St. Ambrose of Milan

Every saint of the Church personifies the holiness of Christ in a manner that responds to the needs of the age. St. Paul exhibited met the needs of the apostolic Church as it gradually left its Jewish moorings and became increasingly enmeshed in pagan society. The Church had to incorporate the nations while at the same time being true to her identity as the new Israel. This challenge taxed Paul’s knowledge of the Jewish legal tradition, his acumen in presenting the Gospel to a gentile audience, his diplomacy in negotiating difficult pastoral situations, and his resolve in the face of persecution. Like Saint Paul before him, St. Ambrose of Milan (340-397) personified the intellectual and moral virtues the Church so desperately needed in his lifetime.

Ambrose was born to a wealthy Roman family. His father was a successful prefect of Gaul. He was provided the liberal arts education preparatory for young men destined for the civil service. Upon completing his studies, he became a lawyer at the court of the praetorian prefect, and soon found himself in Milan as a municipal judge. It was in this capacity that his learnedness and oratorical ability became known to the people of the city. His biographer, Paulinus of Nola, relates a story of Ambrose’s ascension to the episcopacy. The bishop of Milan had died, and the Catholic and Arian parties in the city were engaged in a heated confrontation over his successor. The city of Milan was the de facto administrative center of the Roman Empire in the West, and the ecclesiastical benefice of the city enjoyed both symbolic and political importance. The dispute reached a fever pitch one day in the cathedral. Ambrose, at the time only a catechumen and not publically identified with either party, went to the cathedral merely to quell the disturbance. While he addressed the crowd, a child suddenly cried out “Ambrose for bishop.” Ambrose, feeling himself unworthy and unprepared for such an office, tried to dissuade them: first, by returning to his courtroom where he ordered torture to be inflicted upon convicted criminals; then, by retiring to his home and declaring himself a philosopher (and thus unsuited to public responsibilities); finally, by having prostitutes sent to him order to create public scandal. All of this was to no avail, and Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated bishop of Milan.

Both parties believed that they had obtained a mutually acceptable candidate in Ambrose. As the responsibilities of governing the local church and shepherding souls began to weigh upon him, however, he applied his education to the interpretation and exposition of Scripture and acquired a profoundly biblical and Catholic understanding of the faith, which he zealously vindicated in the face of Arian opposition. This opposition came not only from Arian bishops and polemicists, but from the imperial family. Emperor Valentinian II had ascended the imperial throne in West at age four, and was controlled by his domineering Arian mother Justina. Through him, Justina attempted to have the Portian basilica, one of the three basilicas in Milan, ceded to the Arians for their use. Ambrose, backed by the majority Catholic populace, refused. The conflict culminated in a stand-off between imperial and ecclesiastical authority. Ambrose and his supporters barricaded themselves inside the basilica. During the confrontation Ambrose set forth an important principle that would have ramifications for Church-state relations for centuries: “The emperor is in the church, not above it.” Justina and Valentinian backed down. A Catholic bishop, with the backing of the people, had effectively challenged the secular power. Ecclesiastical authority combined with the sensus fidelium to defeat officially sanctioned heresy.

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Matthias_Stom_-_St_AmbroseAmbrose’s triumph over a politically powerful Arianism was followed by a much more thorny confrontation with the imperial authority, this time involving the Catholic emperor Theodosius. In 380, not long after he assumed control of both halves of the empire, Theodosius declared Catholicism the official religion of the Roman Empire. Yet here the principle Ambrose vindicated in the face of an Arian emperor would now be tested by a Catholic one. When Theodosius ordered the massacre of some 7,000 people in Thessalonica after a local riot that claimed the lives of several imperial officers, Ambrose ordered him to do public penance. In a carefully worded but firm letter, Ambrose chided the emperor, likening his action to King David’s murder of Uriah the Hittite:

Bear it, then, with patience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of to King David by the prophet. For if you listen obediently to this, and say, “I have sinned against the Lord,” if you repeat those words of the royal prophet: “O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us,” it shall be said to you also: “Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.”

Theodosius complied with this command expressed as an entreaty. Again, Ambrose acted on the principle that a ruler who professes the Catholic faith is, by virtue of that very profession, under the moral authority of the Catholic Church.

Ambrose’s greatest triumph, however, was that he overcame the intellectual barrier to the faith that a young, proud, and confused Augustine had established in his own mind. Like Ambrose, Augustine had been trained in the Roman liberal arts tradition in preparation for a legal career. The center of this tradition was rhetoric, the art of speaking eloquently and persuasively. As a polished Roman orator, steeped in the mellifluous prose of Virgil and the delightful oratory of Cicero, Augustine had come to regard Sacred Scripture as graceless and boorish. He came to Milan, and here he heard the sermons of Ambrose, his equal in eloquence. Augustine relates in his Confessions:

So I came to Milan and to Bishop Ambrose…. He was a devout worshiper of you, Lord, and at the same time his energetic preaching provided your people with the choicest wheat and the joy of oil and the sober intoxication of wine. Unknowingly, I was led by you to him, so that through him I might be led, knowingly, to you.

Ambrose befriended the young Augustine, who in turn studiously listened to Ambrose’s sermons, more for their style than their content. Yet the delightfulness of Ambrose’s rhetoric became the means whereby the truth of the Catholic faith came to be impressed upon the mind of Augustine:

I was taking no trouble to learn what Ambrose was saying, but interested only in listening to how he said it…Nonetheless as his word, which I enjoyed, penetrated my mind, the substance, which I overlooked, seeped in with them, for I could not separate the two. As I opened my heart to appreciate how skillfully he spoke, the recognition that he was speaking the truth crept in at the same time, though only by slow degrees.

It was indeed by slow, painful degrees that Augustine finally came to embrace the faith that Ambrose had artfully impressed upon his mind. Still, it is in large measure thanks to the eloquence of Ambrose that we now have Augustine, the most influential theologian in the history of the Church.

St. Ambrose spoke to the needs of his age in two ways: by his intrepid vindication of Church authority, and his employment of the Roman rhetorical legacy in the service of the Church. St. Ambrose likewise speaks to the needs of our own time. We could translate his political principle thus: “the governor/congressman/senator/vice president is within the Church, not above the Church.” Politicians who profess the faith of the Church are subject to the moral authority of those who rule the Church. While this point has been made by many faithful Catholics in our time, it bears repeating as long as Catholic politicians continue to support policies that contradict the faith they profess. Equally important, and perhaps even more timely in our digital age, is the example of Ambrose the rhetorician. The truths of the faith are regularly distorted by contemporary social media; at the same time, those who seek to defend the faith by means of this same media sometimes compromise its effectiveness by their inattention to how it is presented. When we resort to Catholic blogs, Catholic pundits, and Catholic slogans, we risk casting the truth in the same acerbic and provocative forms employed by those in the media who distort the faith. St. Ambrose reminds us to pay attention to the manner in which the faith is presented. Truth is still truth, regardless of how it is presented, but that truth is only effective if it takes root in the hearer, and it is more likely to take root if it evokes delight.

Editor’s note: The image of St. Ambrose is painted by Matthias Stom (c. 1600-1652).


  • John P. Bequette

    John P. Bequette is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His interests include medieval Christian thought, the lives of the saints, and Christian humanism.

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