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Governor forced to become bishop: the story of St Ambrose of Milan

St. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan, his hometown. He was born around A.D. 338 and died in 397.

He was a very popular political figure, and since he was the Governor in

Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose barring Theodosius I from Milan Cathedral

the effective capital in the Roman West, he was a recognizable figure in the court of the Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose never married.

A clash arose between Arians and Catholics in the city after the death of the local tyrant-bishop who sternly governed the see for about 20 years. Ambrose tried to keep the peace and settle the two groups when a strange voice – a small boy – began chanting “Ambrose, bishop!” In no time the two groups began clamoring for Ambrose to be made bishop, since they believed that, though he was still in the process of becoming a Catholic (was a catechumen at the time), he’d be a better bridge between the two groups, and a much kinder bishop.

The Twist:

He never wanted to be bishop, so when he saw what was happening he ran away and went into hiding.

When the emperor heard this, he declared severe penalties on anyone who would hide the Saint, so he was forced to come out and accept the bishopric of Milan. In about a week he’d have passed through preliminary degrees of Orders and was consecrated Bishop.

What is he known for?

Converted and inspired St Augustine: He was an excellent bishop, and great example to his brother-bishops and all faithful to this day. He wrote many great books and articles and his sermons were instrumental to the conversion of St Augustine. “He was one of those”, says St. Augustine, “who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression” (Christian Doctrine IV.21).

Pope Benedict explained:

A passage from St Augustine’s Confessions is relevant.

He had come to Milan as a teacher of rhetoric; he was a sceptic and not Christian. He was seeking the Christian truth but was not capable of truly finding it.

What moved the heart of the young African rhetorician, sceptic and downhearted, and what impelled him to definitive conversion was not above all Ambrose’s splendid homilies (although he deeply appreciated them).

It was rather the testimony of the Bishop and his Milanese Church that prayed and sang as one intact body.

It was a Church that could resist the tyrannical ploys of the Emperor and his mother, who in early 386 again demanded a church building for the Arians’ celebrations.

In the building that was to be requisitioned, Augustine relates, “the devout people watched, ready to die with their Bishop”.

This testimony of the Confessions is precious because it points out that something was moving in Augustine, who continues: “We too, although spiritually tepid, shared in the excitement of the whole people” (Confessions 9, 7).

Lectio Divina: Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained:

Culturally well-educated but at the same time ignorant of the Scriptures, the new Bishop briskly began to study them.

From the works of Origen, the indisputable master of the “Alexandrian School”, he learned to know and to comment on the Bible.

Thus, Ambrose transferred to the Latin environment the meditation on the Scriptures which Origen had begun, introducing in the West the practice of lectio divina.

The method of lectio served to guide all of Ambrose’s preaching and writings, which stemmed precisely from prayerful listening to the Word of God.

 

More?

Pope Benedict explained:

[Augustine] writes in his text that whenever he went to see the Bishop of Milan, he would regularly find him taken up with catervae [Latin, “crowd”]of people full of problems for whose needs he did his utmost.

There was always a long queue waiting to talk to Ambrose, seeking in him consolation and hope.

When Ambrose was not with them, with the people (and this happened for the space of the briefest of moments), he was either restoring his body with the necessary food or nourishing his spirit with reading.

Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3).

Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader’s understanding.

That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures.

 

We still quote his advice to St Augustine in English, but it’s the same thought: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”









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