unity replaced
division. Heresy and schism are vices, whereas the Church is a harmony of love,
drawing all nations together to pray and worship God, as foretold by the prophet
Isaiah. This leads him to a sort of profession of faith: "There is one
Christ the Lord and His Church, a holy possession, is throughout the world. He
is the Head and the Church is the body...." Out of this exegesis of
Ephesians, St. Leander calls heresy a "concubine" and a
"harlot." For him, this new found unity between Hispano Romans and
Visigoths is the triumph of the Good Shepherd. "The peace of Christ has
destroyed the wall of discord built by the devil, and the house which was
divided into mutual slaughter is now joined by the cornerstone which is
Christ." St. Leander concludes with a final exhortation to unity and to
work in and for the kingdom that we might be glorified by God.
In his sermon, there is a wonderful synthesis of
patristic imagery and style. He uses typology not only to bring together the Old
and New Testaments, but brings it to bear on the current situation. He uses
patristic, Pauline, and Johannine imagery of Christ as Bridegroom, as Head of
the body, the Church, and as the Good Shepherd. This is not just a
triumphalistic diatribe, it is an exhortation to his bishops and all those
present to preach the Gospel, to bring all peoples and nations under Christ. Now
that Hispano-Romans and Visigoths are one flock, one nation, they are to forget
their differences and celebrate and worship together. It is a proclamation of
joy at finding the one lost sheep, and it is an invitation to love, peace and
unity that is continual.
It seems to me that as we approach the Third
Millennium of Christianity, this sermon is particularly relevant to us. As we
work towards reuniting Christianity, it reminds us that there is something
special about Christian unity, a special sense of peace and joy. It also reminds
us that this peace and unity is part and parcel of the Gospel message. St.
Leander prayed and worked so that Visigoth and Hispano-Roman would be one under
Christ. He lived to see that accomplished, and could not withhold his joy from