Grace does not destroy nature, but rather uses it as a support or vessel. Holy Orders heightened the robust spirit and excellent character of this young Roman patrician, making him one of the most celebrated Fathers of the Church.
Some months after having ordered the Massacre of Thessalonica, on the Feast of Christmas in 390, Theodosius I prostrated before all the people in the atrium of the Basilica of Milan, divested of his imperial insignia. Amidst tears he repeated the words of the Prophet-King: “Adhaesit pulveri anima mea; vivifica me secundum verbum tuum”—“My soul cleaves to the dust; revive me according to Thy word!” (Ps 119:25).
The cruelty with which he had suppressed the rebellion of some inhabitants of this city was more fitting to the times of Nero than the justice of a Christian sovereign. Thousands of innocent victims, including women and children, had been massacred.
Upon discovering what had taken place, Ambrose had fearlessly reprimanded the Emperor with the irresistible power of the whole and undiluted truth. In the intensity of his desire to incite the monarch to repentance, the saint had written in a letter to him: “Should I keep silence? […] If the priest speak not to him that errs, he who errs shall die in his sin, and the priest shall be liable to the penalty because he warned not the erring (Ez 3:19). […] I have written this, not in order to confound you, […] but to remove this sin from your kingdom, for you will remove it by humbling your soul before God. […] I dare not offer the Sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.”1
The strength of spiritual power
The resolution and kindness of the saint triumphed over the monarch’s pride. On this same occasion, the penitent Caesar heard yet another censure. According to an arbitrary custom imported from the East, Theodosius would rise at the beginning of the Offertory and head toward the elevated part of the choir, a place reserved for clerics.
Such a distinction was unfitting, and Ambrose took the opportunity to put an end to it. “Lord, only sacred ministers have the right to enter the Sanctuary. The purple makes emperors, not priests,”2 was the message sent during the ceremony through his archdeacon. This lesson profoundly marked the soul of Theodosius, causing him to later exclaim: “I have found but one man that has set me right and told me the truth without veils: Bishop Ambrose!”3
This admirable attitude invites some interesting considerations on the harmony and beauty that God has placed in the ordering of his creatures. In fact, by divine disposition, men generally should be governed by a human power or institution, as St. Paul teaches us: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom 13:1). However, the stewards of human power should maintain a lively notion that, before God, Lord of all things, earthly grandeurs are insignificant.
Considered in light of eternity, these pass away and are buried under the dust of history. Nevertheless, since human nature, when exalted to a preeminent state, easily allows itself to be entangled in the sinuous mesh of pride, the Holy Church of Christ, like a vigilant and zealous Mother, makes itself present through its ministers, warning, curbing and reprehending—in short, serving as a sacred buttress against the deviations of pretentious earthly powers. The great St. Ambrose of Milan, Doctor of the Church, is a resplendent example of this truth.
The little Ambrose
Ambrose was born around the year 340, in Trier, where his father held the post of Prefect of the Roman Empire. Belonging to an illustrious senatorial family, whose ancestors included Roman consuls, he accrued even further honour from a great aunt, the virgin and martyr St. Soteris, whose generous blood bathed the stones of the Via Appia in the year 304.
Together with his siblings Marcellina and Satyrus, Ambrose’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Rome, where his mother settled after the premature death of her husband, in Gaul.
While still quite young, Marcellina consecrated herself as a virgin of Christ in the hands of Pope Liberius. Throughout his life she would be a support, consolation and blessing to Ambrose. Being a few years his elder, she watched over the crib of her little brother and would one day pray at the tomb of the holy bishop. Satyrus, remarkably similar to Ambrose in physical appearance, would accompany his two siblings along the way of perfection and would precede them through the threshold to eternity.
A charming incident, narrated by the first biographers of the saint, evokes the prayerful atmosphere that reigned in the family and highlights the precocious intuition of the little patrician. When the Bishop of Rome visited his home, he noted that everyone kissed the hand of the venerable Pontiff. After his departure, the little boy decided to offer his right hand to the servants and his sister, to receive the kiss of respect. Marcellina refused to pay him this homage. But years later, when she reverently and affectionately kissed the hand of her brother made bishop, both recalled the innocent episode.
The education of Ambrose was entirely Roman: readings of Virgil, Cicero and Seneca, complemented with the study of Law, engraved his soul and his character with an unmistakable impronta of logic, clarity and dialectic aptitude, later placed at the service of the Faith.
