St Ambrose of Milan - detail from a fresco by Giovanni di Piamonte
in the Basilica di San Francesco, Arezzo, Italy,
painted between 1456 and 1466.
St Ambrose (Aurelius Ambrosius) was the Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397. Born around 340 the son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul, he was raised in a Christian family, and also in the milieu of the Roman senate. He studied law and became consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia in Italy’s northern provinces, based in Milan, before the age of 30. When the Bishop of Milan died, the lay people demanded that Ambrose be their new bishop. He became a catechumen and was baptized and ordained with haste. His preaching was powerful and anointed, converting the unlearned and learned alike, including St Augustine. Ambrose was a great teacher of the Faith, a caring pastor of the people, and a robust opponent of Arianism. He also inspired a renewal in the Church’s music. He is one of the original Four Doctors of the Western Church (the others are St Jerome, St Augustine, and St Gregory the Great).
Writing to Constantius before Lent in 379, St Ambrose describes how he thinks bishops should minister:
“You have entered upon the office of bishop. Sitting at the helm of the Church, you pilot the ship against the waves. Take firm hold of the rudder of faith so that the severe storms of this world cannot disturb you. The sea is mighty and vast, but do not be afraid, for as Scripture says: he has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the waters.
“The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the apostles among so many dangers in the world; it therefore remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakeable and firm against the assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the Church but do not shatter it. Although the elements of this world constantly beat upon the Church with crashing sounds, the Church possesses the safest harbor of salvation for all in distress . . .
“Let your sermons be flowing, let them be clear and lucid so that by suitable disputation you may pour sweetness into the ears of the people, and by the grace of your words may persuade the crowd to follow willingly where you lead.”
What would St Ambrose think about the capitulation of so many Church leaders in our time to the spirit of the age, or their desire to be thought well of by the chattering classes of the secular world? We should pray for our bishops!