Preaching in Visigothic Spain:

St. Leander of Seville and the Triumph of Catholic Orthodoxy


Carlos Bartolom‚ Quijano, O.P.

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 others.