Wednesday, November 11, 2015

St. Ambrose of Milan


            The United States of today has often been compared to the Roman Empire of yesterday. The diversity in race, religion, and ideals has rarely been matched. This culture of complication yearns for guidance and direction even more so than a culture of stagnation. Constantine turned toward Christianity for both order and advice in his nation. The following emperors followed suit and it wasn’t long before Ambrose rose as a mouthpiece for the Lord. Although he had never wanted to be a leader of the church, his background in politics gave him the tools he would need to both serve his people and advise his emperor. His pagan and Christian tutelage would allow him to have a balanced mind as he addresses both the Church and the State as well as their place in this world.



            The Roman Empire was the most powerful entity of the fourth century. Its capital, Rome, soon became the “epitome of the world,” and the “home of the gods,” drawing attention from all classes and realms of its cosmos. Walking amidst her streets one may see rhetoricians from Gaul; officials from Constantinople; and physicians from Alexandria. These clashed with the Jewish merchants from Africa; and huge grey-eyed, yellow-haired German soldiers enlisted in the imperial service. Egyptian priests with shaven heads; rich Indian and Persian princes; and half-naked slaves from various regions crowded past. While, the aristocrats walked about with moustaches and long hair. Senators were carried down the street by muscular bearers. Clergymen wore perfume. Noble women traveled in a sea of eunuchs. Wild-looking monks wore scraggly beards like goats. There were artisans, philosophers, magistrates, and prostitutes; the "vulgar rich" and the inexhaustible poor; black-robed nuns who looked like owls in enormous hoods. Entertainers, jugglers, bards, apes, government spies, and pickpockets filled the spaces in between. [1]


            The diversity of Rome's culture was matched only by the diversity of her religions.  Religious festivals were the heart-beat of pagan society. Yet, the festivals themselves became no more than a reason to celebrate immorality and drunkenness. The Roman community often gave in to her passions, committing murder and adultery even in the aristocratic society, as well as avarice, apathy, and hypocrisy among the clergy. Mobs of unemployed swarmed after handouts and into the coliseum where they would bathe their senses in gore and violence.[2]

In such a lost society, citizens once again began to see the merit in religion. It was not understood as a type of movement or organization, but as an answer to their deep, haunting, existential questions. They knew their own failures and mortal limitations and they “sought help” to escape from their sorrow and death. This help was often found in Oriental cults from Anatolia, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. The followers of Attis, for instance, sacramentally slaughtered a bull over an initiate so that the baptism in blood may redeem them holistically. In this field, merchants became missionaries as they carried their customs and worldviews even further than their goods.[3]

Well-needed in the diverse society, Constantine’s edict of Milan, proclaimed full toleration of all religion in the empire.  Even more than the edict, he was able to rework the polity of his nation from one Caesar to two. His coin reform ceased the nation’s hyperinflation. And, he made Christianity the official state religion.[4]

The transition between Christian persecution and Christian allegiance goes much smoother than anticipated. Yet, it is far from over (as Augustine would later remind us in some of his sermons). Still, the empire is much more welcoming to the young religion than expected. Instead of slaughtering Christians in the arena and begging for their blood, one outspoken pagan pontiff is noted for bouncing his Christian granddaughter on his knee while she sang him a song of the salvation found only in Jesus Christ. Rumors of aristocratic women putting behind their fashions and dedicating themselves to acts of piety and charity begin to emerge.[5]


Two years after the death of Constantine, on the outskirts of his empire, Ambrose was born. It is in the center of this culture that he was raised. Ambrose’ father had been a resident of Gaul in Trier. There, he lived in a community, surrounded by thick militarized walls. The people of Trier were known for feeding, clothing, and arming the soldiers of the empire. As the "Praetorian Prefect," Ambrose' father was responsible for all of the financial and judicial administration of Gaul, Spain and Britain. After his death, Ambrose' mother had more than enough influence and funding to bring her son and daughter to Rome where they could achieve the best education of the time.[6]

