St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church

Sant'Ambrogio Sant'Ambrogio  (© Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana)

These were times of lacerating social divisions. On 7 December 374 in a church in Milan the discussion had become animated. The thorny question of the naming of a new bishop of the city, capital of the Western Roman Empire, had exacerbated the rift between Catholics and Arians. The denial of the divinity of Christ, supported by the latter and opposed by the former, was perceived as an insurmountable barrier to the choice of a pastor who could represent both.

A bishop for everyone

The governor of Lombardy, Liguria and Emilia, known for his impartiality and fairness, was called to mediate. His name was Ambrose, born in 340 in Trier, Germany, to a Roman Christian family, the third son after two other children, the saints Marcellina and Satyrus. In Rome he had completed his juridical studies in the footsteps of his father, prefect of Gaul, learning Greco-Latin oratory and literature. His success in a magistrate’s career and the balance in managing even the thorniest controversies had made him the ideal candidate to moderate the heated debate in Milan that began after the death of the Arian bishop Absentius. The invitation of Ambrose to lead the dialogue convinced the people and avoided the outbreak of riots. Just when the governor thought he had accomplished his mission successfully, the unexpected happened: from the crowd a child’s voice rose loudly and found an echo in that of the entire assembly: “Ambrose for our bishop!” Catholics and Arians in unexpected agreement had found their compromise candidate. The invocation of the people threw Ambrose: he felt inadequate - he was not even baptized. The emperor Valentinian tried to resist, but eventually conceded to the popular will. Ambrose then fled, but Pope Damasus also considered him suitable for episcopal dignity. Ambrose therefore understood the call of God and accepted the bishopric of Milan, at only 34 years of age.

In prayer, close to the people

Ambrose made generous gift of his earthly possessions to the poor, and dedicated himself to the study of the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church. “When I read the Scriptures,” he used to say, “God walks with me in Paradise.” He learned to preach, and his oratory fascinated the young Augustine of Hippo, contributing to his conversion. Ambrose’s life became more and more frugal and austere, all spent in study, in prayer, in diligent listening and in the closeness to the poor and the people of God. “If the Church has gold it is not to protect it, but to give it to those in need,” he said, when he decided to melt down liturgical furnishings to pay the ransom of some faithful seized by Gothic soldiers.

The fight against heresy

Peace and harmony were his priorities, but he never tolerated error. Iconography depicts Ambrose striking heretics with his staff. Energetic was his fight against Arianism, which saw him colliding with rulers and sovereigns. From that conflict, which exploded under the pro-Arian empress, Justina, Ambrose came out victorious, affirming the independence of spiritual power from the temporal one. The episode of the Massacre of the Thessalonians is emblematic. Following the massacre of seven thousand people in revolt for the death of the governor, Ambrose succeeded in provoking the repentance of Emperor Theodosius, who had ordered it. “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church,” was the conviction of the Milanese bishop who, in spite of the law, did not even give a church to the Arians.


The primacy of Peter

Ambrose also always recognized the primacy of the bishop of Rome by asserting, Ubi Petrus, ibi Ecclesia - “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” Love for Christ, for the Church, for Mary emerges from the copious literary and theological production that has given him, together with Saints Jerome, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, the title of Great Doctor of the Church of the West. Builder of basilicas, composer of hymns that revolutionized prayer, tireless in the prayer, Ambrose died on Holy Saturday of 397. A great crowd gathered to pay him homage on Easter Sunday.