By CAROLE BRESLIN
Even Truman Compote could have some interesting insights such as, “Love is a chain of love as nature is a chain of life.” It would seem to follow then that holiness is a chain of holiness as witnessed by St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, and St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas. We are channels of grace meant to not only serve God, but to bring others to the same eternal end.
The year of Ambrose’s birth is placed somewhere around AD 340. It is likely that he was born in Gaul where his father, also named Ambrose, was prefect for the Romans. While Ambrose was still a child, his father died, leading his mother to return to Rome, taking great care in raising her children in the true Christian faith.
Thanks to the influence of both his mother and his sister, St. Marcellina, Ambrose learned the art of writing and speaking and the language of Greek. Not surprisingly, since he was one of the four doctors of the Western Church of his era, he was uncommonly bright. He quickly drew the attention of the Roman officials and soon became a favorite in the courts of Symmachus.
His success led to him being summoned by Probus who chose him to be his assessor. Eventually he became governor of Aemilia and Liguria under the Emperor Valentinian while residing in Milan. These offices, known to be the most significant in the Roman Empire, came to him before he reached the age of 40.
In 374 a dramatic change of events also changed the course of his life. The Arian Auxentius died, leaving the see of Milan in chaos with two parties competing for power: the Arians and the Christians. Fearing an outbreak of violence, St. Ambrose went to the church were the meetings were being held to select a successor. As the parties argued and vied for authority, Ambrose pleaded before them to proceed in a spirit of peace and agreement. While Ambrose was making his speech, a voice crying out in the chaos shouted, “Ambrose for bishop.” All the more astounding was this choice since Ambrose had not yet been baptized!
Ambrose sought to escape the assignment, but the emperor confirmed the appointment. Eventually the situation was settled when Ambrose was baptized and a week later, on December 7, 374, he was ordained the bishop at the age of 35.
After his appointment, he divested himself of all his worldly possessions and began to urge the magistrates to do the same. Both the Emperor Valentinian and St. Basil congratulated him on his efforts to impose divine law. Ambrose also sought to do away with Arianism and thus studied under Basil and St. Simplician in order to learn the Scriptures and the theology to thwart the inroads the Arians had made.
As bishop, he never sought positions for associates in any public office. Furthermore, he availed himself to all who wanted to see him. In fact, when St. Augustine went to see him, he frequently was never noticed by the bishop — much to Augustine’s frustration. (After 33 years, Augustine finally was baptized and became the most prolific writer in the history of the Church.) Ambrose also undertook the formation and protection of consecrated virgins. Criticized for trying to depopulate the empire, he retorted that no man had trouble finding a wife.
Around 377 both the Goths and the Arians (a heretical sect) were threatening Christianity. Ambrose used not only his personal wealth to ransom captives, but also melted down the sacred vessels to redeem the prisoners, to which the Arians cried sacrilege. In response Ambrose stated that souls were more important than things. He wrote To Gratian, in Defense of Faith to counter the Arian assertions.
Ambrose also set a precedent so that rulers sought the intercession of the Church to settle disputes. In 383, the Empress Justina sought his aid in the protection of her son Valentinian II from Maximus. Ambrose convinced Maximus to restrict his ambitions to Gaul, Spain, and Britain.
He also managed to thwart the attempt of the cult which tried to re-establish the following of the pagan goddess of victory. Again Ambrose overcame this danger to the faith by the pen. Symmachus had written a very compelling propaganda piece in favor of devotion to the goddess, but Ambrose again refuted with great eloquence the points made by the pagans. As a result the emperor would not support the cult.
Politics took over once again to undermine a faithful prelate. In 385, the Empress Justina, whom Ambrose had assisted previously, turned her back on him to support the Arians. She persuaded Valentinian to demand that the Portian basilica be turned over to the Arians. When officials came to take possession, the Catholics resisted and took an Arian priest prisoner.
Ambrose prayed fervently that no harm would come to him. Despite numerous provocations on behalf of the officials of Rome and the associates of the Arians, Ambrose refused to be drawn into a confrontation. He avoided any semblance of such confrontation by avoiding appearances at the churches sought by the Arians.
Soon laws were passed protecting the Arians and forbidding anyone from opposing them. Ambrose still would not yield his churches. When the emperor sent a messenger ordering Ambrose to obey his orders, Ambrose refused, saying, “The emperor is in the Church, not over it.”
When trouble again arose between Maximus and Valentinian II with Justina, Ambrose intervened and gave warning. The Greek, Theodosius, came to defeat Maximus and restore them to their domain. He persuaded Valentinian to give up his Arian following.
In 390, a massacre in Thessalonica by Theodosius resulted in over 7,000 men, women, and children being murdered without discrimination: the innocent as well as the guilty. Rebuked by Ambrose, Theodosius repented. “He stripped himself of every sign of royalty and bewailed his sin openly in church.”
Theodosius defended the Church against Arbogastes, winning the final blow to paganism in the empire. A few months later, as the ruler was dying, he reclined in the arms of St. Ambrose.
Two years later, Ambrose died. For three hours he held his arms out in the form of a cross. As St. Honoratus heard a voice urging him to rush to Ambrose, he prepared the last sacraments and administered them to Ambrose. Ambrose died on Good Friday, April 4, 397. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his Ordination as bishop of Milan, December 7.
Dear St. Ambrose, doctor of the Church who established the supremacy of the Church over state rulers and defended doctrine so eloquently against the heresy of Arianism, pray for us. Surely you see the onslaught Holy Mother Church suffers today, as she has throughout her 2,000-year history. May we possess the gifts of the Holy Spirit to refute with courage and conviction, with charity and patience the errors so prevalent in our society. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ. She is celebrating her 20th anniversary with the organization.)