Under pagan teachers, Ambrose would have had the standard education.[7] He took rhetoric, mathematics, philosophy, and science, obtaining a vast knowledge of Greek. On his way to a promising legal career, he also studied jurisprudence. [8] After a life of scholasticism, Ambrose’ studies were rewarded with the office of “Provincial Governor” in Milan. This title was high class, giving him a seat of membership in the Roman Senate. In the view of the every-day-man, Ambrose had every right to not only be proud of his office, but to be worshiped as a state official.[9]

The Bishop of Milan

The Call

            As one of his duties as Provincial Governor in Milan, Ambrose was summoned to keep order at an election for the office of the next bishop. The Arian bishop, Auxentius, had passed away and a new head of the religious region was needed. At the gathering, a child’s cry would forever resonate in Ambrose’ life. It was only two words that would impact the man forever, “Ambrose, bishop!”[10]

The hearers were immediately reminded of Psalm 8:2, “Out of the mouths of infants, you ordained…” As Ambrose began to protest, both the Arians and Catholics of the Church unanimously agreed to make him the next bishop of Milan. Still, he resisted ordination.

Immediately, Ambrose left the church where he had been acclaimed and climbed up onto a raised platform just as Pilate had to sacrifice Christ. In line with his judicial office, but against the legislation of the Church that disqualified those who employ torture to be ordained, Ambrose ordered that torture be applied to some individuals. Instead of retracting their plea for his ordination, Biblically, the people cried out, “May your sin be upon us!”[11]

Again, Ambrose resisted, attempting to join the meditative cult of philosophy which would also disqualify him from a religious vocation. When that attempt failed, he ordered a prostitute to come to his house in order to make himself too impure for his vocation. Once again, the people cried out that his sin would be upon them, keeping him holy for his office. That night, he attempted to leave the city and ended up circling its gates instead. When he was found, he was imprisoned until he could be properly ordained.[12]

His last way out, as he saw it, was the fact that he had never been officially adopted into the Church. Although he had grown up Catholic and his family even had a martyr among its forbearers, Ambrose had not been baptized in his youth. In fact, Ambrose was hardly a catechumen in the church at all. Still, the clergy and the emperor, Valentinian I, agreed to the exception, Ambrose was to be appointed “Bishop of Milan.” He was baptized twenty-nine days after his ordination.[13]


            The Bishop of Milan had clearly been chosen by the people. It is a fact he later reflects on when preaching about the command to “honor thy parents.” He relates the people of Milan to his own father and mother in the respect that they were the ones who had birthed him into the office (whether he liked it or not). Soon enough, it would seem as if Ambrose had indeed been born for his new role. “As the son of an eminent official, he was a person to whom a habit of command came naturally.”[14]

Yet, his upbringing was far from that of his peers. Instead of learning, growing, and studying in the church, he had studied in the world.[15] In his own words, he was “the man not brought up in the lap of the church, not tamed from childhood; but snatched from tribunals, carried away from the vanities of this world.”[16] He needed Simplicianus, a priest who had been tutoring him in Christianity, to continue his instruction in Milan. Now, Ambrose found himself at a unique juxtaposition of instructing “before he had even learned.”[17] In a situation common among many teachers, Ambrose’ devotion to teaching was the best way in which he himself could learn.[18]


            At first, Ambrose’ secular education may have seemed to hinder his theological advances. But, his political background and his distance from the life of the church gave him an advantage over many of his opponents. One of the wisest decisions of his career was choosing not to rock the boat right away. Although he was a Catholic and his predecessor was Arian (two separate sects of Christianity at the time), Ambrose decided to hold the Christians of the area together instead of slamming a wedge in the divide.[19]

            His city, Milan, was the home of the emperors. Here, Ambrose’ office became “a key job in a key place,” allowing him to influence the majority of the empire where Christianity had already spread amongst the major cities and taken root in the hearts of her leaders.[20] Throughout all of Northern Italy, Ambrose became a “metropolitan.” The limits of his episcopal never hindered the distance of his activity. He was responsible for founding several bishoprics and advised the Church of Aemelia on the date of Easter. He corresponded with the Bishops of Rome, Naples, Gaul, and Alexandria, all of which were technically outside of his province. He also contacted the newly elected Bishops of Thessalonica, Como, Imola, and Claterna.[21] Looking back on Ambrose’ life, his followers related him to Elijah as unafraid to speak before kings and other power figures. Under his leadership, Milan became recognized as the most important sight of the West, adding much-needed prestige to the church.[22]

