St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, one of the four Latin doctors of the Church, was descended from a Roman family of some distinction, some time Christian, and counting martyrs as well as state officials amongst its members.
His father, likewise named Ambrosius, was prefect of the Gauls, an office the jurisdiction of which extended over Spain, Britain, Cis- and Trans-Alpine Gaul. His chief official residence was Trèves, where probably St. Ambrose was born, as seems most likely, a.d.340.
After his father's death, his mother and his elder brother, Satyrus, went with St. Ambrose to Rome, not earlier than 353, where his elder sister, Marcellina, received the veil at Christmas from Pope Liberius, the exact year being uncertain.
Here the future bishop devoted himself to legal studies, in which he met with great success. His skill in law and general reputation soon led to his advancement, and about a.d.370 he was appointed by the Prætorian Prefect Probus governor of Liguria and Æmilia, with the rank of consular. On this occasion Probus is said to have closed an address to St. Ambrose with the words, |Go and act, not as a judge, but as a bishop.| This advice was so well followed by Ambrose, that owing to his equity and kindness the people came to look up to him rather as a father than as a judge.
After some few years Auxentius, the intended Arian Bishop of Milan, died, a.d.374, and it is said that during the discussion as to the appointment of his successor a child cried out in the assembly, |Ambrose Bishop,| and, although he was but a catechumen and so canonically unqualified, the multitude immediately elected him by acclamation.
St. Ambrose did all in his power, even, if we accept the statements if his biographer Paulinus, probably a clerk of Milan, resorting to some questionable expedients, to escape from the dignity laid upon him, but when his election was ratified by the Emperor Valentinian, he recognized his appointment as being the will of God, and insisted on being baptized by a Catholic priest. Eight days later, December 7, a.d.374, he was consecrated Bishop.
The first care of the new bishop was at once to divest himself of his worldly property, giving his silver and gold to the poor and the Church, and committing the management of his estates, except a life interest for his sister, to his brother Satyrus, who gave up his own office to come to his assistance, and enable him to devote himself wholly to theological study and his other episcopal duties.
His chief studies were holy Scripture and ecclesiastical writers, especially St. Basil the Great and Didymus of Alexandria, from whom no less a man than St. Jerome accused him of plagiarizing. His natural abilities and thorough knowledge of Greek stood him in good stead, when, as he says himself, he had to learn and to teach at the same time.
The life of St. Ambrose was a pattern of the discharge of episcopal duties. He spent much time daily in study and devotion, besides the more public duties of his office. He preached every Sunday and at certain seasons daily. His labours in preparing catechumens for baptism were blessed with great success, amongst those taught by him being St. Augustine.
But the zeal and courage of the new Bishop were soon tried. The Empress mother Justina was still an Arian, but had little influence during the life of the Emperor Gratian, who was much attached to St. Ambrose. After his murder, however, a.d.383, his brother Valentinian II., a boy of only twelve years of age, ascended the throne and was naturally much under his mother's influence. Justina led him to support a demand of the Arians for the use of the Portian basilica, situated outside the walls of Milan. This being refused, a second application was made for the large and newer basilica within the city. Ambrose replied, |The Emperor has his palaces, let him leave the churches to the Bishop.| Soldiers were sent to secure the delivery of the basilica, but St. Ambrose with the faithful occupied the building and remained within, singing psalms and hymns till the soldiers retired.
St. Ambrose was no less successful in his zeal against the expiring heathenism of Italy than against Arianism. One of the many remnants till recent times of heathen worship had been the Altar of Victory in the Senate-house at Rome, which was removed under Gratian; the prefect of Rome, Symmachus, himself a heathen but a friend of St. Ambrose, appealed to Valentinan II. that it might be restored, and Ambrose successfully opposed this appeal in two Epistles (17, 18) addressed to the young Emperor. Yet again, when Theodosius assumed the imperial power [a.d.387], a renewed attempt was made and once more frustrated. Later on, Eugenius the usurper judged it politic to take the heathen's side, the Altar of Victory was once more set up, and the temples stood open as in the days of old. But this triumph lasted only for a brief period. When Theodosius defeated the usurper at Aquileia, in the spring of 394, he also defeated paganism, which sank to rise no more as a public religion, though it long lingered in private amidst indifference, toleration, and at times persecution.