At just over thirty years of age, 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—to be appointed governor of these provinces, by Emperor Valentinian I.
Despite Ambrose’s Christian fervour and his rejection of the licentious atmosphere of the Rome of that time, as well as the Arian ideas freely circulating in Milan, due to Bishop Auxentius’ affinity for this heresy, he had not yet received Baptism at the age of 33. This was the result of an objectionable custom of that era, combated by the Fathers of the Church: delaying the reception of this sacrament out of the vain fear that it would be profaned by subsequent sin, and fostering the illusory hope in the catechumen of attaining eternal salvation without risk, by being baptized at the hour of death.
In the Episcopal chair
Ambrose had been Governor of Milan for two years when Auxentius died in 374. The neighbouring bishops who assembled in one of the basilicas of the city to elect his successor, found themselves at an impasse. Meanwhile, the people, in the nave of the basilica, impatiently awaited a decision.
Suddenly a cry was heard above the crowd. A clear child’s voice called out: “Bishop Ambrose! Bishop Ambrose! Bishop Ambrose!”4 As if obeying an order from heaven, the crowd took up the call: “Bishop Ambrose! Let Ambrose be our bishop!”
It is not clear whether the child’s exclamation was a direct inspiration ordered by the Holy Spirit or it was prompted by some soul who knew of the saint’s virtue, and feared the choice of an Arian bishop. What is certain is that at 34 years of age, Ambrose, still a catechumen, valiantly tried to sidestep the responsibility that the people, the clergy and even the approval from the Emperor wanted to impose on him. But neither arguments nor a failed escape availed him. Finally yielding to the divine will revealed by heavenly inspiration, the generous young patrician ascended the steps of the altar to assume the Episcopal chair.
On December 7 of that same year, Ambrose received the priestly and then the Episcopal dignity. He had been baptized eight days before. “Preserve, O Lord”—he exclaimed—Your work, guard the gift which You have given even to him who shrank from it. For I knew that I was not worthy to be called a bishop, because I had devoted myself to this world, but by Your grace I am what I am. And I am indeed the least of all bishops, and the lowest in merit.”5
Presbyterium: a rule for clerical life
The Church of Milan soon witnessed that the voice of the people had truly been the voice of God. Grace does not destroy nature; rather, it often uses it as a support or vessel. Becoming bishop heightened the qualities that made Ambrose a virtuous, just and loyal man. Holy Orders transformed him and further ennobled his vigorous spirit and excellent character.
One of his first concerns was to provide his diocesan clergy with the best means of formation and progress along the path of holiness. For this purpose, nothing was better than to offer them a life in which the pastoral ministry was intimately rooted in prayer.
“For who can doubt that in stricter Christian devotion these two things are the most excellent, the offices of the clergy and the rule of the monks? The former is a discipline which accustoms to courteousness and good morals, the latter to abstinence and patience; the former as it were on an open stage, the latter in secret; the one is visible, the other hidden. And so the ‘good athlete’ said: ‘We are made a spectacle to this world and to Angels’ (1 Cor 4:9).”6
Ambrose arranged his life according to this ideal. He gathered the clergy around himself in one house, forming what came to be called a Presbyterium. In this community, each had his place and function. The priests, deacons and aspirants to Holy Orders prayed, read, wrote, and worked together, serving to mutually support and spur one another on in the conquest of sanctity. The holy bishop considered this way of life as the safeguard, power, joy and liberty of the priesthood.
His diligence in seeking perfection embraced the smallest details: “Nothing vulgar, nothing popular, nothing in common with the desires, usages and manners of the rude multitude is looked for in priests.”7 Convinced that the success of apostolic work depended on a solid interior life, he wrote: “For the grace of the priesthood is much increased if the bishop exhort young men in the practice of abstinence, and to the rule of purity; curtailing in them, though they live in the city, the manners and mode of life of the city.”8
This clerical school of sanctity founded by Ambrose bore abundant fruit in apostolic men, who would later occupy Episcopal chairs in Italy, since his pastoral action was not limited to the Diocese of Milan. He founded nine other dioceses, for which he chose and consecrated worthy and well-prepared bishops. His influence extended to Pannonia, Dacia and Macedonia, and he personally traveled to Aquileia, Sirmium, Vercelli, Bologna, Florence and Pavia, in addition to Rome.9
Fruits of his pastoral zeal
Ambrose was especially dedicated to the study of Sacred Scripture. Yesterday a catechumen, today a bishop, he had to absorb this sacred science quickly, becoming preeminent in this field among his clerics. “For one is the true Master”—he wrote them—“Who alone has not learned what He taught all; but men must learn before they teach, and receive from Him what they may hand on to others. […] For I was carried off from the judgment seat, and the garb of office to enter on the priesthood, and began to teach you, what I myself had not yet learned. So it happened that I began to teach before I began to learn. Therefore I must learn and teach at the same time, since I had no leisure to learn before.”10
The former governor of Liguria dedicated himself with such valour and love that it soon bore fruit in a literary work that has endured through the centuries, awakening admiration and awe in all who draw from it. The writings of St. Ambrose, conceived with a primarily pastoral aim, reveal a noble and gracious heart, along with a discreet, wise and prudent moral doctrine.
