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St. Ambrose (December 7)

December 7, 2009

Ambrose (who lived from roughly 340-397 A.D.), whose name means “Immortal”,
has been immortalized in Church history, not only as a saint, but also as a Doctor of the Church and as one of the Fathers of the early Church.

All this came as something of a surprise to Ambrose himself, though.
Although he was born of a noble Catholic family,
he had no intention of becoming a leader in the Church.
He studied law and was so good at it
that he was appointed to the governorship of a region in northern Italy,
taking up residence in Milan.

While he was governor, the bishop of Milan died.
This was a pivotal moment.
The deceased bishop had been an Arian
(Arianism, one of the most problematic of early heresies, denied that Jesus was God)
and had viciously persecuted faithful Catholics for years.
In that time and place, bishops were chosen by popular vote,
and authorities on all levels were worried about the very real possibility of public violence
as Arians and Catholics vied for their own candidates.
Ambrose, as governor, went to the basilica (where the various factions had assembled)
to plead for peace and moderation.
While he was speaking, someone cried out, “Ambrose, Bishop!”
and soon the whole crowd, who already loved him as an able, level-headed governor,
took up the shout: “Ambrose,  Bishop!”
Ambrose was horrified!
He didn’t want the job, nor was he qualified–he hadn’t even been Baptized,
let alone been raised to the priesthood!
(In those days, people often foolishly waited until they were on their deathbed to be Baptized,
so they wouldn’t risk losing their Baptismal innocence).
Ambrose fled, hid, protested, all to no avail.
He was to be Bishop, and that was that.
So within a week’s time, he was Baptized, ordained to the priesthood
and then ordained Bishop of Milan on December 7, 374.
You’ll notice that the day we celebrate as his memorial is unusual
in that it’s the day of his ordination as bishop, rather than the day of his death.

Resigned to his mission at last, Ambrose decided that if he had to be a Bishop,
he’d better change his lifestyle to fit his new mission.
He gave away his wealth,
setting aside just enough for the support of his sister, Marcellina (a consecrated virgin),
began to live very simply,
and devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers.
If he was going to have to preach, he had to learn fast!
He not only learned fast, he learned well and put what he learned into practise.
He lived an exemplary life; kind, generous and available to all,
yet courageously unyielding in upholding and defending the Faith.

When the Arian empress Justina (through the emperor)
demanded that he turn over a basilica for Arian use, he refused,
replying that he would willingly give up anything he owned,
but that he had no right to give up what belonged to God.
Soldiers surrounded the church to take it by force,
but he remained peacefully within,
leading prayers and songs (some of which he had written) with his people.
Finally, the emperor backed down.

Justina tried again, about a year later, again demanding the use of the basilica
and even sending an assassin to murder him, but again God protected the saint.
He lived to intercede with other monarchs for peace and for the rights of the Church.
He lived to write extensively, explaining the Faith and defending it against heresy.
He even opposed Emperor Theodosius to his face,
barring him from the church and demanding that he do public penance
for an indiscriminate (although not unprovoked) massacre he had ordered in Thessalonica.
The emperor submitted.

Ambrose is also known for his role in the conversion of another great Father of the early Church, St. Augustine, who was captivated by Ambrose’ preaching and finally came to him for Baptism.

(Material adapted from _Butler’s Lives of the Saints_ and the _Catholic Encyclopedia_, 1907 edition)

St. Ambrose, pray for us!

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