Feast Day : December 7
Patronage: bakers of honeybread; bees and beekeepers; bishops; candlemakers; chandlers; domestic animals; the French Army Commissariat; geese; gingerbread makers; learning; schoolchildren; stone masons; students; wax melters and refiners; Bologna, Italy; Milan, Italy
Name meaning: divine immortal
Also known as: Ambrose of Milan; Ambrosio, Ambrogio; the Honey-Tongued Doctor
Ambrose was born about 339–340 in Trier (Treves), the youngest of three children. His father, Ambrosius, was the praetorian prefect of Gaul, an area that included the territories of present-day France, Britain, Spain and part of Africa—one of the four great prefectures of the Roman Empire and the highest office that could be held by a subject. Ambrosius died when his son was young, and the family moved to Rome. There Ambrose and his brother Satyrus studied law, literature, philosophy and Greek. They received religious instruction from their older sister Marcellina, who had already taken vows as a virgin nun in front of Liberius, the Roman pontiff, and who lived in her mother’s house with another consecrated virgin. Like most Christians of his day, Ambrose was not baptized, because sins committed after baptism were regarded with such horror that baptism was delayed. All three siblings eventually were canonized. Upon completion of their studies, Ambrose and Satyrus began practicing law. Ambrose, in particular, came to the attention of Anicius Probus, the praetorian prefect of Italy. By his early thirties, Ambrose was the consular governor of Liguria and Aemilia with residence in Milan—a post obtained for him by Probus from Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose became head of all civil administration, police and justice systems in Milan, the center of Western imperial government since the beginning of the fourth century. Since 355, the see of Milan had been occupied by Auxentius, an Arian. (The Arian heresy taught that the Logos, or Word, is but a creature created by God and is not God incarnate. Many Christians were Arians in the third, fourth and fifth centuries, including the missionaries sent by Emperor Constantius, son of Constantine the Great, to evangelize the Gothic tribes.) When Auxentius died in 374, the provincial bishops begged Emperor Valentinian I to appoint a successor by edict, but Valentinian refused. Passions were high on both sides. As consular governor, Ambrose went to the cathedral and tried to maintain peace by giving a conciliatory speech. While he was talking, someone (Ambrose’s biographer, St. Paulinus of Nola, said it was a child) called out, “Ambrose, bishop!” and the crowd roared its approval. Ambrose, however, was still unbaptized and ignorant of theology. He immediately refused the position, even, according to Paulinus, inviting prostitutes into his home to make himself unworthy in the people’s eyes. He appealed to Valentinian to excuse him, but the emperor, pleased that one of his governors could become bishop, promised severe penalties to anyone found hiding Ambrose. Ambrose reluctantly acquiesced, and in eight days he was baptized, ordained and passed through the orders to be consecrated bishop of Milan on December 7, 374. The new bishop gave away all his wealth except a stipend for his sister St. Marcellina. His brother St.Satyrus left his legal work to handle Ambrose’s secular affairs. He prayed often, fasted regularly, wrote, studied Scriptural texts and Greek philosophers—particularly Origen and St. Basil—and conducted Mass daily. His door was always open to speak to anyone, whether noble or peasant. St. Monica, mother of St. Augustine of Hippo, was one of Ambrose’s followers, and the bishop managed to convince Augustine that the intellect could be reconciled with the spirit, bringing him back to the Church in 387. Ambrose took an early stand against capital punishment and was a vocal proponent of vows of virginity—so much so that some Italian mothers kept their marriageable daughters away from Ambrose’s sermons. Ambrose retorted that virgins do not depopulate countries; wars do. But much to the Arians’ dismay, Ambrose was an unyielding Catholic. When Emperor Valentinian I died suddenly in 375, his brother Valens, an Arian, took control of the East and Valentinian’s son Gratian assumed leadership of the West, except Italy. The army proclaimed the late emperor’s four-year-old son by his second wife, Justina, as Emperor Valentinian II, and Gratian agreed to share power. This situation made the Arian Justina regent. In 377, the Goths invaded the eastern part of the empire and Gratian raised an army to aid his uncle Valens. Concerned that he might fall victim to Arian influence, Gratian appealed to Ambrose for guidance, and he responded with his famous treatise, De Fide ad Gratianum Augustum, or “To Gratian concerning the Faith.” After the usurper Maximus killed Gratian in 383, Justina begged Ambrose to act as ambassador on her son’s behalf. In what is believed to be the first occasion that an ecclesiastic acted on behalf of secular politics, Ambrose managed to convince Maximus to confine himself to Gaul, Spain and Britain and not to invade the lands under the control of Valentinian II—and Justina. Justina had remained circumspect about her plans to further Arianism while her husband Valentinian and his son Gratian lived, but now that she was empress-regent and supported by a Gothic court, Justina began aggressively pursuing her agenda. In 385, Justina induced Valentinian II to demand that Ambrose relinquish the old Portian basilica to be used as a place for Arian worship. He refused, saying no bishop could surrender a temple of God. Valentinian sent messengers