He was born in Tier, Germany around 340 and died in Milan, Italy around 397. St. Ambrose was largely responsible for the rise of Christianity in the West as the Roman Empire declined, and he was a courageous and untiring defender of the independence of the Church from the state. A major influence during this period was the gradual infiltration of barbarians into the Roman Empire, culminating in definite attacks upon the heart of the empire and a gradual amalgamation of the Teutonic invaders with the Greco-Roman population. The governance of the empire had moved from Rome to Constantinople, named after the first Christian emperor. Rome still had some prestige as the regional center of government, but even the Western emperor normally had his abode in Milan or Ravenna. The power of the Church was not yet consolidated. Recognition by Constantine in the Edict of Milan meant the end of systematic persecutions of Christians (except for sporadic local outbreaks), but paganism was still alive, even in the Imperial Court under Julian the Apostate. Nevertheless, there were locations within the empire where Christians were in the majority but they were divided among themselves–not just the rivalry of East versus West, but the orthodox versus the heterodox. Arianism was still strong and other heresies continued to arise. The situation was even more difficult because the Goths were evangelized primarily by the Arians.The increasing worldliness incorporated into the hierarchy of the Church and into the more elaborate liturgies, sparked a new form of asceticism–monasticism–which was just beginning to take hold in the Western Church.
This is the world into which St. Ambrose was born in Trier (Treves) about 339-40, not long after the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in 325. His father Ambrose, a civil servant, was the praetorian prefect (governor) of Gaul. His command included Spain, the Netherlands, and Britain. Ambrose had one brother, Satyrus, and a sister, Marcellina, who became a nun in 353, though she continued to live as a religious at home (there were few regular convents). Ambrose was not baptized as a child because Christians still regarded any sin after baptism with such horror that the sacrament was postponed as long as possible. There was, however, a service of exhortation and benediction in whichsalt and the Sign of the Cross were employed in order to claim the child for God, and to withdraw him from the dominance of the powers of evil. All we have of Ambrose’s childhood is a legendary tale that a swarm of bees settled on his mouth as a prophecy that he would be gifted with eloquence. Upon the death of his father while Ambrose was still young, the family moved back to Rome. The brothers were tutored by a Roman priest named Simplician, whom the boys loved (he later succeeded Ambrose as bishop of Milan). Their education ended in the study of law.
The two brothers began practicing law in the court of the prefect of Italy. Their oratory and learning seem to have attracted the notice of Ancius Probus, the prefect of Italy. Ambrose was particularly marked for the fast-track. When Ambrose was little more than 30 (c. 372), Emperor Valentinian appointed him ‘consular’ or governor of Aemilia and Liguria, whose capital was Milan, the administrative center of the imperial government in the West since the beginning of the 4th century. He filled this position with great ability and justice.
The Arian Bishop Auxentius of Milan, who banned Catholic congregations from worshipping in the diocese’s churches, died in 374, and the Arians and Catholics fought over the vacant position which exercised a metropolitan’s jurisdiction over the whole of northern Italy. Ambrose had only been in Milan for three years at the time of the bishop’s death and he expected that there might be trouble over the selection of his successor. So, Ambrose, who was a Catholic in name but still a catechumen, went to the cathedral to try to calm the rival parties. During his speechexhorting the people to concord and tranquility, a child is said to have cried, “Ambrose for bishop!” The cry was taken up by both sides, neither of which was anxious to decide the issue between them. The local bishops had asked Emperor Valentinian to make the appointment but he turned the dubious honor back to the bishops. Now the matter was out of their hands. Ambrose was unanimously elected bishop by all parties. The election of Ambrose, the one in charge of the local police, heightens our awareness of a truism: all clergy are recruited from the laity. It is better to choose an irreproachable person esteemed by all, than a savant who sows discord. The choice of Ambrose was a bold one, but it surprises no one but us. What did Ambrose think of this call? At first he protested (just like the prophets) saying he was not even baptized, and fled rather than yield to the tumult. St. Paulinus of Nola wrote of the incident: “Ambrose left the church and had his tribunal prepared. . . . Contrary to his custom, he ordered people submitted to torture. When this was done the people did not acclaim him any the less [saying]: ‘May his sin fall on us!’ The people of Milan, knowing that Ambrose had not been baptized, sincerely promised him a remission of all his sins by the grace of baptism. “Troubled, Ambrose returned to his house. . . . Openly he had prostitutes come in for the sole purpose, of course, that once the people saw that, they would go back on their decision. But the crowd only cried all the louder: ‘May your sin fall on us'” (Paulinus, Life of Ambrose, 7). The people, however, continually pursued him and insisted that he take the see. The emperor confirmed the nomination and Ambrose capitulated. Beginning on November 24, 373, Ambrose was taken through baptism and the various orders to be consecrated as bishop on December 1 or 7–one or two weeks later.
