St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan

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Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St. Ambrose To Enter Milan Cathedral

St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876

St. Ambrose, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, a fearless defender of her rights, a terrible scourge to heresy, a most perfect example for all prelates, a miracle of Christian wisdom and eloquence, was the son of a Roman nobleman, who presided in Gaul as imperial governor. One day, while Ambrose was yet in his cradle, a swarm of bees alighted on his mouth without in the least harming the sleeping infant. It is believed that God by this announced the future sweet and yet powerful eloquence of St. Ambrose. After his father's death, the Saint went to Rome with his mother, brother and sister. There he, one day, saw the people kiss the hand of a bishop, and, on his return home, he offered his hands to some children to kiss, saying: "Kiss my hands; for, when I grow up I shall be a bishop." These words, spoken in childish jest, were prophetic. Ambrose was endowed by the Almighty with unusual facility for acquiring knowledge. Untiring in his studies, he became so excellent an orator, and so celebrated a jurist, that he was made governor of Emilia and Liguria when he was hardly thirty-two years old. Probus, the imperial chancellor, said to him, before his departure: "Go, and administer your functions, not as a judge, but as a bishop." He meant by this that Ambrose should not govern by severity but with love and mildness; heaven's signification of these words, however, was different.

When Ambrose, invested with this high dignity, arrived at Milan, he so completely gained all hearts by his wise and mild government, that the people obeyed him implicitly, and loved him most devotedly. Hardly had he been two years at Milan when Auxentius, the Arian bishop, whom the Emperor Constantius had placed in the episcopal chair, died. The Catholics desired a Catholic, the Arians, an Arian bishop, and the conflict of contending parties produced a dangerous excitement. Ambrose, as imperial officer, thought it his duty to prevent greater mischief, and hence, going into the church, he endeavored by his eloquence to calm the people. Hardly had he ended his speech, when a child cried aloud: "Ambrose, bishop!" This came like a call from heaven, and all the people, together with the clergy, rejoiced and repeated three times: "Ambrose, our bishop!"

This sudden accordance of so many different minds could only be regarded as providential, the more so, as Ambrose was still a layman, and not even baptized; as, at that period, some delayed their baptism until they had become quite old. Ambrose, inexpressibly amazed at this unexpected turn of affairs, employed all his eloquence to change the thoughts of the people; he mingled his tears with his words, and when he found that all was of no avail, he secretly fled. Being soon found and brought back, he twice attempted to escape again, but was each time found. Valentinian, the emperor, was greatly pleased with the choice, and when Ambrose recognized that it was the will of the Almighty that he should fill the vacant See, he made no further resistance. After having prepared himself, he was baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop; and then entered upon his high ecclesiastical functions with the most holy intentions.

He who would endeavor to relate all that the bishop, so miraculously elected, performed for the welfare of the Church, and the holy life he led, would have to write many volumes. Let it suffice to say, that he exercised himself in all kinds of good works. Early in the morning he passed a long time in prayer. He often exhorted others to do the same, saying: "Do you not know, O man, that you owe your first thoughts, the first words of your mouth to the Lord your God? Daily must you make Him this offering." His severity in fasting was extremely great, and when advised to moderate it, for the reason that it would occasion his early death, he said: "Many have found death from too much eating, no one from fasting." Unbounded was his charity to the poor, and his episcopal revenues were almost all employed to assist the needy. Three points he had determined to observe most strictly: to say Mass every day; to preach to the people every Sunday, and to leave nothing undone to spread the true faith, abolish heresy, and correct the morals of the people.

In his sermons, he spoke so frequently of the merit and worth of virginal purity, that the number of those can scarcely be counted who made the vow of chastity, and received from his hands the consecrated veil. Still greater was the number of hardened sinners and heretics whom he converted by his sermons. Among the latter was Augustine, who afterwards became so shining a light in the Church. St. Ambrose baptized him with his own hand, to his great consolation. The knowledge of the divine mysteries which Ambrose manifested in his preaching and writings, was imparted to him by heaven; hence he is represented with a dove at his ear, as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, who inspired him when he spoke or wrote. An Arian heretic testified that he had seen an angel speaking to St. Ambrose in the pulpit; and this miracle converted the heretic. The fortitude with which he protected the rights and privileges of the Church against the heretics and against crowned heads, was almost more than human.

The Arians persecuted him in every possible manner, especially after the death of the pious emperor Gratian, when the wicked empress Justina, wife of Valentinian the younger, ruled the land. The holy man, however, always resisted bravely. One day, the emperor Valentinian, counselled by the empress Justina, sent an order to him to give up a church to the Arians at Milan. The bearer of this order menaced the bishop with death in case he refused; but Ambrose paid no attention to the menace, refused to obey the order, and reprimanded the emperor. Among other things he said to him: "Do not imagine that you possess an imperial right over that which belongs to God. To the emperor belong the palaces, but the churches to the priests. You have power over the walls of the churches, but not over the sanctuary." To this subject belongs, also, what he wrote at another time to the emperor Theodosius: "The purple makes one a king or an emperor, but not a priest." Justina raged with anger, and hired a man to carry the bishop off secretly out of the city, that she might deal with the Catholics according to her own pleasure. The hired ruffian waited in the neighborhood of the church with a carriage, into which he was forcibly to place the bishop; but the Saint was accompanied by so many people, that the plan of the empress could not be executed. God even so ruled it that, a year later, this godless man was taken out of the city in the same vehicle, on account of his crimes.

At another time, the Arians sent an assassin into the episcopal palace to murder the Saint; but when the wretch raised the sword for the deadly stroke, his arm suddenly stiffened in such a manner that he was unable to move it. He then repented of his evil design, knelt at the feet of the bishop, and begged pardon. Ambrose not only forgave him, but also restored the use of his arm, and admonished him to reform his life. At another time, they bribed a magician to strangle the Saint in his own room by his witchcraft. Although this magician conjured several demons of hell, and commanded them to strangle the Saint, they could not harm him, nor even go near his dwelling, as it was surrounded by angelic hosts. The bishop, thus miraculously protected, was not to be frightened by the persecutions of the Arians, but continued in his zeal to work against them, so that many of them became converted. He strove with equal fortitude against the heresiarch Jovinian and his followers, whom he banished entirely out of his diocese.

The Saint never manifested greater strength of mind than at the time when the pious emperor, Theodosius, at the instigation of some wicked courtiers, had cruelly slaughtered several thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica, in reprisal for the assassination of one of his generals. When, some time afterwards, the emperor wished to enter the Church, the bishop, clad in his episcopal robes, went to meet him, and commanded him to stop and not enter the sacred building until he had done penance. The emperor, awestruck at this proceeding, said: "Did not King David sin?" The holy bishop replied: "You have followed King David in his sin; follow him also in doing penance;"--and permitted him not to enter the church until he had done penance during eight months. Much that the holy man did for the honor of God and the welfare of the true Church and of his flock, we must omit, and say a few words of his happy departure from this life.

St. Ambrose became enfeebled by the unceasing labor imposed upon him, and also by his rigorous fasting and other penances, and his soul longed to see God, the end and aim of his being. The day of his death was revealed to him, and when he was seized by his last illness, he was begged to pray that his life might be prolonged for the benefit of the Church and the salvation of souls; but he replied: "I have lived in such a manner among you that I need not be ashamed; and I fear not to die, because we have a merciful Lord." St. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, was at that time in the palace of the bishop. During the night he was suddenly awakened by a voice saying to him: "Honoratus, rise quickly; the Saint is dying." Honoratus repaired hastily to the sick bishop, administered once more the holy sacraments to him, after which the Saint, his arms folded over his breast, gave his soul to our Lord, in the year 397 of the Christian era, at the dawn of Easter Sunday. Oh! how happy a dying day! God, who had glorified His faithful servant during life by miracles and especial graces, ceased not to increase his glory after his death. The many eloquent works which still exist of this great Father of the Church, are witnesses of his perfect holiness and heavenly wisdom.


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See : Ordinarium Missae of the Traditional Ambrosian Rite is Here


St. Abrose, Father of the Ambrosian Hymn
from the Liturgical Year, 1870

In the midst of dangers which threatened his person, Ambrose's great soul was calm and seemingly unconscious of the fury of his enemies. It was on one such occasion that he instituted, at Milan, the choral singing of the Psalms. Up to that time, the holy Canticles had been given from Ambo by the single voice of a Lector; but Ambrose, shut up in his Basilica with his people, takes the opportunity, and forms two choirs, bidding them respond to each other the verses of the Psalms. The people forgot their trouble in the delight of this heavenly music; nay, the very howling of the tempest, and the fierceness of the siege they were sustaining, added enthusiasm to this first exercise of their new privilege.

Such was the chivalrous origin of Alternate Psalmody in the Western Church. Rome adopted the practice, which Ambrose was the first to introduce, and which will continue to be observed to the end of time. During these hours of struggle with his enemies, the glorious Bishop has another gift wherewith to enrich the faithful people who are defending him at the risk of their own lives. Ambrose is a poet, and he has frequently sung, in verses full of sweetness and sublimity, the greatness of the God of the Christians, and the mysteries of man's salvation. He now gives to his devoted people these hymns, which he had only composed for his own private devotion. The Basilicas of Milan soon echoed these accents of the sublime soul which first uttered them.

Later on, the whole Latin Church adopted them; and in honor of the holy Bishop who had thus opened one of the richest sources of the sacred Liturgy, a Hymn was, for a long time, called after his name, an Ambrosian. The Divine Office thus received a new mode of celebrating the divine praise, and the Church, the Spouse of Christ, possessed one means more of giving expression to the sentiments which animate her. Thus our Hymns, and the alternate singing of the Psalms, are trophies of Ambrose's victory. He had been raised up by God not for his own age only, but also for those which were to follow.


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