March 2013 Print

A Worthy Bishop: St. Ambrose

by Fr. Emanuel Herkel, SSPX

The Election

The bishop was dead and it was time to choose his successor, but there was no agreement. The cathedral of Milan was noisy. Outside, a crowd was shouting slogans about one God in three Persons and don’t give up one iota. Inside, all of the priests and the leading Christians had the right to speak and to vote. It wasn’t a very good system, and it was threatening to turn violent. Milan was the capital of northern Italy, where the people were mostly Catholic and loyal to the pope. Many Christians of this diocese, however, were Arian heretics, like the late bishop. Arianism denied that Christ was the eternal God; it had been condemned and was fast disappearing, but Milan had been holding out.

Ambrose, the governor, was concerned. Why couldn’t these Christians hold an election without starting a riot? A column of soldiers dispersed the crowd. Everyone fell silent as Ambrose entered the cathedral and addressed the gathering: “Enough of this nonsense! You Arians hate the Catholics and you Catholics hate the Arians. Well then, choose somebody else!” The Christians stared at him in silence. Of course, that was the answer! A voice from the back cried out: “Ambrose for bishop!” Every mouth opened and repeated the same cry: “Ambrose for bishop!”

Now it was Ambrose who stood in silence and fear, facing this mob. How was this possible? His only hope was to talk his way out of this mess. “I cannot be your bishop,” he shouted, “I am not even a Christian. I admire your religion, but I hardly understand it. I am not yet baptized!” Several of the priests stepped forward and said simply: “You are the man! You are chosen! Baptism can be arranged immediately.” Breathing deeply, Ambrose collected his thoughts. He had no intention of letting this silly proposal continue; there was one way to stop it. He stepped up to the pulpit and calmly addressed the crowd. He thanked them for the honor of being chosen as bishop and informed them that his responsibilities with the Imperial Government regrettably precluded the possibility of such a nomination. He called for prayer and silence, promised that a new election would be held soon, and adjourned the meeting.

The Right Stuff

In his simplicity, Ambrose probably thought that was the end of the matter. The people dispersed, but both the Catholics and the Arians agreed on one point: “Ambrose was the man for this job.” His objections were strong, but they could be overcome. The fact that he was not yet a Christian was in his favor, since he had no preconceived opinions about the Arian heresy. Eventually he would make up his own mind. His responsibilities as governor could also be seen as an asset. Some of the leading citizens put together a petition to the Emperor, asking for Ambrose as their bishop. The Emperor was flattered by the idea that one of his men had been elected to this position in a capital city. He sent Ambrose a letter, relieving him of his responsibilities. Within a week, at the beginning of December 374, Ambrose had been baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop.

Ambrose took his new job seriously. He began with a thorough study of the Bible and the writings of the great Catholic teachers, Origen and St. Basil. The Arians probably thought that Ambrose would accept their heresy, or at least tolerate it. But he learned theology so well that he converted most of the heretics in Milan. Now St. Ambrose is honored, with St. Basil, as a Father of the Church.

Pagans and Heretics

When he was a pagan, Ambrose had understood the shallowness of worship offered to the Roman gods. Very few people really believed in Jupiter or Juno. The offering of incense in the temples was a formality supported by tradition and government approval. In 313, when the Edict of Milan legalized Christianity, there was a great increase in conversions to Christianity. Ambrose saw the need to do more, so he convinced the Emperor to disestablish paganism. Pagan temples had endowments of property. It was all confiscated. Pagan priests had tax exemptions and special status. They were taken away. Pagans were not forced to be baptized, but it ceased to be convenient to be a pagan. Ambrose was clearing a way for the establishment of a Christian state.