demanding the basilica, but Ambrose stood firm, calmly celebrating the Mass and rescuing an Arian priest seized by the crowd. In January 386, Justina persuaded Valentinian II to pass a law authorizing Arian assemblies and proscribing Catholic ones. Ambrose disregarded the law. On Palm Sunday of that year he preached a sermon against relinquishing any church, and his followers, fearful of their lives, barricaded themselves and Ambrose in the basilica. Imperial guards surrounded the basilica, thinking to starve the congregants out, but by Easter they were still inside. To pass the time Ambrose had taught his people hymns and chants he had written, sung by two choirs singing alternate stanzas. (The Arian debate has long since faded from memory, but Ambrosian antiphonal singing remains a treasured legacy and still a popular form of worship.) Again, Valentinian conceded defeat to the bishop, with Ambrose remarking, “The emperor is in the Church, not over it.” Meanwhile, Valentinian’s court learned that Emperor Maximus was planning to cross the Alps. Ambrose agreed to speak with Maximus a second time, rising above his battles with Justina. Ambrose publicly accused the tyrant of breaking faith and asked Maximus to send Gratian’s remains as a sign of peace, but Maximus ordered the bishop to leave. The emperor was already displeased with Ambrose because the bishop had excommunicated him for the execution of the Spanish heretic Priscillian. The death of Priscillian and six followers was the first instance of capital punishment for heresy meted out by secular, rather than ecclesiastical, authorities. Ambrose sent advance word to Valentinian of Maximus’s intentions, and the emperor and his mother fled to the Eastern court of Theodosius I, leaving Milan defenseless. Theodosius engaged Maximus, killing him in Pannonia (Hungary), and restored Valentinian II to the throne and awarded him control of the usurper’s territories. But although Valentinian II was the nominal ruler, Theodosius now controlled the entire empire. He stayed for a while in Milan and convinced the young emperor to denounce Arianism and accept Catholicism after Justina’s death. At Ambrose’s urging, Valentinian also thwarted efforts to reintroduce pagan worship of the goddess Victory in the Senate. While Theodosius was still in Milan, a mob of Christians at Kallinikum, in Mesopotamia, destroyed a Jewish synagogue. Theodosius ordered the local bishop to rebuild the synagogue, and the bishop appealed to Ambrose. Ambrose responded that no Christian bishop could pay for a building used for false worship, but Theodosius ordered the reconstruction to proceed. Ambrose preached against Theodosius, they argued, and Ambrose threatened never to sing Mass at the altar unless Theodosius revoked the order. Rightly or wrongly, Ambrose won. A more serious scandal occurred in 390. Word reached Milan that Butheric, the governor of Thessalonica, had imprisoned a popular charioteer for having seduced a servant girl in Butheric’s family. Butheric refused to release the charioteer for the games, so enraging the crowd that they killed Butheric and stoned several guards to death. Theodosius ordered savage reprisals. When the people gathered in the circus for games, soldiers surrounded the building and massacred 7,000, with no regard to age, gender, guilt or innocence. Ambrose wrote Theodosius, exhorting him to perform public penance and warning the emperor that Ambrose neither would nor could accept the monarch’s offering on the altar, nor would he ever celebrate the Divine Mysteries before him until he had offered penance. Theodosius did public penance like any commoner, thereafter ordering that henceforth no capital punishment should be carried out for 30 days after sentencing to allow time for calmer judgment to prevail. Valentinian II was murdered by Arbogastes in 393 in Gaul. Ambrose mourned the emperor and left Milan before Arbogastes’s emissary, the pagan Eugenius, arrived in Milan, threatening to overthrow all Christianity. Ambrose traveled throughout his diocese in 394, encouraging the people to resist, then returned to Milan to learn that his old friend Theodosius had defeated and killed Arbogastes at Aquileia, the final blow to paganism in the empire. A few months later, in 395, Theodosius died in Ambrose’s arms, and the bishop who loved him conducted the emperor’s funeral. Ambrose died peacefully on Good Friday, April 4, 397. For several hours before his death he lay with his arms extended as if on a cross, then, after receiving the sacraments from St. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, he died. His followers buried him in his basilica near the relics of the holy martyrs Gervase and Protase. In 835 Bishop Angilbert II placed the relics of all three saints in a porphyry—the royal purple stone—sarcophagus under the altar, where they were discovered in 1864. Ambrose is one of the Four Great Doctors of the Latin (Western) Undivided Church, along with SS. Jerome, Augustine and Pope Gregory the Great. Ambrose’s writings include sermons and homilies; mystical writings, commentaries and hymns; of the latter, one is still sung in order to bring good weather. Of his miracles, Ambrose healed by a laying on of hands, exorcized demons and is said to have raised the dead. When the son of Decentius, an important Christian in Florence, died, Ambrose spread himself over the corpse and brought the boy back to life. Ambrose discovered the tombs of Gervase and Protase, and people were healed by touching the relics. The most famous incident involved a blind butcher, Severus, who touched the relics with his handkerchief and then applied the cloth to his eyes.