One of the 'Original Four': St. Ambrose

"Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius from Milan Cathedral" by Anthony van Dyck (1619).

Saint Ambrose's three books on virginity, showing the consecrated life as an elevated calling, inspired many women to choose religious life. He was so convincing in fostering in his readers the desire to consecrate themselves to God that many mothers did not even want their daughters to read his writings.

By Kimberly Bruce

On Dec. 7, we celebrate the feast of yet another Doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose.

One of the “original four” Doctors of the Western Church, along with Sts. Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome, Ambrose was born near Gaul in approximately 340 A.D. The youngest of three children, Ambrose was raised with his siblings in his mother’s home city of Rome. His father died shortly after the saint’s birth.

As he matured, Ambrose became known for his skills in speech and writing and the exceptional way he applied himself to whatever tasks he undertook. Upon completion of his studies, Ambrose was made governor of a large area consisting of what today would be Milan, Turin, Genoa, Ravenna, and Bologna.

Unexpected bishop
After the death of the region’s Arian bishop in 374, Ambrose felt it his duty to exhort the people to peacefully proceed in selecting their next bishop. The former bishop had violently persecuted orthodox Catholics, since Arians heretically denied the divinity of Christ. Much to Ambrose’s surprise, Catholics and Arians alike called for Ambrose to be ordained the next Bishop of Milan. Ambrose was a seemingly unlikely candidate: He had not even been baptized yet!

Ambrose did everything he could to get out of being appointed bishop, including hiding, fleeing, and asking Emperor Valentinian I to excuse him. Valentinian, however, sent orders that the election of Ambrose was to take place. Relenting, Ambrose was baptized, confirmed, ordained a deacon and priest, and then, at the age of about 34 on Dec. 7, 374, he became the next Bishop of Milan.

Saint Ambrose was loved by the people. He was mild-mannered, meek, and charitable towards others, virtues which suited his vocation as a shepherd of God’s people. As bishop, he wrote many books. His three books on virginity, showing the consecrated life as an elevated calling, inspired many women to choose religious life. He was so convincing in fostering in his readers the desire to consecrate themselves to God that many mothers did not even want their daughters to read his writings. He also wrote a treatise entitled Of Widows, as well, in which he exhorted widows, too, to perpetual chastity.

Many came out in opposition to Ambrose, saying that a widespread practice of consecrated virginity would decrease the population. His response: “The number of people is greatest where virginity is most esteemed,” noting that it was wars, not the number of virgins, which destroyed people. He upheld the holiness of marriage, too, stating it was the predominant vocation amongst the general population.

Saints make saints
We often see throughout history that saints make saints, and St. Ambrose was no exception. Saint Ambrose was influenced by a pious priest who then succeeded him as Archbishop of Milan and subsequently became a canonized saint, St. Simplicianus. Saint Ambrose also influenced St. Monica, and both St. Monica and St. Ambrose heavily influenced Monica’s son, St. Augustine, in his conversion to Christianity. Saint Ambrose happily baptized St. Augustine, another future Doctor of the Church, in 387.

Saint Ambrose, like so many canonized saints, was no stranger to self-imposed mortifications. He fasted every day except Sundays, certain martyrs’ feast days, and some Saturdays, along with many other acts of self-denial. He spent copious amounts of time in prayer day and night, and he taught mercy. He gave of his time to save many condemned prisoners, and was a great believer in repaying evil with good.

For the altars
After the death of Valentinian I in 375, Valentinian II became Emperor. Both he and his mother, Justina, publicly professed Arianism and sought to take over some Catholic churches for their worship. Upon official imperial summons to give up a new basilica, St. Ambrose declared:

... the emperor has no right to that which belongs to God. If you require my estate, you may take it; if my body, I readily give it up; have you a mind to load me with irons, or to put me to death, I am content. I shall not fly to the protection of the people, nor cling to the altars: I choose rather to be sacrificed for the sake of the altars.

Ultimately, the imperial order to take the basilica was rescinded. An emperor of the east, Theodosius, took over imperial power in the region in 387. He went on to slaughter 7,000 people during a minor outbreak of sedition in 390. Ambrose told Theodosius that he could no longer present himself for the celebration of Mass unless he first expressed public repentance. Theodosius immediately repented. So did Valentinian II. Saint Ambrose effectively purged the diocese of Milan from the Arian heresy.

There are several stories of miracles attributed to St. Ambrose. One occurred in 382, when a woman, bedridden due to palsy, had herself transported to where Ambrose was saying mMass. As St. Ambrose was praying and laid hands upon her, she arose and walked.

Another time, a mother laid her dead infant on Ambrose’s bed while he was abroad. Upon his return he laid himself upon the child, as the prophet Elisha did in 2 Kings 4:32-37, and the child was raised again to life.

Saint Ambrose died around midnight on Holy Saturday in 397 A.D. at the age of 57 after serving the Church for more than 22 years as a bishop.

Saint Ambrose, please help us to become saints as you became a saint by piety, humility, and obedience to God! Amen.

Please sign the petition to help the Marians in their efforts to have St. Faustina recognized as a Doctor of the Church.


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