Dear Friends in Christ,
Wednesday 7 December is the feast of Saint Ambrose of Milan, one of the most remarkable bishops of the early Church. Aurelius Ambrosius was born around the year 340 in the city of Trier, now in Germany but then in the Roman Province of Gaul. Ambrose’s father was the praetorian prefect of Gaul and in that office governed a vast portion of the empire; the boy followed his father into the Roman imperial service and received the best education available in Rome, becoming the consular prefect of Liguria and Emilia in northern Italy at the age of 32. Ambrose’s official residence as prefect was in Milan, now the largest city in Italy and even then a great metropolis of the ancient world.
According to tradition, the Gospel was first preached in Milan by Saint Barnabas, companion and coworker of Saint Paul, and a bishop was resident in Milan from the early third century. By the time Ambrose arrived in Milan in 372, the diocese was deeply divided by the Arian heresy which, though condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325, was still a powerful force in many parts of the empire. The Bishop of Milan died in 374, and Ambrose went to the basilica where the election of the new bishop was to take place in order to insure that there would be no riots or violence because of the Arians. In the midst of the deliberations, someone in the crowd shouted “Ambrose, bishop,” and the people began to chant his name. Ambrose, who was a Christian believer but had never been baptized, fled the assembly and went into hiding, but after a few days, Ambrose was convinced by friends that he had no choice in this matter. Over the course of a week he was baptized and ordained to the priesthood, and on 7 December 374, Prefect Ambrose was consecrated to the episcopate and became Bishop Ambrose of Milan, an office he held until his death in 397.
During his 23 year ministry, Bishop Ambrose proved himself to be one of the finest minds and best administrators in the Church. He decisively dealt with the Arian heretics, restored order to his diocese, worked closely with the pope to secure the faith and discipline of the Church, and still found time to be a poet, musician, liturgist and theologian who shaped the Catholic Church in Milan in distinctive ways that endure even now. In 385 a talented but confused young teacher named Aurelius Augustinus moved to Milan and began to attend Mass celebrated by Ambrose because of the bishop’s reputation as a powerful preacher of the Gospel. Over several months, Ambrose explained the Christian faith to the skeptical teacher, and at the Easter Vigil of 387, Bishop Ambrose baptized, chrismated (confirmed) and administered Holy Communion to the man known to us as Saint Augustine of Hippo. Along with Saints Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great, Ambrose is counted one of the four great Latin Doctors of the Church, and on his feast we give thanks for the life, ministry and intercession of Saint Ambrose of Milan.