Ambrose was born in 340 in Trier, Germany, and grew up to be a very successful lawyer. He later became governor of Milan, Italy, and lived on a large estate. In 374, there was a great controversy brewing between Catholics and Arians (heretics who argued against the divinity of Christ). When the Bishop of Milan died, the two sides met in the cathedral to choose a new bishop. A riot ensued and Ambrose, as governor, intervened. He did not speak on behalf of either side, but only sought to bring a peaceful solution. As he was speaking someone from the crowd yelled out, “Ambrose for bishop!” Soon the entire crowd was shouting the same thing. This pleased the other bishops of the province since they had been unable to solve the problem themselves.
Ambrose didn’t want the position and tried to run away; however, the emperor decided that Ambrose would be a good choice and compelled him to accept the episcopate. Not only did Ambrose take the position of bishop, but he immediately changed his life, giving his property to the poor and putting himself under the instruction of Saint Simplician to learn Scripture and theology.
The Arians thought that since Ambrose was a lawyer and many Arians were involved with government, he would side with them. Instead, Ambrose used his lawyerly skills to fight the Arians. He diligently fought against this heresy and, in 379, persuaded the emperor, Gratian, to outlaw Arianism in the West. Four years later, however, Emperor Gratian was killed and the new emperor, Valentinian II, ordered that churches be turned over to the Arians. But Ambrose successfully resisted this attempt.
When pagan Goths invaded the empire and took captives, Ambrose gave all the money he had to ransom them. He also gathered all the gold vessels in the Church and gave them over to the captors. He was always more concerned for souls than for power and riches. Even though he had been wealthy, he often reproached the rich for ignoring the poor, reminding them that God provided the earth and its resources as common property for all, and that all people had the same rights over nature. He further told them that it was not from their own stores that they gave to beggars, but from a portion of the beggar’s own that they were restoring to these poor people.
Ambrose continued his valiant battles against heresy, paganism and sin, always upholding Church teachings and God’s laws. He died in Milan on April 4, 397. He was one of the great figures of Christianity and more than anyone else was responsible for the rise of Christianity in the West as the Roman Empire was dying.
He was a fierce defender of the authority of the Church against secular authority and wrote profusely on the Bible and theology as well as numerous homilies and even hymns.
St. Ambrose was a friend of St. Augustine and was influential in bringing Augustine back to his Catholic faith, baptizing him in 387. Ambrose’s contemporaries considered him to be the model bishop – holy, learned, courageous, patient, and a staunch defender of the faith: a true doctor of the Church. His best-known works are De Officiis Ministrorum, a treatise on Christian ethics especially directed to the clergy; De Virginibus, written for his sister St. Marcellina; and De Fide, written against the Arians for Gratian.
Almighty Father, grant that we may choose as Ambrose did to follow the path of righteousness. And also, Father, give us the grace that we may also imitate St. Ambrose in following the right path, and doing so with a holy zeal; to be courageous and bold in our faith, lighting the path for others to follow. In the holy name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
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Vigil of the Immaculate Conception