B iographical history presents few characters more interesting either to the statesman or the churchman than that of St. Ambrose. As a statesman—though but a small part of his life was devoted to the affairs of civil government—he showed great prudence, was sincerely devoted to the interests of his imperial master, and yet he was at the same time an uncompromising advocate and defender of the rights of the people. As a churchman he united a high degree of personal sanctity and a fatherly care of those intrusted to his pastoral vigilance—especially the poor—to an extraordinary firmness in maintaining the rights of the Church against imperial usurpation, and the purity of doctrine against the inroads of heresy.
St. Ambrose was born about the year 340, of a Roman of the same name who was at that time prefect of the pretorium in Gaul, a province which then embraced a large portion of western and southwestern Europe. Arles, Lyons, and Tréves contend for the honor of being his birthplace, but it is most probable that it was in the latter he first saw the light. Legends, too, are not wanting of extraordinary occurrences which took place during his infancy, that seemed to presage his future greatness. Be these as they may, his life and works, which are before the world, stand in need of no such embellishments, now that they have become matters of history. His father died in his infancy, and his mother returned to Rome, where her wealth and social position enabled her to give her children the best education possible; and none of them profited more by his opportunities than Ambrose. His attainments were numerous and varied, embracing, among other things, a thorough knowledge of the Greek language and literature, oratory of a high order, unusual skill in poetic composition, and a thorough acquaintance with music.
Having completed his education, he went to Milan to enter upon his public career. Here his learning, ability, and integrity were soon recognized, and preferments crowded thick upon him. But under all circumstances he remained true to himself; and, although then only a catechumen—or one undergoing instruction before embracing Christianity—he yet made the maxims of the Gospel the rule of his life and conduct. In a short time he was made governor of the provinces of Liguria and Ćmelia, which embraced the greater part of Northern Italy. When setting out to assume the duties of that exalted position, he was told by one of those highest in authority, to "go and rule more as a bishop than a judge." Although but thirty years of age at the time of his appointment, he strove by his vigilance, mildness, and probity, to act upon that advice which seemed almost prophetic; for he was soon after called to the bishopric of Milan, as we shall presently have occasion to remark. The Arian heresy was then at the zenith of its power, and was at least secretly, and often openly, favored by the imperial authority. In few places was it more openly defiant than at Milan. Auxentius, the Arian bishop of that see, died in the year 374, and a serious tumult was raised during the election of his successor—the Arians and the orthodox Christians each contending for the mastery. In the discharge of his duties as governor, Ambrose entered the assembly, where by his firmness, prudence, and moderation he succeeded in restoring order. Tradition states that in a moment of tranquillity a child cried out: "Ambrose is bishop;" but, be that as it may, and it matters little, so great was the public appreciation of his merits, and so high was the esteem in which he was held, that he was immediately elected by acclamation. Alarmed at this determination of the people, he endeavored to escape the honor and remain in concealment till another election should take place; but the vigilance of the people prevented it. He then had recourse to another means of escape, urging that he was only a catechumen and could not lawfully be elected a bishop. But this, too, was overruled, when he insisted that being in the service of the emperor his permission was necessary. So far, however, from this availing, it had the opposite effect, for the Emperor Valentinian readily gave his consent, adding the flattering remark that he was very much pleased to know that the civil governors whom he had selected to rule the provinces of the Empire, were fit to be made bishops to rule the Church of God. Seeing the will of heaven so clearly manifested, Ambrose feared longer to refuse his acquiescence, and at the age of thirty-four he passed through the various ecclesiastical orders and was consecrated Bishop of Milan on December 7, 374.
Solicitude for the portion of the Church now entrusted to his pastoral care was thenceforth his only thought; and to his other numerous and profound acquirements he added that of a careful study of the scriptures. In those unhappy times storms were raging on all sides between the orthodox Christians and the Arians; and while he and the church of Milan were congratulated from all sides on the choice of so able a chief pastor, he clearly saw that his future life must be one of constant struggle with the civil power for the rights of the Church, and with the Arians for the purity of doctrine. But his extraordinary combination of gentleness and charity with firmness and courage never failed him, and in the end it proved equal to the task imposed upon him; and it has handed down his name as one of the noblest on the pages of the world's history. The better to free himself from unnecessary trammels, he at once disposed of his immense wealth to the poor, except so much of it as was necessary for the becoming maintenance of his household; and the administration of even this he committed to others.
