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Saint Ambrose

I know I should have had this post up earlier today, but this has just been one of those days. If nothing else, it’s not that late yet on the West Coast. That said, I wanted to make sure I didn’t rush this any more than necessary since I’m also taking this opportunity to note that Saint Ambrose is as of now officially the patron Saint of this blog. I’m sure it could be said that his assistance could have been useful a long time ago. But enough about this blog.

Saint Ambrose is certainly most well-known as the Bishop who most helped to convert Saint Augustine, following all the way to his baptism by Ambrose. Perhaps my favorite quote from Augustine about Ambrose is how he mentions his astonishment that Ambrose would read the Scriptures without moving his lips. To us it seems strange, but to him a revelation. Ambrose, however, was far more than just a bookworm.

His father having died while he was young, Ambrose’s mother returned to Rome to raise her family. The young Ambrose, named after his father, learned Greek and became a notable poet and orator. He was named Assessor by the praetorian prefect Anicius Probus and then the emperor Valentian made him governor of Liguria and Aemilia. For this post he took up residence in Milan.

It was during this time that the Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died. As episcopal appointments were directed by popular acclaim at this point in history there was much strife between the Arian and Catholic parties. When Ambrose went to the church to plead for calm and for the choice to be made in a spirit of peace without tumult a voice cried out ‘Ambrose, bishop!’ The cry was quickly echoed through the assembly, stunning Ambrose who was still only a catechumen. The decision was relayed to the emperor with Ambrose pleading to be excused; Valentian considered it a great honor that his appointed governor should be seen fit for episcopal office and ordered that the election take place. Ambrose went so far as to attempt to hide in the house of a senator, but when word arrived of the emperor’s decision Ambrose was handed over and received episcopal consecration a week later – today, December 7, 374. We celebrate thus, not his birth into Heaven but his ordination to the episcopacy.

Ambrose set himself to deep study, feeling himself ignorant of theology. He was known for always being available to anyone who needed him and for his strict simplicity. Ambrose had affection for the vocation of consecrated virgins and, at the request of his sister St. Marcellina he collected his sermons on this subject thereby making a famous treatise. So effective were his sermons that mothers tried to keep their daughters away – so effective in fact he was charged with attempting to depopulate the empire. His response? Wars, not maidens, are the destroyers of the human race.

The statesman Symmachus attempted to have the altar of the ancient goddess of Victory re-established in the senate-house. In his request to Valentian he made suggestions which would seem eerily similar to those we hear today, including: “What does it matter the way in which each seeks for truth? Ther emust be more than one road to the great mystery.” Wikipedia describes Ambrose’s response thus:

To this petition Ambrose replied in a letter to Valentinian, arguing that the devoted worshipers of idols had often been forsaken by their deities; that the native valour of the Roman soldiers had gained their victories, and not the pretended influence of pagan priests; that these idolatrous worshipers requested for themselves what they refused to Christians; that voluntary was more honourable than constrained virginity; that as the Christian ministers declined to receive temporal emoluments, they should also be denied to pagan priests; that it was absurd to suppose that God would inflict a famine upon the empire for neglecting to support a religious system contrary to His will as revealed in the Holy Scriptures; that the whole process of nature encouraged innovations, and that all nations had permitted them even in religion; that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians; and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies.

In further conflicts with the Arian Empress Justina Ambrose wielded the office of Bishop with both great bravado and great effect. When ordered to hand over churches for Arian worship he refused, and after preaching on Palm Sunday against handing over churches the people barricaded themselves in the basilica with their pastor as troops approached, intending to starve them out. As they waited, Ambrose taught the people Psalms and hymns of his own hand. Finally, when asked to appoint lay judges to decide his case Ambrose reminded Valentian that laymen could not judge bishops or make ecclesiastical laws. It was at this time he ascended his cathedra and in explaining the situation uttered the memorable phrase, “the emperor is in the Church, not over it.”

In these always exciting times, Ambrose was never too long to find conflict coming his way. There was a case where he defended a bishop from having to pay restitution to rebuild a Jewish temple which had been torn down, suggesting that a bishop should never be constrained to pay for the erection of a temple to be used for false worship. Modern sensibilities may find this rather unsettling, but times then were far more polemical than they are now or rather than we would like to think they are now.

After a brutal massacre at the order of the emperor Theodosius Ambrose declared him excommunicated until he properly repented and made proper penance. Even though the massacre was well-known at the time it is related that Theodosius removed every sign of royalty and publicly begged forgiveness. In this we see an interesting foreshadowing of St. Thomas Beckett and Henry II, although this did not end in further bloodshed.

We read of his last days:

When he fell sick he foretold his death, but said he should live till Easter. On the day of his death he lay with his hands extended in the form of a cross for several hours, moving his lips in constant prayer. St. Honoratus of Vercelli was there, resting in another room, when he seemed to hear a voice crying three times to him, ‘Arise Make haste! He is going’. He went down and gave him the Body of the Lord, and soon after St. Ambrose was dead. It was Good Friday, April 4, 397, and he was about fifty-seven years old. He was buried on Easter day, and his relics rest under the high altar of the basilica, where they were buried in 835.

St. Ambrose was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1298 by Pope Boniface VIII, making him one of the four Great Doctors of the Western Church. He is the patron saint of, inter alia, learning, students, schoolchildren and Milan, Italy. He is also the patron saint of bees and beekeepers owing to his appellation of “The Honey Tongued Doctor”. There is indeed much the modern Church can learn from this ancient Father.


Most of the above information is taken from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, except where otherwise noted. I have also spliced in other information which does not appear in Butler’s work.

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