            Although, he was a powerful figure and clung to his aristocratic roots, “Ambrose saw a member of the clergy as someone who lived in public.” Part of his vocation was to be easily accessible to those who needed him.[23] He was still the peoples’ choice and he used his power to serve them, never using his authority for personal interest or material gain.[24]

Religious Conflict

            Ambrose quickly became the spiritual leader of his day, using his influence and experience “to propagate the faith, to defend its dogma, and, if necessary, to shed his blood for its preservation.” He had stood firmly on his principles when he had dealt with emperors. Still, when the occasion arose, he was known to forgive the sins of his enemies, heaping benefits upon them. “His care for souls was not limited to those within his jurisdiction, but the good of the Church drew him into its concerns” prompting him to take a leading part in Church councils held in Aquileia, Rome, and Capua and forcing him to take a prominent role in the security of the Church.[25]

Against Arianism

            As a Catholic, Ambrose would understand Arianism, not only as a separate sect of Christianity, but a heresy. The Arians took the Christ of the Church and made him simply into an elevated man (instead of God). This was a danger to the dogma that the saint grew to love. And, he needed to defend against it for the sake of his people. In order to defeat the maturing leviathan, Ambrose utilized not only his effective preaching and skill in persuasion, but also the help of the imperial laws against heretics.[26]

Against Paganism

Ambrose was also faced with philosophical and cultural dangers from outside the church. It was clear that although Constantine had achieved a foothold for the Faith in the West, Christians were still the minority.[27] Heavily due to Ambrose’ influence, Christianity became the majority religion in Milan in the second half of the century.[28]

One of his most important struggles concerned “the altar of Victory,” a historic pagan marker, which had been previously removed by a Christian emperor and reinstated by the only nonchristian emperor since Constantine’s time. By Ambrose’ day, the altar had been removed once again, while others tried to convince the emperor to reinstate it, Ambrose made sure the pagan idol was left in the past. This became “an important stage in the defeat of classical polytheism.”[29] Two years later, Ambrose was involved in a “bitter battle with the government over the use of church buildings in Milan.” And, soon afterward, he faced Emperor Theodosius I concerning a synagogue which had been burnt to the ground and a massacre which occurred in Thessaloniki. All of these would be seen as important victories of the church over the state.[30]

Church & State

            Although the bishop may have grown up in the midst of secularism under the tutelage of pagans, it is clear that his allegiance was to “the true God, that is, the God of the Christians.”[31] After he had been called into a vocation of ministry by the people of Milan, despite his previous background, he lived to serve them as an influential leader of the Church in the world. This allowed him both the opportunity to shepherd his own Catholic flock and defend against the wolves who lashed at them. Ambrose’ setting, call, and office within the changing culture of the Roman Empire allowed him a unique perspective on the roles of the church and the state.


            Fourth century theologians would often have a different vernacular than the Christian thinkers of today. It is crucial to understand Ambrose’ concept of “the Church” before relating it to the position of the state. In short, the bishop’s idea of the Ecclesia is eternal, holistic, and built on the faith in Jesus Christ.

            To Ambrose, the Church originated at the foundation of the world. “Prefigured in the Flood, announced by the Law, [and] invoked by the prophets. It preceded the Synagogue itself, which had entered into the world so that sin might abound and that grace might thus abound still more.” It is the body of Christ, just as whole and close-knit as Adam and Eve, bone of bone and flesh of flesh, linked for all eternity and built up solely by her head, the Lord.[32]

            Here, all are one in Christ. “There are not now many congregations; there is but one congregation, one Church.” It is a union of brothers and people “not in order to form new nations and new peoples but to be bound together in a single great and universal congregation.” It is a union of every race, not just the offspring of a single nation. There is a new identity, dignity, and glory in this union, not subjects or slaves, but friends of God.[33]