The turbulent times through which the Church had passed and was still passing, had necessarily given rise to numerous abuses; and to the correction of these the newly consecrated bishop unsparingly devoted himself. But though this was destined to be a life-work, and though he met with a great measure of success, "it must needs be that scandals come," and no one can hope to eradicate entirely every abuse. Never was the Arian heresy so successfully dealt with as by him, and if he did not succeed in entirely destroying it, he did succeed in breaking its power and restoring greater tranquillity to the Church than it had enjoyed for a long term of years. Many elements combined to produce these consoling results; and since we are treating of an eminent churchman, it is necessary to attach due importance to his own personal sanctity, which was at once a rebuke to disregard of ecclesiastical discipline, a living illustration of what the true Christian should be, and an evidence of the purity of his motives and the sincerity of his conduct. This holiness had its effect too before the Throne of Grace, for the scriptures assure us that the prayers of the just man avail much. So long as we entertain the belief that Christ has established a church on earth, we must from necessity hold that He takes a lively interest in it, and blesses the labors of those who devote themselves to its extension. His eloquence, too, in the pulpit not only advanced the interests of religion, but also stimulated the zeal and guided the efforts of others of less ability. His numerous controversial works refuted the errors and sophistries of the enemies of religion, on the one hand, and on the other, explained and defended its tenets. Those who wished to tread the higher walks of the spiritual life, found in his several treatises on certain of the Christian virtues, a sure light to guide them in the way of perfection. Devoting his attention to the liturgy of divine worship, he added greatly to the attractiveness of the ceremonial, especially by a thorough revision of the church music that had previously been in use. But in the march of the human mind nothing now remains of the Ambrosian chant in its purity, save the "Exultet," as it is called, which is a hymn sung in the Latin Church during the blessing of the Paschal candle on Holy Saturday. Large numbers of his poetic compositions still remain, and are found for the most part in the Roman breviary. It may be said that his pen was never idle nor his voice hushed when the interests of religion could be promoted, and many of his writings remain to our day, a proof of his learning, an evidence of his zeal, and a monument to his courage. Among his successes in advancing the cause of religion must be mentioned his conversion, in 387, of St. Augustine, the greatest light of the Western Church. But he is better known to the world at large by his firmness in withstanding the usurpation of the secular power, and bringing those in high places to confess and repent of their faults. In doing this he had ever the best interests of mankind at heart.
Soon after his consecration as a bishop he wrote to the emperor, complaining of the corruption of some imperial governors; to whom Valentinian replied: "I have long since been acquainted with your freedom of speech, which did not deter me from consenting to your consecration. Continue to apply to our sins the remedies prescribed by the divine law." Even in our own day, not a few salutary laws are due to his humane influence. He prevailed on the Emperor Gratian to pass a law, among others, that no criminal should be executed within less than thirty days after sentence had been passed. He also succeeded, but with great difficulty, in having the pagan statues removed from the senate. He had also a law passed forbidding the Arians to rebuild or repair their churches. When the Empress Justina sent to him asking the use of certain churches for the celebration of Easter, he refused; and when threats were made he answered in language worthy of a Christian prelate: "Should you ask what is mine, as my land or my money, I would not refuse you, though all that I possess belongs to the poor; but you have no right to that which belongs to God." A year later, the Easter of 386, the same request was made, when the intrepid bishop answered "Naboth would not give up the inheritance of his ancestors, and shall I give up that of Jesus Christ?" It may perhaps be difficult for many in our day, when so little importance is attached to Christian unity, to appreciate the fearless action of this heroic person; but his biography would be imperfect in a very important particular if these points were passed over in silence; and before passing judgment on him we must bear in mind the rule of the historian and biographer, so frequently lost sight of, that persons and things must be judged by the times and circumstances in which they were placed. The times change and we change in them.
Perhaps the most remarkable event in the life of St. Ambrose, so far as the world at large will judge him, was his rebuke of the Emperor Theodosius. Instances like this are not rare, it is true, in the history of the Christian Church; but this one stands forth with more than ordinary prominence. The circumstances are briefly these: A sedition broke out in the city of Thessalonica, in which a number of officers and the commander of the imperial forces were slain. Theodosius, at the instigation of Rufinus, a military officer of prominence, sent a warrant to the commander of Illyricum to let the soldiers loose upon the city; a command that was carried out with great cruelty, and by which more than seven thousand persons, the innocent as well as the guilty, were massacred in the most inhuman manner. The grief of Ambrose on hearing this was extreme; and, in order to afford the emperor time to reflect, he withdrew from Milan, and addressed him a very touching letter exhorting him to repentance, assuring him at the same time that he, as bishop, would not receive his offerings nor perform the services of religion in his presence till he had done so. The prelate soon after returned to his episcopal city; and when the emperor appeared at the doors of the church to attend divine services, he forbade him to enter till he had done penance for his crime. Excuses and palliations were of no avail, and when the emperor urged that King David had sinned, he was told that as he had imitated David in his sin, he should also imitate him in his repentance; and the doors of the church were closed against him. The emperor returned to his palace, where for eight months he did penance for his fault; and he was not admitted to full communion till he had perfectly complied with the requirements of the bishop.
Ambrose Rebukes Theodosius.
While to the general reader there may appear an unwonted severity, and even a tyrannical vindictiveness in this firmness of the holy prelate, his companions and those who knew his character best find in it an evidence of his zeal for the cause of religion, and his desire for the true conversion of the sinner; and the man of the world will find in him the champion of the poor and oppressed against the tyranny of power. It is a well-known fact of history that he did not cease, during all this time, to beseech heaven with prayers and tears for the emperor, whom he sincerely loved. But his character in this, as in all else, has withstood the test of time, and shines with undiminished lustre down the vista of ages.
St. Ambrose died about midnight before Holy Saturday, April 4, 397; and his body reposes in a vault, under the high altar of the basilica of Milan—the church that he had served so long and so well. His feast is kept in the Latin Church on December 7th, and he is justly regarded as one of the most illustrious doctors of the Church.