Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose of Milan

saint-ambrose-claude-vignon
St. Ambrose by Claude Vignon

Our next Doctor is Aurelius Ambrosius, better known as St. Ambrose of Milan. He was born into a Roman Christian family around 340, and like St. Basil, shared the household with a few other saints, namely his brother and sister. Ambrose’s father was in politics, perhaps even as high as the praetorian prefect of Gaul, a very lofty and influential position. At an early age, Ambrose followed the lead of his father, entering into politics, and became the consular prefect (essentially, a governor) of Aemilia-Liguria, a region in Italy that had its headquarters in the city of Milan.

Milan was the second greatest city in the Western Roman Empire, and as such it came into the crosshairs of the Arian controversy. All this came to a head at the death of the Arian-sympathetic bishop of Milan, Auxentius. In the early Church, bishops were elected, not appointed by the pope as they are today. So as governor, Ambrose tried to intercede with the opposing factions in the election, but each side saw him as a compromise candidate to the episcopacy, and he was quickly elected as the new bishop of Milan. This might not sound too strange until we consider that he was still a catechumen and hadn’t even been baptized yet!

The newly baptized and newly ordained bishop quickly committed himself to prayer and upholding orthodoxy. He brought several spiritual practices of the Eastern Church to the West, including lectio divina, a process of praying with the Word of God in Scripture. Ambrose wrote over 19 commentaries and exegetical works on Scripture, as well as a number of other works including hymns, letters, catecheses, writings on systematic theology, and even a few extended funeral homilies.

His upbringing and past life in politics played a role in his ministry as well. Ambrose worked to guide the Emperor Gratian to avoid Arianism and support justice for his people. He also worked for the Church’s independence from government against the Empress Justina, who tried to exert too much control over the custody of Church property.

St. Ambrose also came to know and work with the Emperor Theodosius, and there is a very interesting story about their relationship. After a mob in Thessalonica (in Greece) killed a military commander stationed there, Theodosius reacted by mercilessly ordering the massacre of the crowds responsible. Ambrose rebuked him, letting him know the severity of his actions. Because of the public nature of this sin, and to avoid scandal to the rest of the Church, Ambrose refused to allow Theodosius (again, the emperor) to receive Holy Communion. Eventually, the Emperor confessed his sins, and was finally reconciled with the Church and with Ambrose. The Emperor’s unrivaled civil authority didn’t seem to bother Ambrose one bit!

St. Ambrose is perhaps best known for guiding a young North African rhetorician to the faith – a guy named Augustine, who we’ll hear about in a few weeks. But in his own right, St. Ambrose was a great writer, bishop, and shepherd of his flock!

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