Some years ago, as I was fishing about trying to find a suitable topic for my master’s thesis, I was encouraged by a venerable Cistercian to investigate the Eucharistic language of St. Ambrose of Milan. In my typical obtuseness, I sought not just to read Ambrose, but to translate him from the Latin. I still own my one volume of Migne’s Patrologia Latina dedicated to the work of St. Ambrose. It dates from 1880. It cost me a pretty penny. I never did write about Ambrose.
Nevertheless, the search into this man’s life would serve me well, and I am reminded of all of this since today is the Feast of St. Ambrose of Milan, one of the greatest bishops, theologians, fathers, doctors of the church.
He was born to a noble Roman family in Gaul probably around the year 340. His father died while he was quite young, leaving his mother, sister, and brother to move back to Rome. His education was well provided, and he quickly showed talent at oratory as well as administration. A rare talent I can well tell you!
Ambrose and his family were Christian, but as was the habit at the time with many Christians, he was not baptized as an infant. Some waited to the end of life so as to be able to ensure their purity at the moment of death.
In the year 374, Ambrose had already risen in the community of Milan as an important figure for the maintenance of the Empire. Milan, at that time, was the city of the peninsula and not Rome, which has had over the centuries difficulties with swamps and disease. So it was that he found himself in the midst of a dispute in the Cathedral where there was a rather heated debate over who was to be the new bishop of Milan. The combatants, for that’s what they were, argued from one side the Catholic position and from the other the heretical Arian position. The fighting between the two factions grew so violent that Ambrose was forced to step in, plead for peace and Christian charity. For this, he was greeted with the cry, tradition tells us it was a small boy, “Ambrose, bishop!” And thus, he was stuck.
Ambrose’s life as a prelate would be marked from the start with the tension between Church and State. As he was not even baptized he pled his case to the Emperor Valentinian that he might be released of the obligation. Of course, from the Emperor’s point of view, it suited him very well that one of his own governors was chosen fit for the bishopric of Milan. Valentinian presumed, as Emperors tend to, that he would be able to use Ambrose for his own purposes. So, yes, Ambrose was stuck. He even tried to hide in the home of a Roman senator until he could find his escape. The senator, upon hearing the Emperor’s decision, ratted out his friend. And on this day in 374, Ambrose was made bishop of Milan. He was only 35 years old, the same age as your dear writer.
Ambrose applied himself to the details of the faith immediately, for of course he knew nothing. By pouring over the works of Origen and St. Basil, he acquainted himself with the error of Arianism, which had so taken over the Church. He also advised and wrote some remarkable works on the defense of the faith against the imposition of the pagans, who had still not given up on the old-time religion. Most especially important to me, however, have been St. Ambrose’s thoughts and actions on the relation between Church and State, thoughts which are very much a part of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
In letter XVII he wrote:
While all the people who are under Roman rule do battle on behalf of you, O emperors and princes of the earth, you yourselves do battle on behalf of almighty God and the sacred faith.
He was very keen on making sure the Christian emperors understood that they had a moral obligation not just in the running of the machine, but that they were obliged to fulfill their duties towards God and the faith. This did not mean any imposition of Christianity on the populace, but only that the faith should be free to be, and to be spread.
In response to a movement by pagan senators to return the pagan altar of victory to the senate house in Rome, it was St. Ambrose who petitioned the Catholic Emperor to deny them this claim. They, of course, complained of persecution. To this, Ambrose pointed out that pagans were not being rounded up and crucified for sport. But then he went on to write this in the same letter quoted above:
They are also asking you to grant them privileges – they who, under Julian’s recent law, denied our co-religionists the commonplace right to speak and to teach. These are privileges by which even Christians have often been led astray, for by these privileges they sought to ensnare a number of people – some through heedlessness and others anxious to avoid the burdens of public responsibilities. And, inasmuch as not everyone is strong, many fell even under Christian princes.
Note please the phrase, “the commonplace right to speak and to teach.” St. Ambrose, the classically trained oratorian turned theologian, believed and taught and argued that to publicly speak about and teach ones faith was a common right, a basic human right. This basic human right would be recalled and defended by the Second Vatican Council in the Declaration on Religious Liberty, Dignitatis humanae.
St. Ambrose is famous as well for an incident in 390 that again speaks to this brave bishop’s desire to teach us about the proper relationship between Church and State. In that year, in the city of Thessalonica, the governor, whose name was Butheric, had imprisoned a charioteer for seducing one of his maid servants. The people of Thessalonica demanded that the charioteer return for the games, but Butheric refused. A riot broke out and several Roman soldiers were killed including Butheric.
The emperor Theodosius, a hot-tempered Spaniard, would teach those back-wood Thessalonians a lesson. While the people were at the games, Theodosius ordered the Roman soldiers to surround the circus and slaughter every, single person. The massacre took hours, and, in all, seven thousand were dead. The Empire was horrified.
Ambrose, in consultation with his brother bishops, wrote the emperor and told him in no uncertain terms that he ought not present himself for the reception of Holy Communion. He wrote,
What has been done at Thessalonica is unparalleled in the memory of man. …You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to penance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocent to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can. …I write this to you with my own hand that you also may read it alone.
The legend is that Theodosius stormed to the Cathedral of Milan and that Ambrose rebuked him at the Church’s gate. That story, though, is just that, a story. In truth, Theodosius’ conscience was so struck by the words of St. Ambrose that he did a public penance causeing some to feel sorrier for Theodosius than they ever did for the people of Thessalonica. In fact, Ambrose would say at the funeral of Theodosius:
He stripped himself of every sign of royalty and bewailed his sin openly in church. He, an emperor, was not ashamed to do the public penance which lesser individuals shrink from, and to the end of his life he never ceased to grieve for his error.
What, do you think, would be the reaction of our present-day politicians if the bishops were very clear with them that they not present themselves for Holy Communion if they advocated the torture of thousands or the murder of millions of preborn babies? Whatever the answer to that question might be, we can be certain that St. Ambrose would have made the demand of the politician…at least that.
The feats of St. Ambrose could go on for pages. It was St. Ambrose who was so instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine. St. Ambrose wrote his own liturgy which is one of the only ancient Latin liturgies still in use today. St. Ambrose wrote hymns and prayers. St. Ambrose has a saintly sister St. Marcellina who, with him, helped to advance the tradition of consecrated women who worked in the world for the advancement of the mission of the Church. And then there is St. Ambrose’s Eucharistic language, which the venerable Cistercian asked me to investigate. That will still have to be for another time.
Until then, happy feast of St. Ambrose to you all, and I implore you to please pray daily for your bishop.
Enjoy this bit of the Ambrosian liturgy: Vespers at St. Andrea this past May