St. Ambrose was a small man with pale yellow hair like a nimbus. In the violence and confusion of his time, he stood out courageously resisting evil, strengthening the Church, and administering it with extraordinary ability. His learning gained for him the title of Doctor of the Church. He was born into the Roman governing class, his father being prefect of southern Gaul, the vast territory which included Britain, the Mediterranean islands, and the lands stretching from the Alps to Spain and Portugal.

His birthplace was the palace at Treves,[1] and the date was about the year 340. After the death of his father, his mother, a woman of piety and intellect, returned with her children to Rome, where she gave careful thought to their rearing. A daughter, Marcellina, became a consecrated virgin. Young Ambrose studied Greek, and showed promise as an orator and poet. He went on to a mastery of law, and as a young pleader attracted the notice of Anicius Probus, prefect of Italy, and of the pagan Symmachus, prefect of Rome Probus appointed him assessor, an office he filled with dignity. Then in 372, when Ambrose was barely thirty, the Western Emperor, Valentinian I, chose him as consular prefect of Liguria and Aemilia. The office gave him full consular rank, with his residence at Milan.[2] When he left Rome for his new post, Probus dismissed him with these prophetic words, “Go and govern more like a bishop than a judge.”

When Ambrose had governed at Milan for two years, the bishop, an Arian, died, and the city was torn by strife over the election of a successor, some demanding an Arian, others a Catholic. Ambrose, as the responsible civil official, went to the church where the voting was to take place, and urged the people to make their choice like good Christians, without disorder. A voice suddenly called out, “Ambrose, bishop! ” The whole gathering took up the cry, and both Catholics and Arians then and there proclaimed him bishop of Milan. The outburst astounded Ambrose, for though he was a professing Christian, he was still unbaptized and therefore not eligible for the office.

In view of the popular vote, the other bishops of the province agreed to ratify the election, at which Ambrose sadly remarked, “Emotion has now overruled canon law.” The bishop-elect tried unsuccessfully to escape from the city.

A report went to Valentinian, whose consent was necessary if an imperial officer was to be made a bishop. Ambrose also wrote, asking to be excused, but Valentinian replied that it gave him the greatest pleasure to have chosen a prefect fit for the episcopal office, and sent orders to the vicar of the province to hold a formal election. Meanwhile, Ambrose was hiding in the house of a senator, who, on hearing the imperial decision, gave Ambrose up. He was baptized, and a week later, on December 7, 374, was consecrated. The new bishop now gave his possessions to the poor and his lands to the Church, reserving only a small income for the use of his sister Marcellina. All care of temporal matters was delegated to a brother, and he began to serve his diocese with energy and devotion. In a letter to the emperor he complained of the behavior of certain imperial magistrates, to which Valentinian in all humility replied: “I have long been acquainted with your freedom of speech, which did not hinder me from consenting to your election. Continue to apply to our sins the remedies prescribed by divine law.”

Very conscious of his ignorance of theology, Ambrose began to study the Scriptures and the works of religious writers, particularly Origen and Basil,[3] putting himself under the tutelage of Simplician, a learned priest. The great issue of the day was the Arian heresy, and Ambrose labored to rid his diocese of it. From the beginning he was at the service of the people, giving them regular and careful instruction. He led a life of extreme simplicity, entertaining little, and excusing himself from banquets. Every day he offered the Eucharist. Certain things he rigorously avoided: he would persuade no one to be a soldier, he would take no hand in match-making, and would recommend no one to a place at court.

When Augustine of Hippo came to live at Milan, he called on the bishop, and in time the two became great friends. Augustine went often to hear Ambrose preach, and was at last baptized by him. One of Ambrose’s topics was the blessing and virtue of virginity, when chosen for God’s sake. At the request of Marcellina, he made a popular manual of his sermons on this subject. Mothers are said to have tried to keep their daughters from hearing him, and some accused him of trying to depopulate the empire! Ambrose would retort, “What man ever wanted to marry and could not find a wife?” He declared that the population was greatest where maidenhood was most esteemed. It was his contention that wars, and not virgins, were responsible for the destruction of the race.

Valentinian I died in 375, leaving two heirs, Gratian, a boy of sixteen, by his first wife, and a four-year-old, known as Valentinian II, by Justina, his second wife. Gratian took as his share the provinces beyond the Alps, turning over to his brother, or, rather, to Justina, as regent, Illyricum, North Africa, and Italy. In the East, where his uncle Valens was emperor, there was now an invasion of Goths, and Gratian determined to go to his uncle’s aid. But in order to guard against contamination by Arians, of whom Valens was an active protector, he asked Ambrose to instruct him concerning the heresy.

