Saint Ambrose was born around the year 340 A.D. His mother raised him in Rome, after his father died when Ambrose was young. Ambrose owes his education and upbringing to his mother and his sister, St. Marcellina. His early education included Greek. He was a fantastic poet and orator, took the bar, and began to be noticed by one of the last prefects of Rome, Symmachus. The praetorian prefect, Anicius Probus, also took notice of him. Ambrose was summoned to his court where he heard cases for him and was made his assessor. Because of these early successes, he was made governor or Liguria and Aemilia by emperor Valentinian. He would make Milan his home.
In 374 A.D., he went to settle a dispute between the Arians and the Catholics. The Bishop of Milan, a professed Arian, died and the seat was empty. Since there was such turmoil between the beliefs of the Arians (Jesus was higher than man and lower than God, i.e. a demigod like Thor or Superman) and the beliefs of the Catholics, Ambrose in a speech given at the church asked that whoever would be elected as bishop would be done peacefully and with good intentions. As he was speaking, a voice from the assembly shouted, “Ambrose, Bishop!” While he was still overcoming the shock, the whole assembly cheered for this to happen. At this point in his life, Ambrose was not baptized a Christian, but completely agreed with and professed the teachings of the Catholic Church.
At once, Ambrose asked to be excused from the position. The emperor felt good that he chose a governor that could be selected to be a bishop. Knowing what was to come, Ambrose fled and hid in a house of a senator. However, the senator, Leontius, gave him up because of Valentinian’s decision. On December 7, 347, at the age of 35, Ambrose became the Bishop of Milan.
Realizing how ignorant he was in matters of Theology, he quickly began to learn and study the Holy Scriptures as well as writings of Origen and St. Basil. He studied under the direction of the priest, Simplicianus. He became known as one the most prepared Pastors of his time. He was a hard worker, but he lived a very simple life – he only dined on Sundays, he fasted often, and did not attend large banquets. When he did entertain others, he did so with humble parsimony.
In regards to his flock, he would offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for them daily. He devoted his time to them serving when needed. Since he desired to serve his people with such love, they admired him and the love was reciprocated. Ambrose refused to get involved with politics, although he condemned wars and said they lead to the destruction of the human race. His sermons were so magnificent, that at the request of his sister, St. Marcellina, he collected them into a treatise.
In 377, he wrote the treatise, concerning the Faith to assist Emperor Gratian when dealing with the Arians. After Gratian’s death in 383, Ambrose was asked to participate in higher court politics. It was the first time a bishop was asked to get involved in such matters.
As his time continued as Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose faced many challenges with the pagan culture of Rome, but his greatest challenge was with the Arians. Around Easter 385, Empress Justina sought out a temple be given to the Arians that was now consecrated to the Catholic Church known as St. Victor. She had sympathy toward their beliefs and sought to use her power to get the church for them to use. When Ambrose refused such a demand, soldiers from the empress’ court were sent to seize the basilica. When the soldiers reached the basilica, they refused to take control of it and asked to pray with the Catholics.
Although Ambrose was often found in difficult positions, he always seemed to have the faithful as well as the army behind him in support. He avoided at all costs saying anything that would cause violence between his supporters and Emperor Maximus and his mother, Justina. He did not give up churches to the Arians, even when Maximus made a law, under the penalty of death, that Arian assemblies were now religious in nature and could not be disassembled. Saint Ambrose paid no attention to the law, did not give up one church, and was never harmed over his ignoring of the law.
Ambrose would continue to ignore the demands of the Arians and the words of Valentinian, who had now turned on his once young prodigy. On Palm Sunday one year, he and the faithful of that basilica found themselves locked inside and being starved to death by the emperor’s troops. Instead of growing in fear, he taught the people hymns and how to pray the Psalms.
In the end, Valentinian sought to have lay judges condemn the bishop, but Ambrose reminded him that lay judges had no such authority, and neither did he. Ambrose penned the famous point – “The emperor is in the Church, not over it.” He attacked Arianism with such force through his words that by 385, the heresy essentially ceased to exist in his diocese.
As if the conflicts in the West weren’t enough, conflicts began to rise between Ambrose and Theodosius, the eastern emperor. Although difficult, Ambrose remained steadfast in the teachings of Christ and refused to let the emperor bully him. One time Ambrose preached right to the emperor’s face. The emperor gave a testimony that Ambrose was the only bishop he knew that deserved to be called bishop. They would eventually get past their differences and become friends.
In 387, St. Ambrose as Bishop of Milan baptized one of the greatest saints and theologians of the Catholic Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo. It was the great sermons of St. Ambrose that began to bring Augustine to Christianity. If we didn’t have St. Ambrose, we may never have had St. Augustine.
In 393, the Arbogastes invaded Gaul. They wanted to win Ambrose to their side, but he left Milan before their court nominee, Eugenius, showed up. He began to say that Christianity was going to get overthrown. St. Ambrose traveled from town to town encouraging his people. He eventually returned to Milan where he received a letter from Theodosius that he had defeated the Arbogastes. This was the last blow to old paganism in the empire. A few months later, in the arms of St. Ambrose, Theodosius died.
In the latter part of his life, as the Roman Empire began to decline in the West, St. Ambrose wrote many works – theological, homiletical, exegetical, as well as poetical, which focused on the growing strength of Catholic Christianity. Knowing that his death was approaching, one of his last treatises is titled, on the “Goodness of Death.”
On April 4, 397, Good Friday, with his arms in the shape of a cross, and praying constantly, St. Ambrose died and entered heavenly glory. Before he passed into eternity, St. Honoratus of Vercelli gave him the Body of the Lord. He was fifty-seven years old. He was buried on Easter Sunday and his relics were buried in his basilica under the high altar in 835. He is known as the Patron of the Veneration of Mary. To read some of his Marian writings, go here.
Saint Ambrose of Milan…Pray for Us.
This blog post is dedicated to my friend and Bishop-Elect, Steven J. Lopes, who on February 2, 2016 will become the first Bishop of The Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
Hoever, Rev. Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.