            This is not the action of any man, but of God Himself, building His Church from every race and nation through faith in Him. “It is a gate in a double sense: it is through faith that Christ enters into us, and it is through faith that we enter into the Church.” It is a supernatural society founded on the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord. “Faith is the foundation of the Church.” “Without faith in Christ’s divinity neither the Church nor its foundation can exist.”[34]

            Understanding the Church in this light allowed the Ecclesia Romana to become a beacon of the ideal in the real. The Church, seen through the Roman establishment, now tangibly appeared as the moon in the Old Testament, first hidden in the darkness, under persecution and retribution of the world, but little by little, she distinguished herself from the culture of the surrounding pagans and “had come to shine brightly,” enabling her to outpour “the rights of the venerable community.” In this way, the Roman Church (not just the city of Rome) becomes the capital of the entire Roman world as well as the wellspring of the apostles’ sacred faith.[35] This congregation under the guidance of its traditions is able to preserve the beliefs of the Universal Church (such as the Apostles’ Creed). These same beliefs have been passed down through the apostles, specifically Peter.

As Christ falls upon the Church, establishing it as “the fount of every grace,” “He falls upon Peter” who is able to keep the faith. And, through Peter, He falls upon the nations, saving all those upon whom he falls. “To be in communion with this [Petrine] Church is a sure proof of the true faith.” Yet, it is not that the Church became a sign of Peter’s presence, but that Peter’s presence is a sign and proof of the Universal and Creedal Church.[36]


            This Creedal Church and its role with the government’s authority is a unique one. Christianity is the only major religion that thrived apart from governmental sponsorship, proving that it did not need the political and secular realm to succeed. Yet, it openly interacts with politics in both a serving and guiding way.[37]

To Ambrose, his office was in servitude to the secular leader of his people, he writes to Emperor Gratian, “I put myself in your camp day and night by my concern for you and by my thought. I stretched out for you a coverlet of prayers; if I was unable to give you the attention which you deserved, yet I was unremitting in my affection.” In the same way that Jesus had loved and served his disciples, the Church loves and serves the State. Although Ambrose would have preferred to live under a more democratic government, the bishop accepted and supported the absolute monarchy of his time.[38]

This Christian leader also understood that the office of the secular leader was in servitude to God (on whose behalf Ambrose spoke). During the “altar of Victory” controversy, Ambrose writes to the Christian Emperor Valentinian in order to remind him that, “Just as all men who live under Roman rule serve in the armies under you, the emperors and princes of the world, so too do you serve as soldiers of almighty God and of our holy faith.” In military matters, the opinion of a soldier should be advised while in religion, the true, Christian God should be in counsel. The Church was to be seen as “the guardian and herald of the moral law, just as it is of dogmatic truth.” This gave it the right to proclaim the norms of Christian conduct in society both individualistically and communally. With this standard, the Bishop of Milan was able to inspire civil laws against heretics and apostates, even though he might not have openly requested them.[39]

Ambrose had a sincere affection for the Empire and an immense love for the Church. This allowed him to remain both well balanced and realistic when it came to their relation and policies. His mission was three-fold: Striving to protect the Church against the violence of the emperors by living as a gentle servant to them; demanding that the civil power respect the moral law of God; and fostering the union of the Church and State so that the Catholic Church would be favored in the secular realm.[40]

Under a Christian Emperor, it is not as if the State and the Church were two distinct entities, but they became two heads of leadership in the Empire.[41] They lived and breathed together, walking in arms toward a governance of Christ’s people that honors God and serves each other. Even when the State is lead to sin, it should be unafraid to turn to the Church to free it from its sin. The religious and civil powers, according to Ambrose, are meant to work together in order to free men from both their material and spiritual ills. Yet, due to the monarchal structure of the Empire, apart from a Christian Emperor the visible church’s relationship with the State would be independent in religious matters, staying relatively dependent on the institution for secular guidance only.[42]


