The Catholic Defender: Saint Ambrose
St. Ambrose was born around 340 AD to a Roman Christian family. He grew up with his siblings, Satyrus and Marcellina, in Trier, Belgic Gaul (present-day Germany).
It is believed by many that when Ambrose was just an infant, a swarm of bees landed on his face and left behind a drop of honey.
To his father, this was a sign that Ambrose would become someone great with a wonderful sense for speaking.
He emerges as the man of action who cut a furrow through the lives of his contemporaries.
Even royal personages were numbered among those who were to suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in Ambrose’s way.
Ambrose was known for his Nicene beliefs, but Arians also favored him because he had previously shown charity in theological matters. However, being neither baptized or trained in theology, Ambrose refused to become the next bishop.
He ran and attempted to hide, but his colleague gave him up. Within a week's time, Ambrose was baptized, ordained and duly consecrated bishop of Milan on December 7, 374.
Ambrose remained Governor until 374 when he became the Bishop of Milan. After the former Bishop of Milan died, Ambrose attended the election to prevent any uproars between the Nicene Church and the Arians. While giving an address, the assembly began calling for him to become the next bishop.
After meeting Ambrose, Augustine reevaluated himself and was forever changed. In 387, Ambrose baptized Augustine, who he had a great influence on. St. Monica, Augustine's mother, loved Ambrose "as an angel of God who uprooted her son from his former ways and led him to his convictions of Christ."
When the Empress Justina attempted to wrest two basilicas from Ambrose’s Catholics and give them to the Arians, he dared the eunuchs of the court to execute him.
Saint Ambrose also actively participated in civil matters. Thus, the emperor Gracian (375-383), having received from him the “Exposition of the Orthodox Faith” (De Fide), removed, by decree of the saint, the altar of Victory from the halls of the Senate at Rome, on which oaths were wont to be taken.
Displaying a pastoral boldness, Saint Ambrose placed a severe penance on the emperor Theodosius I (379-395) for the massacre of innocent inhabitants of Thessalonica. For him there was no difference between emperor and commoner. Though he released Theodosius from the penance, the saint would not permit the emperor to commune at the altar, but compelled him to do public penance.
queen of the military Germanic tribe of the Markomanni, which often had attacked Mediolanum, asked the saint to instruct her in the Christian Faith. The saint in his letter to her persuasively stated the dogmas of the Church. And having become a believer, the queen converted her own husband to Christianity and persuaded him to conclude a treaty of peace with the Roman Empire.
His own people rallied behind him in the face of imperial troops. In the midst of riots, he both spurred and calmed his people with bewitching new hymns set to exciting Eastern melodies.
In his disputes with the Emperor Auxentius, he coined the principle: “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.”
He publicly admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of 7,000 innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime. This was Ambrose, the fighter sent to Milan as Roman governor, and chosen while yet a catechumen to be the people’s bishop.
There is yet another side of Ambrose—one which influenced Augustine of Hippo, whom Ambrose converted. Ambrose was a passionate little man with a high forehead, a long melancholy face, and great eyes. We can picture him as a frail figure clasping the codex of sacred Scripture.
This was the Ambrose of aristocratic heritage and learning.
Augustine found the oratory of Ambrose less soothing and entertaining but far more learned than that of other contemporaries. Ambrose’s sermons were often modeled on Cicero, and his ideas betrayed the influence of contemporary thinkers and philosophers.
He had no scruples in borrowing at length from pagan authors. He gloried in the pulpit in his ability to parade his spoils—“gold of the Egyptians”—taken over from the pagan philosophers.
His sermons, his writings, and his personal life reveal him as an otherworldly man involved in the great issues of his day. Humanity for Ambrose was, above all, spirit.
St. Ambrose was generous to the poor. He considered them not a group of outsiders, but rather those of the united people. To him, giving to the poor was just a repayment of God's resources, which were intended for everyone equally.
In order to think rightly of God and the human soul, the closest thing to God, no material reality at all was to be dwelt upon. He was an enthusiastic champion of consecrated virginity.
The influence of Ambrose on Augustine will always be open for discussion. The Confessions reveal some manly, brusque encounters between Ambrose and Augustine, but there can be no doubt of Augustine’s profound esteem for the learned bishop.
Ambrose is credited with advising Augustine of Hippo to follow local liturgical customs. "When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not. Follow the custom of the church where you are," he stated. This advice remains today, and is translated in English as the saying, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."
Neither is there any doubt that Saint Monica loved Ambrose as an angel of God who uprooted her son from his former ways and led him to his convictions about Christ. It was Ambrose, after all, who placed his hands on the shoulders of the naked Augustine as he descended into the baptismal fountain to put on Christ.
He became celebrated for his scholarship, service to the unfortunate, oratory skills, leadership of the people, and defense of the Church. A Renaissance man before the Renaissance, he is viewed as a founding force of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.
The saint combined strictness with an uncommon kindliness. Granted a gift of wonderworking, he healed many from sickness. One time at Florence, while staying at the house of Decentus, he resurrected a dead boy.
Ambrose's body remains in the church of St. Ambrogio in Milan, along with the bodies of Saints Gervase and Protase.
St. Ambrose is the Confessor and Doctor of the Church. He is the patron saint of bee keepers, beggars, learning and Milan, and his feast day is celebrated on December 7.
The repose of Saint Ambrose, who departed to the Lord on the night of Holy Pascha (Easter), was accompanied by many miracles. He even appeared in a vision to the children being baptized that night. The saint was buried in the Ambrosian basilica in Mediolanum, beneath the altar, between the Martyrs Protasius and Gervasius (October 14).