Ambrose accordingly wrote for him in 377 the treatise entitled, <To Gratian, on the Faith>. The following year Valens was defeated and killed in the battle of Adrianople and an orthodox Spanish general, Theodosius, vanquished the Goths. In 379 Gratian recognized him as Emperor of the East. Mean while other Goths had advanced westward to Illyricum and had taken thousands of captives. To ransom them, Ambrose first laid out all the money he could raise and then melted down gold vessels belonging to the Church.[4] When the Arians attacked him for what they called his sacrilege, he answered, “If the Church has gold, it is in order to use it to save men’s souls, not to hoard it.”

After the murder of Gratian, in 383, the Empress Justina begged Ambrose to go and negotiate with the brutal usurper Maximus and prevail on him not to attack Italy or to jeopardize her young son Valentinian’s rights. Ambrose went up to Treves and induced Maximus to confine his conquests to Gaul, Spain, and Britain. Historians have called it the first occasion on which a Christian minister was asked to intervene in a matter of high politics; in this case, to vindicate right and order against armed aggression.

Ambrose now gained a victory in another affair. A group of pagan senators at Rome, headed by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, son and successor of the city prefect who had been Ambrose’s patron, petitioned Valentinian to restore the altar of the Goddess of Victory, removed by Gratian, to its old place in the senate-house, claiming that Rome had fallen on evil days since the ancient cult had been abandoned. Symmachus, in his discourse, attributed Rome’s former triumphs and grandeur to the power of the goddess, and ended with the persuasive appeal, which is still heard today, “What does it matter how one seeks for the truth? There must be more than one road to the great mystery.” Ambrose replied eloquently; he ridiculed the notion that what the Roman soldiers had achieved in the past by valor had been dependent on the reports of the augurs as to the state of the entrails of sacrificed animals. Rising to great heights of rhetoric, he spoke as by the mouth of Rome herself, bewailing past errors, but not ashamed to change with a changing world. Symmachus and his friends should learn the mysteries of nature from the God who created it. Instead of imploring their emperors to give their gods peace, they should ask God to give the emperors peace.

When both addresses, that of Symmachus and that of Ambrose, were read before Valentinian, he said simply: “My father did not take away the altar, nor was he asked to put it back. I therefore follow him in changing nothing that was done before my time.”

At a council in Aquileia, in 382, Ambrose had effected the deposition of two Arian bishops, in spite of Justina’s opposition. Justina, not easily vanquished, persuaded Valentinian, who was now fourteen years old, to demand the Portian basilica, situated just outside the city, for the use of the Arians, who had chosen Auxentius as their bishop. Ambrose replied that he would not surrender a temple of God to heretics. Now Valentinian demanded the larger new basilica of the Apostles, in the city. Still Ambrose would not yield. Although he had most of the citizenry and soldiers on his side, he was careful not to precipitate violence, and would not officiate in either of the churches. He was preaching in a small chapel of the larger basilica, when a party of soldiers, ordered to seize it, entered. But instead of carrying out their orders, they laid down their arms and prayed with the Catholics. The people then surged into the adjoining basilica and tore down decorations that had been put up for the emperor’s visit. Ambrose refused anything resembling a triumph, and did not himself enter the church until Easter Day, when all were united in joy and thanksgiving.

But Justina did not give up. In January of the following year she had her son issue an edict making religious assemblies of Catholics practically impossible. Ambrose calmly disregarded the edict, yet no official ventured to touch him. “I have said what a bishop ought to say; let the emperor do what an emperor ought to do.” On Palm Sunday he preached openly against any surrender of the churches. There were fears for his life, and his people barricaded themselves in the basilica with him. Imperial troops surrounded the church, but those inside did not surrender. On Easter Sunday they were still there. To occupy their time, Ambrose taught them hymns composed by himself, which they sang under his direction, divided into choirs singing alternate stanzas. A tribune now came to Ambrose from the emperor, with an order that he choose laymen to act as judges of his case in a trial court, as Auxentius had already done for his side, so that together they might decide between the two bishops. Ambrose replied that it was his duty to stay with his people, and that laymen could not judge bishops or make laws for the Church. He then ascended the pulpit to tell the people all that had passed between the rulers and himself during the year. In one memorable sentence he defined the principle at stake: “The emperor is in the Church, not over it.”

In the meantime, news came that Maximus was on the verge of invading Italy.

Valentinian and Justina abjectly begged Ambrose to undertake a second journey to try to stop the aggressor. Ambrose went up to Trier on this embassy, but failed to sway Maximus from his purpose. Justina and her son fled to Thessalonica to throw themselves on the mercy of the Eastern emperor, Theodosius. He received them, declared war on Maximus, defeated and executed him. Valentinian was restored to his own lands as well as to those of his deceased brother Gratian, but Theodosius was now the real ruler of the whole empire. He came to Milan and stayed for a time to prevail on Valentinian to renounce Arianism and accept Ambrose as the true Catholic bishop.

