Born sometime around 340 AD as Aurelius Ambrosius, Saint Ambrose lived as a child in Gallia Belgica. His father was a Roman administrator and his mother a member of the Aurelii Symmachi family, making Saint Ambrose a cousin of the famous orator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus. In his family, he was the youngest of three children and his two older siblings would later be venerated as saints - Saint Marcellina and Saint Satyrus. As a baby in the cradle, a swarm of bees landed on his face - they did not sting him but instead left a drop of honey. This was considered a sign in his family that he would grow up to have a "honeyed" tongue or speaker of great eloquence.
In 354 AD, his father suddenly passed away forcing the family to move to Rome. It was here that after studying literature, law and rhetoric he followed his father's path and entered into public service as the governor of Liguria and Emilia, headquartered in Milan. In 374 AD, his life would take a very unexpected turn.
In 374 AD, the bishop of Milan, a man from the Arian sect Auxentius had died a conflict quickly arose between the Nicene Church and the Arian church over who should succeed him. A group had gathered for the election but chaos was brewing between the two groups and the only likely outcome would have an uproar and fighting between the two groups. Saint Ambrose went in haste to the assembly in the hopes of maintaining peace as he was widely respected by both groups. The moment he walked in, someone in the crowd began to shout
Soon the entire assembly began shouting for him to be the next Bishop of Milan. Saint Ambrose was shocked and tried to tell the crowd he couldn't be - not only had he not studied theology he had also not even been baptized. He fled from the crowd, hiding in a colleagues home to hide but after Emperor Gratian sent letters out from Rome appointing individuals worthy of Holy positions his colleague gave him up to the crowd. With great reluctance, Saint Ambrose accepted the position of Bishop - within only a week he was baptized, ordained, and finally consecrated Bishop of Milan.
Saint Ambrose immediately began living an extremely simple lifestyle and donated his land and all financial holdings to the poor of Milan. He studied theology with Simplician and focused deeply on exegesis of the Old Testament. His rhetorical skills were so strong that he impressed Saint Augustine of Hippo - tradition holds that it was Saint Ambrose who baptized him personally after his conversion. Saint Augustine would later write in his Confessions of his time with Saint Ambrose:
When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.
"Ambrose himself I esteemed a happy man, as the world counted happiness, because great personages held him in honor. Only his celibacy appeared to me a painful burden."
Almost immediately he found himself placed in the middle of the great battle between Arianism and the Church. Though at the time Emperor Gratian supported orthodoxy, there was a massive number of clergy and high officials who were fond of Arianism. The leaders of the Arians at the time, Bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum asked for Emperor Gratian to call a general council. A synod of thirty two bishops was held at Aquileia in 381 AD where Saint Ambrose was elected President. Bishop Palladius was called to the council to defend the Arian side - when he declined, a vote was taken and Palladius was deposed from his episcopal offices.
In 386, the Emperor and his mother Justina, members of the clergy, and many members of the Roman military professed Arianism and demanded two churches be allocated to the Arians in Milan (Basilica of the Apostles and Saint Victor's). Saint Ambrose refused and successfully defended his position in a council. The day after this defense though, the prefect of the city came and begged him to give up at least Saint Victor's to the Arians - to which Saint Ambrose again declined. Saint Ambrose declared:
"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."
When Magnus Maximus invaded Italy and captured Milan, Saint Ambrose staid behind when Justina and her son fled. His efforts for the people are those worthy of historical note - he melted the plate of the church and sold it to help feed and clothe the poor trapped in the city. Soon Emperor Theodosius I, the Emperor of the East regained the kingdom but was excommunicated by Saint Ambrose for the massacre of nearly 7,000 people at Thessalonica in 390 AD. He only readmitted the emperor to take part in the Eucharist after several months of penance.
In 391 AD, Saint Ambrose influenced Emperor Theodosius I to issue the Theodosian decrees that outlawed pagan practices. Saint Ambrose also used his position to continue to pressure the Emperors to reject calls to restore the Altar of Victory in the city. Emperor Theodosius died in the city of Milan in 395, and Saint Ambrose died two years later in the city on April 4th, 397. His body was interred and is still on full display at the church of Saint Ambrogio in Milan, alongside the bodies of Saints Gervase and Protase.
While future articles will focus on his theology and writings, below is just a sample of the many famous writings attributed to Saint Ambrose:
De fide ad Gratianum Augustum (On Faith, to Gratian Augustus)
De Officiis Ministrorum (On the Offices of Ministers, an ecclesiastical handbook modeled on Cicero's De Officiis.)
De Spiritu Sancto (On the Holy Ghost)
De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento (On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord)
De mysteriis (On the Mysteries)
Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam (Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke)
Ethical works: De bono mortis (Death as a Good); De fuga saeculi (Flight From the World); De institutione virginis et sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua ad Eusebium (On the Birth of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary); De Nabuthae (On Naboth); De paenitentia (On Repentance); De paradiso (On Paradise); De sacramentis (On the Sacraments); De viduis (On Widows); De virginibus (On Virgins); De virginitate (On Virginity); Exhortatio virginitatis (Exhortation to Virginity); De sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia (On the Sacrament of Rebirth, or, On Philosophy [fragments])
Homiletic commentaries on the Old Testament: the Hexaemeron (Six Days of Creation); De Helia et ieiunio (On Elijah and Fasting); De Iacob et vita beata (On Jacob and the Happy Life); De Abraham; De Cain et Abel; De Ioseph (Joseph); De Isaac vel anima (On Isaac, or The Soul); De Noe (Noah); De interpellatione Iob et David (On the Prayer of Job and David); De patriarchis (On the Patriarchs); De Tobia (Tobit); Explanatio psalmorum (Explanation of the Psalms); Explanatio symboli (Commentary on the Symbol).
De obitu Theodosii; De obitu Valentiniani; De excessu fratris Satyri (funeral orations)
A collection of hymns on the Creation of the Universe.
Fragments of sermons
Ambrosiaster or the "pseudo-Ambrose" is a brief commentary on Paul's Epistles, which was long attributed to Ambrose.
In addition, Saint Ambrose is famous for his theological treatises of the Blessed Mary ever Virgin :
The virgin birth is worthy of God. Which human birth would have been more worthy of God, than the one in which the Immaculate Son of God maintained the purity of his immaculate origin while becoming human?
We confess that Christ the Lord was born from a virgin, and therefore we reject the natural order of things. Because she conceived not from a man but from the Holy Spirit.
Christ is not divided but one. If we adore him as the Son of God, we do not deny his birth from the virgin. ... But nobody shall extend this to Mary. Mary was the temple of God but not God in the temple. Therefore, only the one who was in the temple can be worshiped.
Yes, truly blessed for having surpassed the priest (Zechariah). While the priest denied, the Virgin rectified the error. No wonder that the Lord, wishing to rescue the world, began his work with Mary. Thus she, through whom salvation was being prepared for all people, would be the first to receive the promised fruit of salvation.
Saint Ambrose is venerated as one of the Doctors of the Church and his feast day is set for December 7th.