St. Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

The great St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church, outstanding preacher and pious Prelate, was acclaimed by the people, admired by St. Augustine, and was not afraid to confront the Emperor.

Newsroom (07/12/2021 14:30, Gaudium Press) Ambrose was born around 340, in Treveris, where his father was the prefect of the Roman Empire. He belonged to a distinguished senatorial family whose ancestors included Roman consuls but history remembers him for his teachings and legacy as the Bishop of Milan.

Little Ambrose

With his siblings, Marcellina and Satyrus, Ambrose’s childhood and youth were spent in Rome, where his mother settled after the untimely death of her husband in Gaul.

Marcellina, while still very young, will consecrate herself as a virgin of Christ at the hands of Pope Liberius. She will be a support, a consolation, and a blessing in Ambrose’s life. Being a few years older, she will be vigilant at her little brother’s cradle and will pray on her knees at the tomb of the holy bishop.

Satyrus, with a prodigious physical resemblance to Ambrose, will accompany the two siblings in the career of perfection and will precede them on the threshold of eternity.

During a visit of the Bishop of Rome to the Ambrose home, he observed that everyone had kissed the hand of the venerable Pontiff. When he had left, the boy decided to offer his right hand to the maids and to his own sister, to receive the kiss of respect. Years later, full of veneration and tenderness, when kissing the hand of her brother, now a bishop, they both remembered the innocent episode.

A little over thirty years old, he moved to Milan – the second capital of the Empire and seat of the Christian emperors, as well as the capital of the provinces of Liguria and Emilia – when he was appointed governor of these provinces by Emperor Valentinian I.

Despite Ambrose’s Christian fervor and his rejection of the licentious atmosphere of the Rome of the time, as well as the Arian ideas that were freely circulating in Milan, he had not yet received Baptism at the age of 33.

This was due to a reprehensible custom of the time, resisted by the Fathers of the Church: to delay the reception of this Sacrament for the vain fear that it would be profaned by a later sin.

Meanwhile, the catechumen nourished the illusory hope of achieving eternal salvation without risk, by being baptized only at the moment of death.

In the Episcopal see

Ambrose had been in charge of the government of Milan for two years when Bishop Auxentius died in 374. The neighboring bishops, meeting in one of the basilicas of the city to elect a replacement, could not reach an agreement. The people in the basilica nave were impatiently waiting for the decision.

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“Ambrose Bishop! Ambrose Bishop! Ambrose Bishop!”. This cry, coming from a clear, childlike voice, erupted in the midst of the tumult of the people present there. As if they had heard a command from Heaven, the crowd repeated, “Ambrose Bishop! Let Ambrose be our Bishop!”.

History does not make it clear whether, in giving such an exclamation, the child was directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, or whether he was prompted by some soul who knew the virtue of the saint, or fearful of them choosing an Arian bishop.

What is certain is that at the age of 34, Ambrose, still a catechumen, was not resigned to accept the position that the people, the clergy, and even the approval obtained from the Emperor wanted to impose on him at all costs. However, his arguments were worthless, not even a frustrated escape.

Finally, the inspiration of Heaven made itself felt and the generous heart of the young patrician yielded before the divine will, which compelled him to climb the steps of the altar and the episcopal solace.

On December 7 of that same year, Ambrose received the priestly dignity, soon to be followed by the episcopal dignity. He had been baptized eight days earlier.

The Presbyterian: a guide for the clerical life

The Church of Milan did not take long to experience how much in fact the voice of the people had been the voice of God. By becoming Bishop, Ambrose will further sublimate the predicates that made him a man of integrity, uprightness and dedication. The Sacrament of Holy Orders will further transform and elevate his strong spirit and superior character.

One of his first concerns was to provide the clergy of his diocese with the best means of formation and progress on the paths of holiness. To this end, nothing could be more excellent than to propose to them a life in which pastoral ministry is intimately rooted in prayer.

Ambrose organized his life according to this ideal. He gathered around himself, in the same house, all the clergymen, constituting what became known as the Presbyterium.

In this community, each one had his place and his function. The priests, deacons, and aspirants to holy orders prayed, read, wrote, and worked together, being for each other fraternal support and encouragement in the conquest of sanctity. The holy Bishop considered such a way of living as the safeguard, the power, the joy, and the freedom of the priesthood.