Conflicts between Ambrose and Theodosius were soon to arise. In the first of these the right does not seem to have been wholly on the bishop’s side. At Kallinicum, in Mesopotamia, some Christians had pulled down the Jewish synagogue. Theodosius had ordered the local bishop, who was said to be implicated, to rebuild the synagogue.

The bishop appealed to Ambrose, who in turn wrote to Theodosius to say that no Christian bishop should pay for the erection of a building to be used for false worship.

Ambrose preached against Theodosius to his face; a discussion took place between them in church, and Ambrose refused to go to the altar to sing Mass until he had obtained a promise of pardon for the bishop.

In the year 390 news came to Milan of a shocking massacre at Thessalonica. Botheric, the governor, had had a popular charioteer imprisoned for seducing a slave in his family, and refused to release him when the public wanted to see him in the races. The enraged mob stoned several officers and Botheric himself was killed. Theodosius ordered reprisals of terrible savagery; he is reported to have countermanded his order but too late. When the people were assembled in the circus, soldiers rushed in and put to the sword some seven thousand persons. Ambrose wrote the emperor a letter, exhorting him to penance, and declaring his offering at the altar would not be received, nor would the Divine Mysteries be celebrated in his presence until atonement had been made. “What was done at Thessalonica is unparalleled in the memory of man…. You, who so often have been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocent to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your highest glory. Drive him from you while you may…. I write this to you with my own hand that you may read it alone.”

The appeal had its effect; Theodosius appears to have been sincerely repentant. In his funeral oration, Ambrose said of him: He, an emperor, was not ashamed to perform the public penance which lesser individuals shrink from, and to the end of his life he never ceased to grieve for his crime.” So Christianity was displayed to the world as being no respecter of persons. We have another evidence of Theodosius’ humility and Ambrose’s moral sway. Once at Milan during Mass on a feast day, Theodosius brought his offering to the altar and then remained standing within the rails. Ambrose asked if he wanted anything; the emperor said that he was staying to assist at the Holy Mysteries and to take Communion. At this Ambrose sent his archdeacon with the message: My lord, the law is that you go out and stand with the rest. The purple robe makes princes, not priests.” Theodosius apologized, saying he thought the custom was the same as at Constantinople, where his place was within the sanctuary.[5] He then took his place among the laity.

In 393 Valentinian II was slain in Gaul by Arbogastes, a pagan officer. Knowing Valentinian was among enemies, Ambrose had set out to rescue him, but on the way met his funeral procession. Ambrose made plain his indignation at the murder, and left Milan before the arrival of Eugenius, whom Arbogastes was putting forward as the new emperor. The bishop went from town to town, strengthening the people against the invaders. On his return, he received a letter from Theodosius, telling of his victory over Arbogastes at Aquileia. A few months later Theodosius died in Ambrose’s arms.

In his funeral oration, Ambrose spoke with affection of this ruler and praised him for welding the empire together again, declaring that his two sons had come into an inheritance united by law and the Christian faith. The two sons, however, the feeble Arcadius and Honorius, were incapable of carrying on their father’s labors. Only a few years later a young cavalry officer named Alaric was to lead the Visigoths south to capture and plunder Rome, while the frightened Honorius remained hidden in Ravenna.

Ambrose survived the emperor two years. When he fell sick, the bishop foretold his own death, saying he would live only until Easter. He busied himself writing a treatise called <The Goodness of Death>, and with an interpretation of the Forty-third Psalm.

One day as he was dictating the latter work to Paulinus, his secretary and biographer, he suddenly stopped, and had to take to his bed. When Count Stilicho, guardian of Honorius, heard this, he declared publicly that Italy faced destruction the day the bishop died, and sent messengers begging Ambrose to pray for recovery. “I have not so behaved myself among you,” Ambrose answered, “that I should be ashamed to live longer, but I am not afraid to die, for we have a good Master.” On Good Friday, 397, he partook of the Last Sacrament, and died soon after. He was then about fifty-seven and had been bishop for twenty-two years. His remains now rest under the high altar of his basilica, where they were placed in 835.

Ambrose’s varied writings influenced the development of the Church. He was the first of the Fathers to use Latin effectively, and as the Roman Empire declined in the West he helped to keep this great language alive by starting it on its new course in the service of Christianity. He enriched Church music, and seven of the hymns he wrote are still a part of the liturgy. His personality combined firmness where God’s law was concerned with warmth, moderation, and generosity in all else. Trusted by sovereigns, loved by the people, Ambrose was-to quote Augustine’s words after their first meeting—”a man affectionate and kind.”