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Bishop and Confessor, c.340-397

A fourth--century mother claims three canonized saints as her children: Saint Ambrose, Saint Marcellina, and Saint Satyrus. Saint Ambrose is the most famed of the three. He was born at Treves in Gaul (the present-day German city of Trier). His father had one of the principal offices of the Empire and administered the territories that are now Britain, Spain, and Morocco. After his father's death Ambrose went to Rome to study Greek, law, and oratory. He became well known for pleading causes at the court of the praetorian prefect and was chosen to be a member of the prefect's judicial council. Emperor Valentinian appointed the young man governor of northern Italy, and Ambrose resided in Milan thereafter.

 A certain Arian bishop had usurped and held the diocese of Milan for twenty years. When be died in 374, the city was the scene of a vicious war between Catholics and Arians over the election of a new bishop, each sect demanding a man of its own faith. Since it was Ambrose's task to prevent any riots that might occur in the city, be went to the crowded basilica in an effort to preserve peace. While he pleaded with the people for settlement, a child somewhere in the crowd cried, "Ambrose for bishop!" and the mob took up the chant. Although Ambrose had always professed Christianity, like many others he had been misled by a common error of the times and had delayed his baptism; he was therefore ineligible for the episcopal office. When the emperor sanctioned his candidacy, Ambrose was compelled to accept the office. He was baptized and only a week later, on December 7, 374, was consecrated bishop.

 Ambrose had been educated as a lawyer. Now conscious of the duties and responsibilities imposed upon him by-his new office, he went to Rome to study theology and Sacred Scripture. On his return to Milan he preached so consistently and vehemently against Arianism that within ten years after his consecration there was not a citizen in the adhered to the heresy. In the course of his episcopate, Ambrose prevented the Arians from gaining control of new sees and secured the deposition of two Arian bishops.

 His days were active; he had been a man of state, and civil officials with weighty problems were reluctant to leave the bishop to his episcopal affairs. Still, he never lost sight of the need for meditation and contemplation. Ambrose ruled as a dutiful bishop but tempered his authority with charity; he tempered justice with generosity, and his own mortifications with prudence and moderation.

 Ambrose was a popular speaker. Impressing crowds with the blessedness of the virginal state, he inspired many to enter the religious life. Because he combined the talents of a scholar and orator with the virtues of a priest, he was partly responsible for the conversion of one listener, Saint Augustine.

 The writings of Saint Ambrose have earned him the distinction of being one of the four great doctors of the Western Church, in company with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. He was above all an ecclesiastical teacher, who wrote several commentaries on the Old and the New Testaments. His most important and influential ascetical works include On the Duties of Ministers (a manual of Christian morality), On Virgins, On Penance, and treatises on baptism, confirmation, and the Holy Eucharist.

 Ambrose's talents were, indeed, diverse. He composed a number of hymns (known in later times as the Ambrosian hymns); several of them are still used in the Roman liturgy. He introduced the Antiochene practice of alternate singing of the Psalms and this was immediately adopted for permanent use by the whole Western Church. The liturgical rite followed in the archdiocese of Milan today is named for Saint Ambrose, whose writings often refer to its ceremonies.

 In his last illness, having been begged by his people to pray for a longer life, Ambrose replied: "I have not so behaved myself among you that I should be ashamed to live longer; nor am I afraid to die, for we have a good Master." He died before dawn of Holy Saturday, April 4, 397, when he was about fifty-eight years old. His body was buried beside the relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius in the basilica at Milan.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved