Listers, St. Ambrose is a man of keen intellect and ecclesial effrontery. Amongst the reasons for his adulations are a tome of wondrous theological treatises, his role in the conversion of the great St. Augustine, and his bravery in denying the Roman Emperor the Eucharist.
The Church celebrates the feast of St. Ambrose on December 7th.
A Doctor of the Church
“Bishop of Milan from 374 to 397; born probably 340, at Trier, Arles, or Lyons; died 4 April, 397. He was one of the most illustrious Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and fitly chosen, together with St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius, to uphold the venerable Chair of the Prince of the Apostles in the tribune of St. Peter’s at Rome.”1
The Legend of the Bees
“There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence and honeyed tongue. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint’s symbology.”2
An Accomplished Statesman & Roman Governor
“After the early death of his father, Ambrose followed his father’s career. He was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus first gave him a place in the council and then in about 372 made him consular prefect or “Governor” of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which was then (beside Rome) the second capital in Italy.”
“Ambrose was the Governor of Aemilia-Liguria in northern Italy until 374 when he became the Bishop of Milan. He was a very popular political figure, and since he was the Governor in the effective capital in the Roman West, he was a recognizable figure in the court of the Emperor Valentinian I. Ambrose never married.”3
Elected a Bishop of the Church and Was Not Even a Catholic
The Church was awash in the Arian heresy. The good and virtuous Bishop Dionysius had suffered exile, and a new heretical Arian bishop had replaced him. The Arian persecuted those who held to orthodoxy. In AD 374 the ecclesial tyrant died, and the people were free from twenty years of hardships.
The election of a bishop in the dawning years of the Church differed greatly than how it is gone today. Then it was popular for the people to elect a candidate or for the Emperor to nominate one. Assuming the man was upright and just, Rome would consent. However, in this situation the other bishops of the area begged Emperor Valentinian to simply appoint one by imperial edict, because they feared the choice and possible violence a choice of the people could precipitate. The Emperor rejected their plea, and it fell to Milian’s Governor, Ambrose, to make sure the election proceded with order.
“Proceeding to the basilica in which the disunited clergy and people were assembled, [Ambrose] began a conciliatory discourse in the interest of peace and moderation, but was interrupted by a voice (according to Paulinus, the voice of an infant [young child]) crying, “Ambrose, Bishop”. The cry was instantly repeated by the entire assembly, and Ambrose, to his surprise and dismay, was unanimously pronounced elected.”4
Ambrose was not even a Catholic. He was however an unbaptized catechumen interested in the Catholic faith, and was known to already be a staunch defender of the Nicene Creed. His political prudence and his nascent orthodox faith made him the perfect candidate for Bishop of Milan. Still, Ambrose did not want the post.
“At any rate his efforts were unsuccessful. Valentinian, who was proud that his favourable opinion of Ambrose had been so fully ratified by the voice of clergy and people, confirmed the election and pronounced severe penalties against all who should abet him in his attempt to conceal himself. The Saint finally acquiesced, received baptism at the hands of a Catholic bishop, and eight day later, 7 December 374, the day on which East and West annually honour his memory, after the necessary preliminary degrees was consecrated bishop.”5
It is said that upon his consecration as a bishop, Ambrose used his rhetoric and political prudence to stamp our Arianism in his diocese.
St. Ambrose & The Roman Emperors
“Candid and fearless no matter how strong the opposition, Ambrose was directed to confront Maximus, the murderer of the Emperor Gratian. When Maximus refused to do penance, Ambrose excommunicated him.”
“Later he denied Emperor Theodosius [whom he had converted to Catholicism] entrance into church for his massacre of the inhabitants of Thessalonica. It was on this occasion that allusion was made to [King] David as a murderer and adulterer, and Ambrose retorted: “You have followed him in sin, now follow him in repentance.” Humbly, Theodosius accepted the penance imposed.”6
St. Ambrose & the Conversion of St. Augustine
The part St. Ambrose played in the conversion of St. Augustine was mainly one of being an exemplar. The ancient world prized orations and rhetorical skills, and St. Augustine thought all Catholics to be poor speakers – until he met Bishop Ambrose. Moreover, St. Augustine’s Confessions highlights the saints struggle with lust. He observed the bishop – who never married – and watched how he handled the burden of celibacy. Furthermore, Monica, the mother of St. Augustine, had pleaded with Ambrose to speak with Augustine and convince him of the faith. Ambrose wisely denied, not wanting to bet the faith on a rhetorical sparring match between he and Augustine, but to let Augustine work out his own salvation in fear and trembling. It is recorded in Confessions that the young Augustine went to the bishop several times to talk with and observe the holy man.
After what has become known as the dramatic garden scene in his Confessions, Augustine presented himself and his son to Ambrose to be baptized. Both Ambrose and St. Augustine are doctors of the Church, and St. Augustine is the most quoted saint in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – with St. Thomas Aquinas a close second.
Patronage & Symbolism
Patron: bee keepers; bees; candlemakers; chandlers; domestic animals; French Commissariat; learning; Milan, Italy; schoolchildren; students; wax melters; wax refiners.
Symbols: Scourge; beehive; tower; dove; cope and mitre; human bones; scroll with staff of music; pen book and pen; cross; chalice; bull; knotted scourge; two scourges; goose; writing tablet and stylus; heart surmounted with flame; scroll with quotation from writings.
Often Portrayed As: Bishop holding a church in his hand; beehive; man arguing with a pagan; with Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine of Hippo.7
St. Ambrose, pray for us.