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His zeal for perfection reached down to the smallest detail: “Let nothing vulgar be found in the priests, nothing popular, nothing in the manner, use or customs of the riotous crowds.

This clerical school of sanctity founded by Ambrose was fertile in apostolic men, who would later occupy various episcopal sees in Italy because his pastoral action was not restricted only to the Diocese of Milan. He founded nine other dioceses, for which he chose and consecrated worthy and prepared bishops.

Fruits of his Pastoral Zeal

Ambrose was particularly dedicated to the study of the Sacred Scriptures. Yesterday a catechumen, today a bishop, he needed to quickly learn the sacred science and become the first among his clergy. “I was taken from the courts and administration and raised to the priesthood, and I began to teach you what I myself did not learn. So it came to pass that I began to teach before I learned. So, then, for me to learn is simultaneous with teaching, because I did not have time to learn before.

He was an ardent singer of perfect chastity, for “he knew well that the brutalities of paganism could be washed away by the light of Christian virginity”.

His first work on the subject – On Virgins – he wrote for his own sister, Marcellina, compiling his homilies on the subject, which she had not been able to attend. It was a new and dazzling perspective on virginity. He praised purity so much that young women from everywhere who wanted to consecrate themselves to God sought him out to do so under his guidance.

The eloquence of his contemplative and pious spirit overflowed equally in his public speeches and in the composition, both of the melody and lyrics, of the famous hymns later called “Ambrosian”.

A great glory: the conversion of Augustine

In this brief review, we cannot fail to recall one of the main glories of St. Ambrose: that of having washed in baptismal waters the young Manichaean from Tagaste, on the Easter vigil of 387.

The words spoken by Ambrose on Sundays, from the pulpit of the Basilica of Milan, did much to win over the great Augustine. On the other hand, the radiance of the virtue of this man, in whom such a high degree of union with God was evident, gradually made the soul of the future Bishop of Hippo eager to embrace the eternal truths.

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Once Augustine was converted, Ambrose continued to be his model and the light of his steps, to the point that he exclaimed, with the enthusiasm of a disciple and the love of a son, “God’s outstanding administrator, whom I venerate as a father: for in Christ Jesus, through the Gospel, he himself begot me, and from him, as a minister of Christ, I received the bath of regeneration.

The extreme struggles of this life

A few months after having ordered the Thessaloniki Massacre, on Christmas Day 390, Theodosius I prostrated himself in the atrium of the Basilica of Milan, in the presence of all the people, stripped of his imperial insignia.

In tears, he repeats the words of the King-Prophet: “My soul is prostrate in the dust; give me back my life according to your promise” (Ps 119:25).

The cruelty with which he had put down the rebellion of some inhabitants of that city was more proper to the times of Nero than to the justice of a Christian sovereign. Thousands of innocent victims, among them women and children, were massacred.

As soon as he learned of what had happened, Ambrose fearlessly rebuked the Emperor with the irresistible force of the truth, presented in full and without compromise.

The strenuous struggle waged against Arianism, the persecutions of Empress Justina, the interventions with the emperors to always make orthodoxy and Christian peace prevail, the many labors at the head of the Milanese Church, and the pastoral care of the flock undermined his health.

He was 57 years old, 23 of which were full priesthood, when he felt that the time had come to meet the Supreme Judge. Shortly before his illness, during Lent of 397, he predicted that he would not live to Easter.

However, Ambrose’s untiring zeal knew no bounds. Earlier that year, he had gone to Vercelli to appease the diocese and to consecrate Honoratus as bishop.

Then he had traveled to Pavia to preside over a new episcopal ordination. His last writing – the commentary on Psalm XLIII – could not be completed.

 “I do not fear death because we have a good Lord.” On the morning of Holy Saturday, April 4, 397, after receiving the Viaticum from the hands of St. Honoratus of Vercelli, he gently left this earth to celebrate Easter in perpetual happiness, where no tears, no mourning, no pain are known, and there receive the inheritance of the victor (cf. Rev 21:4-7).

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 120, December 2011.
Compiled by Camille Mittermeier

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