Ultimately, Ambrose promoted a Christian civilization. Since the Church is an institution in truth and culture, it is able to go much farther than any tangible element such as the State ever could. It was able to spread throughout the Roman Empire, and then forward, past any secular border, destined to embrace all mankind. The Church is “a body living in a frail and fallible world, but it had been from the beginning supported by divine grace and was destined for immortality.”[43]

No matter what governing structure were to exist in the surrounding culture, the Church could take its same root and shape, becoming the eyes of the secular body. One peers into the moral while the other meditates on the mystical. The Church may be made out of mortal clay, but its heavenly spirit entails a mystical body.[44]


            As the first political figure of the Church, Ambrose became a great bishop, pastor, and priest, winning the generous devotion of the faithful and the affectionate attention of both emperors and non-Catholics. Clergy and laity both consulted him. Men found in him the piety, charity, mercy, modesty, justice, and firmness able to win their esteem. This Saint is eternalized in both his faith and his memory.[45]

            Known as one of the four great fathers of the Western church, revealed at the beginning of Scripture in the four rivers of Eden, Ambrose’ major concern was with teaching and interpreting the Bible.[46] Yet, the Bishop of Milan was given a many-sided role.[47] He dealt not only with the learning and imparting of deep theological understanding, but also with the politics of his time. His doctrine sprung from an ever-growing well of experience and knowledge both in the world and in the Church. As he partook in creating an ecclesiastico-political system, unable to borrow his concepts from those before him, he was charged to work it out by himself through his own understanding of the Biblical precepts.[48]

            The way in which he did so is similar to the holistic way in which he interpreted Scripture. For instance, when he was faced “with an apparent contradiction between the account of Christ healing one blind man in one gospel (Matt. 20:30) and two blind men in another (Luke 18:35), he breezily comments that there is no difference.”[49] In the world, the Church and the State become two authorities of God. One serves in a physical way while the other serves in a spiritual way. The two heads serve the whole being as long as they are in accord with one another. While some see two, others see one, yet there is no difference.

[1] “At the height of her glory.” Athenaeus and Auson as quoted by F. Homes Dudden, D.D. The Life and Times of St. Ambrose Vol. I. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 24-26.
[2] Dudden, 30-33, 43; Angelo Paredi trans. by M. Joseph Costelloe, S.J., Saint Ambrose: His Life and Times (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1964), 216, 218.
[3] Paredi, 219-222.
[4] Circa 313 AD. John Moorhead, Ambrose: Church and Society in the Late Roman , (London and New York: Longman, 1999), 1, 103.
[5] Dudden, 39-40, 46.
[6] Ambrose was born in 340 AD. It was also noted that Ambrose’ family was so well known that Roman Bishops would regularly visit their home. Moorhead, 1, 20-21.
[7] Dudden, 57.
[8] His Greek would eventually allow him to intimately know the works of the Hellenistic Fathers and transmit them into the Latin of the Westurn Church while his jurisprudence would enable him to defend the Church against future opposition. Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, O.P., Ph.D. "Introduction." In Saint Ambrose Letters, by O.P., Ph.D. St. Ambrose trans. by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, v-xiv. (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1954) vi.
[9] Ambrose’ legal career began at Sirmium at the age of 25 circa 365 AD. He became the provincial governor in 370. Moorhead, 24; Dudden, 61.
[10] November of 373 AD. Moorhead, 24.
[11] Ambrose later pupil, Augustine, resisted ordination as well. It is also interesting that, at the time, resisting the call was seen as even more affirmation towards the need of the call. If the people were the ones who wanted the leader and it was not a gain of selfish ambition, then they needed him all-the-more. Moorhead, 23-24.
[12] Moorhead 24, Dudden 67.
[13] Ambrose was consecrated bishop on December 1st, 373 and baptized December 30th. Beyenka, vi-vii; Moorhead, 24.
[14] Moorhead, 1-2, 24-25.
[15] His knowledge of the culture and the philosophers becomes even more evident in some of his later homiletics specifically in his eulogy for his brother. Moorhead, 37-38.
[16] Ambrose as quoted by Moorhead, 25.
[17] Simplicianus also succeeded Ambrose as the Bishop of Milan upon his death in 397 AD. Beyenka, vi-vii
[18] Moorhead, 30-31.
[19] Moorhead, 25.
[20] Moorhead, 2. His rhetoric also comes out in his letters. For one example, Ambrose defends his absence from the emperor as a sign of his affection for him, “A sense of awe has kept my affection from meeting your Clemency. If I did not go on foot to meet you… I did meet you in spirit, I met you with prayer… the most important duty of a bishop…” Beyenka, viii, 3.
[21] He also intervened with an election for the successor of Limenius, installing Honoratus.  Beyenka, ix.
[22] Moorhead, 29; Beyenka, vii.
[23] The same trait is seen in Pope Francis today. Ironically, because Ambrose was so accessible to the every-day man, Augustine later remarked that he had trouble meeting with him because he was so busy. Moorhead, 33.
[24] According to St. Augustine quoted in M. Joseph Costelloe, S. J. "Introduction." In Church and State in the Teaching of St. Ambrose, by S. J. St. Ambrose trans. by Joseph Costelloe, ii-, (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, Inc., 1969), ii. Problem with indentation.