He was an ardent champion of perfect chastity, because “he was well aware that the brutalities of paganism could be cleansed by the light of Christian virginity.”11 His first work in this regard—Concerning Virgins—was written for his sister, Marcellina, by recompiling his homilies on the subject, which she could not attend. It was a new and enlightening perspective on virginity. He exalted purity in such a way that young people from far and wide came to him, desiring to consecrate themselves to God under his direction.
Despite the brilliance of his talent, he possessed that mark of excellence that does not allow enchantment with one’s own works. He submitted them all to the judgement and critique of a true friend, seeking to divest his style of everything that was not “a sound faith and a sober confession.”12 The eloquence of his contemplative and pious soul was poured forth both in public discourses and in the composition, both of melodies and lyrics, of the famous hymns later called “Ambrosian”.
A great glory: the conversion of Augustine
In this brief account, we cannot neglect to mention one of the principal glories of St. Ambrose: bathing in the waters of Baptism the young Manichean of Thagaste, on the Easter Vigil of 387. The immortal pen of the latter recalls this event: “I came, unto Ambrose the bishop, known to the whole world as among the best of men, Your devout servant; whose eloquent discourse did at that time strenuously dispense unto Your people the flour of Your wheat, the gladness of Your oil, and the sober intoxication of Your wine. To him was I unknowingly led by You, that by him I might knowingly be led to You.”13
The words spoken by Ambrose from the pulpit of the Basilica of Milan on Sundays were instrumental in the conquest of the great Augustine. Moreover, the radiance of this man’s virtue, giving evidence of a eminent degree of union with God, gradually opened the soul of the future Bishop of Hippo to avidly embracing eternal truths.
Ambrose continued to be the model and the beacon guiding the converted Augustine, who would exclaim with the enthusiasm of a disciple and the love of a son: “Outstanding administrator of God, whom I venerate as a father: because he engendered me in Jesus Christ, and from him, as a minister of Christ, I received the bath of regeneration. I speak of blessed Ambrose, of whose favours, fortitude, works and risks, whether in works or sermons, in favour of the Catholic Faith, I am a witness, and for my part do not hesitate to proclaim it to the Roman world.”14
The final struggles of this life
The mammoth fight undertaken against Arianism, the persecutions of the Empress Justina, his interventions before the emperors to ensure orthodoxy and Christian peace, his many works at the head of the Milanese Church and the pastoral care for his flock were factors conspired to undermine his health.
In his desire to reach the ineffable joys of the beatific vision, the holy man could rightly proffer these words written in his Treatise on the Goodness of Death: “We follow You, Lord Jesus: but make us see to follow You, because without You no one ascends. Truly You are the way, the truth, the life, the possibility, the faith and the reward. Assume us as the way, confirm us as the truth and vivify us as the life.”15
He was 57 years of age, 23 of which he had spent in the fullness of the priesthood, when he felt the imminence of his encounter with the Supreme Judge. Shortly before he fell ill, in Lent of 397, he foretold that he would not live until Easter.
However, the untiring zeal of Ambrose knew no limits. At the beginning of the year, he had set out for Vercelli, to pacify the diocese and consecrate Honoratus as bishop. He had then traveled to Pavia to preside over a new Episcopal ordination. His last written work—a commentary on Psalm 43—was left unfinished.
“Nec timeo mori, quia Dominum bonum habemus” — “I do not fear death because we have a good Lord.”16 On the morning of Holy Saturday, April 4, 397, after having received Viaticum from St. Honoratus of Vercelli, he serenely departed from this earth to receive the victor’s heritage and to celebrate Easter in that perpetual happiness that knows neither tears, mourning, nor pain (cf. Rv 21:4-7). ◊