Ambrose of Milan: From Lawyer and Governor to Bishop and Saint

Those who have heard of Saint Ambrose of Milan most probably remember two or three things about him. First, they may recall that he was responsible for the conversion of Saint Augustine, who came to the Faith after years of rejecting Christianity, but only after hearing Ambrose preach. Augustine was impressed by Ambrose’ intelligence in explaining the Scriptures and by his skill in oratory, which was also Augustine’s strength. The second thing many may remember about Ambrose is that he was acclaimed as Bishop of Milan while still a 35-year-old unbaptized layman when a small child (more likely the people of the city) allegedly cried out “Ambrose, Bishop” when he entered the cathedral after the death of the prior bishop. Indeed, he was ordained bishop only eight days after his baptism. A third fact the more sophisticated may know is that Ambrose fought the Arian heresy, which was adhered to by the prior bishop of Milan and which divided the Milanese faithful at the time he became that city’s bishop.

There is much more to Ambrose than these few points. To begin with, Ambrose was a successful lawyer and the governor of the province in which Milan was located prior to starting his service to the Church. He was noted for his expert legal work and was said to have “argued cases so splendidly” that he was selected to sit in the government council. He used his legal skills in both his preaching and in his many theological works, acting as a lawyer would when taking on a new case. When he became bishop, for example, he undertook a study of the Scriptures and the Greek Fathers, with particular reliance on Origen, and he also consulted expert priests and theologians. Ambrose also studied the Arian beliefs and the Nicean opposition in depth, writing five books, “On Faith,” which were addressed to the Roman Emperor Gratian to refute the Arian doctrine. As a good advocate, he employed colorful analogies in his writings. Here is one example: “The overshadowing of the divine Spirit does not darken, but reveals secret things to the hearts of people. It is a luminous cloud that soaks us from the dew that sprinkles the minds of people with faith sent by the voice of almighty God.”

Ambrose wrote a great deal on Scripture. He is recognized as a great synthesizer and organizer of prior works, and is remembered for the coherence of his writing. We may attribute this, at least in part, to his legal training.

Ambrose was also a great exponent of the allegorical reading of the Scriptures, which he employed to plumb the depth of scriptural passages, going beyond a simple literal reading. This particular approach was influential in converting Augustine, who recoiled from the literal meaning of some verses, finding them unbelievable. Indeed, Augustine called Ambrose the “father” of his conversion.

Bishop Ambrose was also one of the first people to read scripture by himself silently, when the prevailing practice at that time was to read scripture aloud. He was fond of silent contemplation, common today, but rare in the Milan of the fourth century. In the words of Augustine, “In reading, [his] eyes scan the page and the heart penetrates the meaning; but his voice and tongue remain at rest.”

Ambrose also vigorously defended the church against the Roman emperors and leaders. On several occasions, they demanded that he deliver one of the churches in his diocese to the Arians. Despite death threats, and the stationing of troops outside one of the churches, the people defended him and he prevailed against the Arian demands.

In an even more significant rebuff to the Roman authorities, Ambrose stood at the doors of the Milan Cathedral to bar Emperor Theodosius from entering the church. This was because the emperor had ordered the massacre of thousands of citizens in Thessalonica in reprisal for an uprising there. Ambrose ordered the emperor to perform public penance, a demand with which the emperor complied. Ambrose had written a letter to the emperor in which he observed that “A deed has been perpetrated at Thessalonica, which has no parallel in history. Put away the sin from your kingdom. You can do that by humbling your soul before God…. Tears and penitence alone can take away sin. I dare not offer the Sacrifice [of the Mass] if you attend. For can it possibly be right, after the slaughter of so many, to do that which may not be done after the blood of only one innocent person has been shed?”

Finally, the good bishop left a significant musical heritage through his composition of many hymns, some of which remain today in the Roman Breviary.

When Ambrose left public life, he devoted himself completely to the Church and the people. He gave away his wealth to the Church and to the poor. He wrote, preached, served the people in multiple ways, and became an ascetic, being described as “a man of great abstinence, of many vigils and labors…[weakening] his body with daily fasts.” He was  also said to be “assiduous…in prayer day and night.” It was through this thorough passage from lawyer and governor to bishop that the lawyer became a saint.

Source Note:

Most of the quotations in this post are taken from Cesare Pasini, Ambrose of Milan: Deeds and Thought of a Bishop (St. Pauls, English ed., 2013; Robert L. Grant, translator)

The quotation from the letter to Emperor Theodosius is taken from Steve Weidenkopf, Timeless: A History of the Catholic Church (Our Sunday Visitor, 2018), at 120.

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