Saint Ambrose was born into a Roman Christian family between 337 and 340 and raised in Trier, Gernany on the banks of the Moselle River.
As a child, legend tells that a swarm of bees covered Ambrose's face, flying in and out of his mouth. However, when the bees left he had not been stung and only a drop of honey had been left on his tongue. This reportedly caused his father to remark that Ambrose was destined for greatness.
Ambrose's father was the praetorian prefect of Gaul, and Ambrose was educated in Rome to follow in his father's political footsteps. However, Ambrose's father died early on, and afterwards, in about 372, Ambrose was named as governor of Liguria and Emilia, a position he held until being named Bishop of Milan.
In the time of Saint Ambrose, Milan was the second most important city in Italy, after Rome itself. And, the diocese there was in embroiled in a deep conflict between the Catholics and Arians. When the sitting Bishop of Milan, an Arian, died, Saint Ambrose went to the church were the new bishop was to be elected to prevent a physical conflict. During his address to those gathered, he was continually interrupted with shouts of "Ambrose, Bishop!" Ambrose was known to be Catholic in belief, but he was also known to be acceptable to the Arians because of the charity he had shown to their beliefs.
At first, Ambrose rejected calls for him to be Bishop of Milan, even going into hiding at a friend's home. After all, Ambrose was not baptized and had no formal theological training. However, when the Emperor presented a letter praising his selection as Bishop, Ambrose came out of hiding and was baptized, ordained, and installed as bishop within a week.
Arian belief was that God the Father, unbegotten and always existing, beget Jesus his Son, who is separate and lesser to God the Father, and God the Father through Jesus beget the Holy Spirit who is subservient to Jesus, as Jesus is to the Father. The First Council of Nicea was called in response to the Arian heresy, and is the source of what today we call the Nicean Creed.
Prior to becoming bishop, Saint Ambrose had never married. After becoming bishop, Ambrose adopted an ascetic lifestyle and distributed his wealth to the needy, keeping only enough to provide for his sister, who later became a nun.
As Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose set out to forcefully stop Arianism in his diocese. Arian followers caused great disputes and raised their calls against Ambrose to the highest levels of the Roman Empire. After much effort was made to persuade Ambrose to turn over some of his churches to the Arians, tradition tells that he said:
If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succour me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.Ambrose was also zealous in his attempt to combat the refusal of pagan adherents to the old state religion from enacting the decrees of Christian emperors. Among other well known traits, Ambrose was also known for his great generosity to the poor.
Ambrose is known as one of the four original doctors of the Church with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great. Augustine, himself, was converted to the faith by Saint Ambrose, who baptized Saint Augustine in 387.
Of Ambrose's many gifts to the Church, his mariology has influenced many, including several popes, including Pope Leo the Great. Central for Ambrose was the virginity of Mary and her role as the Mother of God.
Ambrose taught that the virgin birth was worthy of God, because the Immaculate Son of God came forth as a human while maintaining the purity of His immaculate origin. Of course, to confess the virgin birth, one must reject the natural order of things, but that is appropriate because Jesus was conceived not by man, but by the Holy Spirit. And, while we worship Christ as the Son of God, that worship does not extend to Mary. Mary was the temple of God, but not God within the temple. Indeed, Mary rectified the error of Zechariah's doubt, in her fiat: giving herself to God. So, Ambrose taught, no wonder the Lord chose to begin his redemption of humanity from with Mary. She, through whom salvation was being prepared for all people, was the first to receive the promised fruit of salvation.
Ambrose died on 4 April 397. His body may still be viewed today at the Church of St. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated.
God, by Your grace Saint Ambrose,
Your Bishop, became a great teacher
of the Catholic Faith and
an example of apostolic fortitude.
Raise up bishops in Your Church today
who will give strong and wise leadership.
IMAGE: Saint Ambrose, by Francisco de Zurbarán, 1626-1627.