Quite consciously Ambrose set out to be an exemplary bishop, in spite of the daunting divisions within his see, his own delicate constitution, and lack of preparation. He was a slight figure with a beard and moustache, but with the natural grace of one who had been born in a palace and who could handle authority. (An early 5th century portrait in a church he founded shows him as a short man with a long face, long nose, high forehead, brown hair, thick lips, and a left eyebrow higher than his right.) His natural dignity was soon ignited by enthusiasm to correct wrongs (such as high taxation, corrupt officials, venality in the law courts, and Arians in the imperial court). On his election he dedicated himself to an austere life and the in- depth study of the Church Fathers and Scriptures under the direction of his former tutor Father Simplician–essentially doing his seminary work after his consecration. Following his election his life was one of poverty and humility. He gave away all his acquired property. His inherited possessions he gave into the charge of his brother Satyrus, who had resigned his own governorship. Ambrose was a man of charity. He even sold church property in order to buy back captives taken in wars. He distinguished himself in defense of the oppressed, and there is a strikingly modern note in his objection to capital punishment. This left Ambrose free to follow the life he considered appropriate to the clergy: prayer seven times daily, regular fasts (although the Church of Milan followed the Eastern rule with regard to Saturday and did not, as the Romans did, keep it as a fast), and no food until dinner. He gave daily audiences to any who wished to consult him, then occupied himself with reading and writing. His favorite writers were Philo, Origen, and Basil. He was a Greek scholar and read most of the Greek Fathers (but seems unfamiliar with the Latin Fathers such as Tertullian and Justin Martyr). He also read heretical works in order to refute them. As bishop, Ambrose felt he was primarily responsible for the instruction of catechumens, and would himself hear confessions before he actually administered Baptism. Whenever Ambrose baptized new Christians, Ambrose always washed their feet, even though he knew this was not the usual Roman custom.As a metropolitan, Ambrose had to occasionally summon councils to deal with appeals from the various dioceses and set the date for the observance of Easter. He also had to preside at the election and consecration of bishops. Episcopal duties at this time are well summed up by Chateaubriand, “There could be nothing more complete or better filled than a life of the prelates of the fourth and fifth centuries. A bishop baptized, absolved, preached, arranged private and public penances, hurled anathemas or raised excommunications, visited the sick, attended the dying, buried the dead, redeemed captives, nourished the poor, widows, and orphans, founded almshouses and hospitals, ministered to the needs of his clergy, pronounced as a civil judge in individual cases, and acted as arbitrator in differences between cities. He published at the same time treatises on morals, on discipline, on theology. He wrote against heresiarchs and against philosophers, busied himself with science and history, directed letters to individuals who consulted him in one or other of the rival religions; corresponded with churches and bishops, monks, and hermits; sat at councils and synods; was summoned to the audience of Emperors, was charged with negotiations, and was sent as ambassador to usurpers or to Barbarian princes to disarm them or keep them within bounds. The three powers, religious, political, and philosophical were all concentrated in the bishop.”
Ambrose was an admired preacher and became an articulate opponent of Arianism, the view that the Word of God was a created being and, therefore, not eternal. While Arianism was almost stamped out in Italy, two problems remained: The Goths had been evangelized by the Arian bishop Ulfilas, and the Empress Justina, second wife of Valentinian I and mother of Valentinian II was an Arian. Ambrose stood up to the Empress-Regent. He refused to give one of his churches to the Arian heretics, in spite of her telling him that he must do so (when religion was a civic duty in the Roman Empire all temples were at the disposal of the emperor). Ambrose’s own description of the events are telling: “First of all some great men, counsellors of state begged me to give up the basilica, and to manage that the people should make no disturbance. I replied, of course, that the temple of God could not be surrendered by a bishop. “On the following day this answer was approved by the people in the church; and the Prefect was there and began to persuade us to give up at least the Portian basilica (the old one), but the people clamored against it. He then went away implying that he should report to the Emperor. “The day after, which was Sunday, after the lesson and the sermon, when the catechumens were dismissed, I was teaching the Creed to certain candidates in the baptistery of the basilica. There it was reported to me that they had sent decani from the palace, and were putting up hangings, and that part of the people were going there. I, however, remained at my ministrations and began to celebrate Mass. “Whilst offering the oblation, I heard that a certain Castalus, who, the Arians said, was a priest, had been seized by the people. Passers-by had come upon him in the streets. I began to weep bitterly, and to implore God in the oblation that He would come to our aid, and that no one’s blood be shed in the Church’s cause, or at least that it might be my blood shed for the benefit not of my people only, but also for the unbelievers themselves. Not to say more, I sent priests and deacons and rescued the man from violence.” Those who sought to wreck violence