Saint of the week

St Ambrose, 7th December

St Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, was a gifted teacher and brave defender of the Catholic faith. It was his preaching that convinced St Augustine of Hippo, another of the four great Doctors of the Western Church, of the truth of Christianity and precipitated his conversion: he was baptised by St Ambrose at Easter in 387.

St Ambrose is not remembered simply for this event, however, but for his “courage and constancy” in resisting evil. He became a bishop virtually by accident when he publicly pleaded with rival Arian and Catholic factions seeking the election of their candidates to the See of Milan. His measured and articulate intervention led to the crowd declaring him to be Bishop of Milan, although at that point he had not even been baptised.

At first he tried to escape but following his episcopal consecration on 7th December 374, at the age of 35 years, he took his responsibilities extremely seriously, beginning by studying the Scriptures and the religious works of such masters as St Basil and Origen, and placing himself under the instruction of St Simplician, a learned Roman priest. He was renowned for his humility and for the pastoral care of his people, and for his asceticism, dining only on weekends and feast days.

At the  time the Church in the West was being convulsed by the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Jesus Christ by teaching that the Son of God was a created being , and inferior to the Father rather than consubstantial with Him.

St Ambrose purged the Diocese of Milan of the heresy in the space of a decade, but he would find himself called to combat the problem on a greater scale when asked him for instruction against the heresy by the Roman Emperor Gratian, whose uncle, Valens, was its champion and in control of the armies defending the East from attacks by the Goths.

The after Emperor Gratian was murdered the Empress Justina began to oppose St Ambrose, inducing her son, Emperor Valentinian, to take the Portian basilica, near Milan, from the control of the bishop and to give it to the Arians, but Ambrose won the ensuing struggle.

Undeterred, the following year Justina persuaded her son to enact a law authorising the assemblies of the Arians and prohibiting those of Catholics, who were also ordered to yield their churches to their heretical opponents.  Again, St Ambrose successfully argued against Valentinian, saying: “The Emperor is in the Church, not over it.”

The Valentinian persecution weakened the empire from within, however, and gave the pretender Maximus, who St Ambrose had persuaded to stay in other Roman provinces, the pretext to invade Italy. Valentinian fled to Greece and returned with the Eastern Emperor, Theodosius, who slew Maximus at Pannonia.  Although Valentinian was re-instated Theodosius was from that point the real ruler of the empire.

Within a short time conflicts emerged between St Ambrose and Theodosius which erupted into a crisis with the slaughter of 7,000 civilians in Thessalonica in 390. St Ambrose demanded the public repentance of Theodosius and eventually he obtained it.

Another crisis engulfed the Church following the murder of Valentinian by Arbogastes in 393: the spectre of paganism returned to the empire with the usurper boasting that he would overthrow Christianity. His armies were defeated at Aquileia by Theodosius, who just months later died in the arms of St Ambrose. At the funeral Mass St Ambrose spoke of his love for the dead emperor and reminded his two sons of their obligations to defend Christianity, by then the force that was holding together the vast empire.

St Ambrose himself died two years later, aged 57, on Good Friday 397 after first predicting his death and then praying with his arms outstretched in a cross for several hours. His relics were transferred beneath the high altar of his basilica in 835.

The saint left behind an array of written works, mostly homiletical in origin, exegetical, theological, ascetical and poetical.

The stained glass windows (above right), which can be seen in Shrewsbury Cathedral, show St Ambrose with the Emperor Theodosius.

Source: Butler’s Lives of the Saints