[25] Moorhead, 3.
[26] Beyenka, viii.
[27] The emperor may have been Christian, but he would need guidance on handling the encroaching pagan institutions, customs, and habits. One of Ambrose’ greatest victories was convincing him to “act as a Christian, both with respect to Christianity and to paganism.” Costelloe, v. indentation issues?
[28] Paredi, 214.
[29] 384 AD. Moorhead, 3. It is easy to see how Ambrose had the Church in one hand and the State in the other in his letter on the issue addressing “The most blessed prince and most Christian emperor Valentinian” in order to remind him that, “there is no sureness of salvation unless everyone worships in truth… the God of the Christians, under whose sway are all things; for He alone is the true God…” There were other government leaders at the time who had taken a stand for Christianity and Ambrose advises Valentinian to uphold the merit of their works and hopes he will not share grace with those who “never spared our blood, who destroyed the very church buildings,” denying us “the common right of speaking and teaching.” Paredi, 230-231.
[30] The prior in 386 AD, the latter in 388, the massacre took place in 390. Moorhead, 3. Theodosius’ massacre had been in retribution over the murder of one of his officials and although he was a Christian, Ambrose excommunicated him, implying that the Church can and should hold even the emperor accountable for his actions. Glenn Sunshine, The Separation of Church and State. 08 27, 2012. (accessed 09 20, 2015).

[31] Beyenka, 31.
[32] Costelloe, 3-4.
[33] Costelloe, 6.
[34] Costelloe, 6-7, 9-11. The authority of the Church, to Ambrose, was not on the Apostle Peter, but upon his confession. Therein lies the saving faith and the rock which clings to Jesus Christ. Costelloe, 10-15.
[35] Moorhead, 103; Costelloe, 14.
[36] Costelloe, 13-14.
[37] Sunshine.
[38] Beyenka, 3; Costelloe, ii.
[39] Costelloe, vi, 9; Paredi, 230-231.
[40] Costelloe, ii; Beyenka, vii.
[41] “The juxtaposition of two powers rather than that of two societies…” Costelloe, v.
[42] Costelloe, v; John Baptist Cardinal Montini, "A sermon preached on the Feast of St. Ambrose." St. Ambrose trans. by M. Joseph Costelloe, S. J., Church and State in the Teaching of St. Ambrose, April 4, 1962: i.
not sure what is going on with your spacing here.
[43] Montini, i.
[44] Moorhead, 85. Montini, i.
[45] Costelloe, vii; Moorhead, 3.
[46] Moorhead, 3. "While the Bible nourishes us, we in turn can nourish one of the prophets when we have made, our minds, out feelings, and the support of our hearts, which we have placed in the light of the gospel, and had made it respectable for different readers, or the same reader, to see more than one meaning in a text... There may be an indefinite number of valid readings... He believed in an objective, supernatural reality to which the Bible have access; for him, the lack of an authoritative reading was connected with its very authority." Moorhead, 100-101.
[47] This is most evident in his letters found in the book cited. Beyenka, vi.
[48] Costelloe, ii.
[49] Montini, i.

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