were fined by the bishop. Ambrose deprecated violence and counselled passive resistance. The faithful were advised to occupy the two churches in question. The soldiers threw a cordon around the building, so the people remained inside throughout the night. The protest worked; the court withdrew its soldiers. The following year Ambrose was persecuted in many ways. An edict proclaimed tolerance of Arian worship. Ambrose was subpoenaed, next the Court claimed the Church’s plate, then that he leave Milan; each he refused. He took refuge in the new basilica and spent the time preaching and instructing the congregation in the art of antiphonal singing, using some of his own compositions. Emperor Valerian again capitulated. The Emperor Gratian was a Catholic and at his request Ambrose wrote De fide to counter Arian arguments. Arian immigrants seized one of the Milan churches in 378, but the next year Gratian ordered the basilica returned to Ambrose and the cessation of all heresies. De fide does not rely on rhetoric, but on the authority of scripture texts. He is aware that these may be variously interpreted, but insists that they must be read in the light of their context. In 381 the Council of Constantinople convened to again denounce Arianism and its new manifestation–Macedonianism, which applied the Arian principle to the Holy Spirit to interpret Him as a tertiary god. Again at Gratian’s insistence, Ambrose wrote a counter-argument entitled De spiritu. The book was effective but earned the severe criticism of Saint Jerome. In 383, when Gratian was killed in battle by Maximus, Ambrose persuaded Maximus not to attempt to extend his domain into Italy against the new young emperor Valentinian II. Ambrose was adamant that the Christian religion should be supported by the empire and worked hard to eradicate paganism. Pagan senators, led by the famous orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, wanted the heathen goddess of Victory honored by the return of the statue to the Senate in Rome. A debate was arranged with Ambrose on one side and Augustine, as the local teacher of rhetoric (soon to become a saint) on the other. Ambrose persuaded the Emperor Valentinian II to forbid it. Ambrose also used his position to ensure that the vacant see of Sirmium, a former Arian stronghold, was filled by a Catholic. He thereby incurred the hatred of the Empress Justina, who was already jealous of his influence over her son. When the conflict between Catholics and Arians deepened, Maximus invaded Italy despite Ambrose’s pleas. Valentinian and Justina fled and sought the aid of Eastern Emperor Theodosius I, who defeated Maximus and had him executed in Pannonia (Hungary) and restored Valentinian to the throne; Theodosius now controlled both Eastern and Western empires. At Milan, Theodosius convinced Valentinian to denounce Arianism and recognize Ambrose, but himself soon came into conflict with the bishop when Ambrose denounced Theodosius’s order to the bishop of Kallinikum, Mesopotamia, to rebuild a Jewish synagogue destroyed by Christians. Theodosius later rescinded the order and himself paid for the reconstruction to prevent the bishop from having to support a non-Christian faith. Ambrose was strong enough to call the greatest in Christendom to public penance. In 390 A mob at Thessaloniki (Salonica) killed the Roman governor because he had imprisoned their favorite charioteer. In reprisal Emperor Theodosius I invited the people to the circus and there butchered 7,000 of them. Ambrose wrote to the emperor urging him to submit to public penance: “The emperor belongs to the church, but is not its superior.” As a result Theodosius ordered the henceforth capital punishment should not be carried out for 30 days after the sentence had been passed to allow time for calm judgment to prevail. Theodosius did his public penance and was readmitted to communion with the Church at Christmas. This was the turning point between Theodosius and Ambrose and between the Church and the State. Extant letters show that Ambrose never hesitated to remind the emperor that he owed allegiance to God, just as his military owed obedience to him. Thereafter, the public treasury no longer funded restoration or maintenance of pagan altars. Ambrose also threatened excommunication if the emperor failed to obey.Strengthened by Ambrose, in 391 emperor Theodosius forbade all public observances of paganism (which wasn’t actually enforced in the West, but led to civil disturbances in the East). The next year the emperor forbade all private observances of paganism. Homes Dudden points out that the Christians endeavored to facilitate the transition by fixing, wherever possible, the dates of Christian festivals to coincide with those of the old pagan feasts. The suppression of paganism was effected by Milan, not Rome. In 393, Valentinian II was murdered in Gaul by Arbogastes, whose envoy, Eugenius, had attempted to restore paganism. Ambrose denounced the murder, and the defeat and execution of Arbogastes at Aquileia by Theodosius finally ended paganism in the empire. When Theodosius died a few months after his victory, it was in the arms of Ambrose, who preached at his funeral. Other errors arose, including that of Priscillian from Spain. Priscillian preached an extreme asceticism in reaction to the growing worldliness of the Church. Against the protests of Saints Ambrose, Martin of Tours, and Siricius, the State intervened in Church affairs and executed Priscillian and six others. Ambrose excommunicated the Emperor Maximus for his part in the execution. An opposing heresy arose in Ambrose’s own monastery, led by Jovinian, who condemned fasting, the virtues of virginity, and who denied the perpetual virginity of Mary. Jovinian was condemned and excommunicated by Pope St. Siricius in 390. (St. Jerome scurrilously refuted the heresies in Refutation of Jovinian.)