The influence exercised by Ambrose upon the rulers of his day is sufficiently manifested by these facts, but he had the courage to use not only influence, but, when needed, rebuke and Church discipline.
Only a few months after his elevation to the see of Milan, he remonstrated with Valentinian I. concerning the severity of his rule and other abuses, and required amendment. The Emperor's reply did him honour: |Well, if I have offended, prescribe for me the remedies which the law of God requires.| Again, on another occasion, in 390, Theodosius had put down a seditious movement in Thessalonica with great severity, causing some 7,000 persons to be slain. St. Ambrose at once, disregarding the possible consequences to himself, wrote him a letter (Ep.51) on the subject, exhorting him to repentance, and pointing out that he could not permit him to be present at the celebration of the Mysteries, till he had openly testified his sorrow. At another time when the same Emperor had ventured into the sanctuary or chancel of the church, which was the right of the clergy alone, St. Ambrose rebuked him and caused him to retire.
These acts of ecclesiastical discipline were also accompanied by others in which the great Bishop was able in temporal matters to assist the imperial family.
Twice on behalf of the young Emperor Valentinian II. he undertook a mission to Trèves, to see the usurper Maximus, and when Valentinian died, St. Ambrose delivered a striking oration at his funeral, recording his many virtues. Theodosius did not survive his victory over Eugenius for many months. In January of the following year [a.d.395], he died at Milan, and the funeral oration which St. Ambrose pronounced over him is also extant.
Yet whilst thus devoting much time to weighty affairs of State, the Bishop never neglected the duties of his office. He preached every Sunday, at great festivals, once or more often, every day. He celebrated the Holy Mysteries daily. His life was marked by perfect purity, sympathy, energy, and devotion. He was always ready to help those requiring assistance, and so when Augustine came to Milan to teach rhetoric, a.d.384, he was kindly received and fascinated. Probably he owed his conversion even more to the life and character than to the teaching of St. Ambrose.
One subject St. Ambrose never tired of recommending was Virginity; and such was the power of his exhortations that mothers used to forbid their daughters to attend his sermons and addresses.
The indefatigable zeal of the great Bishop further exhibited itself in the number of his writings. Many of them consist of addresses subsequently worked up into treatises, and are on all subjects, dogmatic, controversial, exegetical, and ascetic. There remain also a large number of valuable letters, and some hymns, probably from four to twelve of those ascribed to him being genuine, and in use to the present day.
But besides his writings and his resistance to the attacks of Arianism, heathenism, or the secular power, St. Ambrose devoted himself to actively defending the cause of the Church and of orthodoxy wherever he had the opportunity. Although the death of Satyrus, a.d.379, must have greatly added to the troubles of St. Ambrose, he was as watchful as ever against all possibilities of heretical aggression. To his care and opposition to the party of the Empress Justina it was owing that the city of Sirmium was preserved in a.d.381 from receiving an Arian bishop. And in the same year, when the Arians, hoping for large support from the East, had almost persuaded the Emperor to summon a general council at Aquileia, St. Ambrose prevailed upon him to summon only the neighbouring bishops, and what might have been a serious evil was avoided.
In such ways the holy man, embracing in his far-seeing care the interests of religion far and wide, spent his days in unceasing labour till his health failed in the year 397, when, as is related by Paulinus, Count Stilicho, saying that the loss of such a man threatened destruction to Italy, persuaded the nobles of the city to request St. Ambrose that he would pray for longer life. But the Saint replied: |I have not so lived amongst you as to be ashamed of living, and I do not fear to die, for we have a good Lord.| As some of the bystanders were discussing in whispers who would be St. Ambrose's successor, and mentioned Simplicianus, he overheard them, and said, |An old man, but good.| For the last few hours of his life Ambrose lay with his arms extended in the form of a cross, praying. Honoratus, Bishop of Vercellæ, lying in another room, heard himself called thrice, and coming down, offered him the Body of the Lord, after receiving which St. Ambrose breathed his last, on Good Friday night, April 4-5, a.d.397, and was laid to rest on Easter morning in the Ambrosian basilica at Milan, where he still is reverenced, and in which the Ambrosian liturgy and rites, differing considerably from the Roman use of the rest of the churches of Italy, continue to this day, though doubtless with many modifications subsequent to the time of St. Ambrose.