St. Ambrose
Patron Saint Of Learning
The Reluctant Bishop


Who He Was

St. Ambrose was the Bishop of Milan, Biblical critic and developer of many of the medieval conceptions of church-state relations. His hymns and writings are considered to be some of the most beautiful and eloquent of the fourth century.
 
Born the second son of the imperial viceroy of Gaul in 339, he was raised by his mother and sister in Rome following the death of his father. In 370, he was promoted to the governorship of Aemilia-Liguria and lived in Milan. When the Bishop of Milan, a supporter of the Arian heresy which questioned the divinity of Christ, died in 374, the questions arose about whether the new Bishop would be Catholic or Arian. When the two sides met at the cathedral to decide, a riot ensued.
 
Ambrose, as a duty of the governor, rushed to the church and, speaking in favor of neither side, asked the people to choose without fighting. During his speech, however, a voice from the crowd called for Ambrose to become Bishop.
 
Rather than give up a secure and successful career as an attorney for the dangerous role of Bishop in this time of heresy and upheaval, Ambrose ran to the emperor requesting the people's decision be overturned. When the emperor refused, Ambrose hid in a senator's home. The senator, hearing of the emperor's decision, soon threw Ambrose out.
With nowhere to go, Ambrose finally accepted the decision. In doing so, Ambrose had gone from layman to Bishop in eight days. Because of the rush, many expected Ambrose to maintain his style of living. Instead, he gave his property to the poor and began studying the Scripture under St. Simplician.
 
During these turbulent times, Ambrose faced many instances when he protected not only Catholics, but also the Arian heretics. When the emperor died, Empress Justina, an Arian, was left in a greatly weakened Rome. She begged Ambrose to negotiate with Maximus, who felt that his army could invade and conquer Rome. In spite of the Empress' Arian stance, Ambrose persuaded Maximus not to attack.
 
Later, when Justina demanded that Ambrose surrender his basilica to the Arians, Ambrose refused. The outraged people of Milan captured and were ready to execute an Arian priest. Rather than allow the priest to die, Ambrose sent a group of priests and deacons to save the captive. In response, soldiers who had surrounded Ambrose's basilica entered and began to pray.
 
In 385, Justina had her son issue an edict legalizing Arians and forbidding Catholic opposition to Arians. On Palm Sunday, Ambrose preached against this law. Fearing for their lives, the Catholics barricaded themselves in the church. Soldiers sent by Justina surrounded the basilica in an attempt to starve the congregation. To calm the Catholics, Ambrose asked them to sing hymns he had composed. When the army heard the song, they began to sing along and the siege was ended.
 
When he saw that the Roman army was busy attacking Catholics, Maximus saw his opportunity. Justina again begged Ambrose to talk with Maximus, which he did. When Maximus refused Ambrose, Ambrose hurried back to warn Justina, who fled to Greece. Theodosius, the Emperor of the Eastern Empire, came to the rescue of Rome.
 
In spite of the friendship that Theodosius and Ambrose had, Ambrose maintained and held his friend to the Scriptures and theology of the Catholic Church. In 388, he rebuked Theodosius for punishing a Bishop who had burned a Jewish synagogue and in 390 imposed public penance on Theodosius for massacring the citizens of Thessalonica following a riot. These acts, along with his diplomacy and resourcefulness for Rome's sake, created a model for medieval relationships between church and state.
 
St. Ambrose passed away in 397 at the age of 57. December 7th is his day of feast, celebrating the day he was ordained.

His Writings

De obitu Valentiniani consolatio (funeral oration for Valentinian II, 392)
De obitu Theodosii (funeral oration for Theodosius, 395)
Hexàèmeron ("The Six Days of Creation")
De Isaac et anima ("On Isaac and the Soul")
De bono mortis ("On the Goodness of Death")
De officiis ministrorum (on the moral obligations of the clergy, 386)
 

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