Above all Ambrose was a Doctor of the Church and a pastor of his people. His thinking was not original but he successfully synthesized the thoughts of others after having read extensively from the beginning of his episcopate. As a Greek scholar he interpreted Eastern theologians for the West, a work that was much needed. He wrote extensively on the Bible, theology, and asceticism, and he wrote numerous homilies and psalms. As befitted a bishop, his teaching was more by his sermons than his writings. His discourses were very practical. His writings on doctrinal subjects include ‘catechism lessons’ (De mysteriis) to the newly baptized on baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist. His greatest claim to originality is in the field of music and poetry, not theology. Until that time the music of the Church had been in the hands of the professional chanters who would sing the Psalms in a very slightly inflected recitative, the congregation merely singing an occasional refrain. As stated previously, Ambrose taught his people the art of antiphonal chanting, thus introducing congregational singing. St. Augustine tells in his Confessions how deeply the charm of this novel method had moved him when attending services in Milan, even stirring him to tears. Ambrose also taught his congregation to sing his original hymns. Next to Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose is the first of the great Latin hymn writers. They were set in what is now known as the Ambrosian meter. The poems were divided into four-line stanzas, each line limited to eight syllables arranged in iambic dimetre. Four extant hymns seem certain to have come from him: “Framer of the earth and sky,” “Maker of all things God most high,” “O come Redeemer of mankind appear,” and “Now the third hour cometh.” All sources note that Ambrose is not the composer of the Te Deum, as had been thought for some time. However, there is a growing belief that he did compose the Athanasian Creed. Among his best known works are De officiis ministrorum, a treatise on Christian ethics especially directed to the clergy; De virginibus, written for his sister St. Marcellina; and De fide, written against the Arians for Gratian. In the realm of theology, his main contribution comes with his description of the character of the Church and the nature of the Sacraments. According to his view, man fell from grace at the Fall and the results of that Fall are communicated to each individual at his conception. The effect must be counter-balanced by grace which is communicated in the Sacraments, but can only be effected by faith. Faith itself is so effective that it can in some cases, such as those of the martyrs and confessors, even take the place of the Sacraments, and it can above all make possible a mystical union between Christ and the believer. Thus in two respects, in the emphasis on the ruin brought by sin and upon a personal union with Christ, Ambrose influenced Augustine and through him the whole future theology of the Western Church. In his charting of individual eschatology, Ambrose opened the way for Gregory the Great. He laid great emphasis on the terror of the Last Judgement. He believed in an eternity of graduated bliss or punishment in various departments of purgatory. Although he did not claim that anything we could do for the dead would affect their future destiny, yet he held that prayers and Masses for the faithful departed might ease their situation before the final goal was reached.
Ambrose came to be known as the “Hammer of Arianism.” Although he fought paganism, he did not refuse to dine with them. He was thought of with great affection by those who came into contact with him. Ambrose was a close friend of St. Monica, and it was he who finally showed the still doubting St. Augustine that a person of intelligence could find the Christian faith totally satisfying when Augustine moved to Milan in 386 to fill the vacant university chair in rhetoric. Ambrose brought Augustine back to his faith and baptized him in the autumn of 387, answering a mother’s many years’ of prayers. Augustine describes Ambrose a sympathetic, seductive, and enticing others to live the life of Christ. He also welcomed Saint Paulinus of Nola and his wife Teresa, though most had spurned Paulinus because he had been ordained and consecrated while still being married– contrary to the discipline then in force. Ambrose died on Easter Eve–April 4, 397, after a 23-year episcopate. It has been said that his chief importance was that he turned the Church into an instrument for the criticism and correction of the State, and that he was the first bishop to be used by the State in peace negotiations (Attwater, Bentley, Delaney, Dudden, Encyclopedia, Paredi, Wand, White).
In art St. Ambrose is portrayed as a bishop with a beehive (bees in iconography indicated a ‘honeyed’ tongue, someone with the gift of eloquent speech), and book. Sometimes the image includes (1) a scourge (often knotted with three thongs to symbolize the Trinitarian doctrines); (2) the saint standing on an armed man; (3) a child by him acclaiming him bishop (easily confused with Augustine or Hilary of Poitiers); (4) Ambrose writing in his study with the bull of St. Luke or a statue of the Virgin near; (5) SS Gregory, Jerome and Augustine ; or (6) Ambrose refusing Caesar admittance to Milan Cathedral (Roeder). Patron of the French Army Commissariat (who are responsible for administration and procurement), bishops, beekeepers, bakers of honeybread, domestic animals, geese, and wax refiners (Roeder, White).