Ambrose, one of the four great “doctors” of the Western Church, had a life so varied that even a novelist could scarcely have imagined such a scenario.
Born in Treves (now Trier, Germany) he was nevertheless a Roman of the Romans, the son of a high imperial official. Sent to Rome as a youth he received a thorough education in letters and law. Around 365 A.D. he entered the civil service of the Roman Empire. Only five years later he was appointed governor of the provinces of Liguria and Aemilia, with the rank of consul. Governor Ambrose, settling in his district capital, Milan, quickly acquired a reputation as an able and just administrator.
Now, at the time of Ambrose’s arrival in Milan, the bishop of that diocese was Auxentius. Auxentius upheld the Arian heresy; that is, he denied the divinity of Christ. Most of the Milanese Christians were orthodox, however; so when Bishop Auxentius died in 374, there was a strong move to elect an orthodox bishop to succeed him.
Despite this wide agreement against heresy, the Arian party was still influential in Milan. Fearing that when the two parties met in the cathedral to choose the new bishop, they might come to blows, Ambrose made a point of attending the election in order to maintain order.
As the respected governor moved up and down in the church, a voice suddenly cried out: “Ambrose bishop!” The rest of the congregation took to the suggestion and joined the chorus. Ambrose spoke out in reprimand. He could not possibly become a bishop, he said; he was not a priest, and, although raised in a Christian household, he was (in keeping with the practice of the time), only a catechumen, and not yet baptized. However, the bishops present saw no major obstacle here, and thought the Holy Spirit was speaking. Ambrose therefore appealed to the Emperor, but again to no avail. His Majesty also found the proposal excellent. So, willynilly, Governor Ambrose, then about 35, was speedily baptized, ordained a priest, and consecrated bishop of Milan.
The choice was, indeed, providential. The new bishop’s administrative experience would help him to deal with people of every rank. Conscientiously, he at once gave his property to the poor. In his episcopal household he set a pattern of strict asceticism. Unlearned in theology, he engaged a scholarly priest as tutor. Devoting every spare moment to study, he eventually became a superior theologian. A fine speaker already, he won a great reputation as a preacher. It was through listening to his sermons that St. Augustine of Hippo opened his heart to Christianity; and in 387 Ambrose baptized this other great saint. So many of the young women who heard him sing the praises of dedicated virginity took the veil, that worldly mothers began to forbid their daughters to listen to him. Some people even accused him of depopulating the Empire!
From the many typical episodes of his life, let me mention two.
Ambrose was, of course, strongly anti-Arian. When the pro Arian Empress Justina was trying to steal some of the Milanese churches for Arian use, the bishop and his flock remained all one Holy Week in the cathedral to thwart its confiscation. During their “sit-in”, St. Ambrose kept the people busy by composing hymns for them to sing. Eventually the cathedral was saved, and the bishop emerged as a composer of some of Christianity’s finest hymns.
Then, in 390 A.D., Emperor Theodosius, although an orthodox Christian, authorized the senseless slaughter of 7000 innocent people at Thessalonica in Greece. St. Ambrose refused to admit him to the cathedral until he had made reparation. Theodosius humbly complied, and performed a public penance.
When Bishop Ambrose was nearing death in 387, Count Stilicho, guardian of young Emperor Honorius, declared, “The day that man dies, destruction hangs over Italy.” Ambrose dismissed the idea of his own indispensability: he knew God would not neglect His people. But his own position in history was secure. He was one of the glories of the Roman Christian world..
–Father Robert F. McNamara