Looking back, it is easy to say that the most important man converted by Ambrose was Augustine. But, at the time, Augustine was just a minor government official, a rhetorician at court, and a heretic. Augustine had learned about Christianity from his mother, St. Monica, but he was unconvinced. He went to listen to the sermons of St. Ambrose out of a professional interest in rhetoric; he came away convinced of Catholic truth. Thus, in September 386, one future doctor of the Church baptized another. St. Augustine later wrote of St. Ambrose: “He was one of those who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression” (De Doct. Christ., iv, 21).

The Things That are Not Caesar’s

When the Emperor died, his widow, Justina, was left as regent for her young son. She was an Arian and she wanted some of the churches of Milan to be given to Arian priests. The bishop refused. Justina commanded: “You must obey the Emperor!” Ambrose answered: “No. Palaces are a matter for the Emperor’s concern, but churches belong to the bishop.”

Ambrose won the day, but this same problem was going to keep recurring. Milan had replaced Rome as the Italian capital, so Ambrose, rather than the Pope, had to deal with the Emperor. His most famous conflict came in A.D. 390, with the Emperor Theodosius the Great. Here, in a dramatic scene, Ambrose asserted that the Emperor was subject to the church.

At Thessalonica, in Macedonia, a local hero, a charioteer, was arrested. The crowd at the stadium rioted, threw stones, and killed a high official. It was murder, committed by a crowd, and Theodosius the Great planned to take his revenge on the crowd. He ordered the chariot races to continue. A crowd of 7,000 gathered in the stadium; then the army surrounded and murdered the crowd. It was imperial revenge at the cost of 7,000 lives for one.

Ambrose tried to deal with it quietly. He sent a private letter, for the Emperor’s eyes only, begging the Emperor to repent. He tactfully recalled the story of King David, who repented the murder of Urias. Theodosius did not reply, but he passed a law requiring a one-month delay between a sentence of death and execution.

Perhaps he thought that was enough. Theodosius went to the cathedral for Mass and the bishop met him at the door. In a voice for all to hear, Ambrose told the most powerful man in the world that he was not allowed to enter. For the first time ever, an emperor was excommunicated.

For months the matter gnawed on the Emperor’s soul. He was a man who had sinned publicly, and he knew that his sin could only be forgiven by public penance. Finally, on Christmas Day, Theodosius removed his royal robes, lay down on the cathedral floor in front of the bishop, and confessed his sins. Ambrose pardoned Theodosius by the power of Christ; then he gave him Holy Communion. Afterwards, Theodosius said: “I know no bishop worthy of the name, except Ambrose.”

Beautiful Music and Beautiful Death

After a public confession, the seven penitential psalms were probably sung by a choir. Ambrose loved church music, especially the chanting of psalms. He wrote many hymns, including some still used in the Roman Breviary. A style of singing called Ambrosian chant (with a simpler melody than Gregorian chant) is still used in connection with the Ambrosian rite of the Traditional Mass.

In January 395, Emperor Theodosius the Great died at Milan. His favorite bishop was at his bedside. Ambrose was always solicitous about his pastoral duties; he probably worked himself to an early death.

The Ambrosian hymn sung at None (3 p.m.), is a testimony to St. Ambrose’s attitude: “Largire lumen vespere, quo vita nusquam decidat, sed praemium mortis sacrae perennis instet gloria—Grant us light in the evening so that life may not decay at any point of its activity, but everlasting glory be the immediate reward of a happy death.”

After twenty-three years as a bishop, Ambrose collapsed. He was carried to his cathedral where he lay on the floor with his arms extended in the form of a cross; he received Holy Communion, and after swallowing it, he died peacefully on Good Friday, 397. That year the Easter baptisms of adults were performed by five bishops; they had trouble doing what Ambrose used to do by himself.

Fr. Herkel was born in British Columbia, Canada, and graduated from boarding high school at St. Mary’s, Kansas, in 1992. He studied for the priesthood at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Minnesota, and was ordained in 2001. Since then he has been stationed in Canada. He is currently stationed at Immaculate Heart of Mary Priory in Calgary, Alberta.