We all know about famous actors who have gone on to become politicians.
But here’s a journey that’s even harder to imagine: what if your mayor or senator became a bishop? What if he were known to be so wise and compassionate that people from opposing factions and political parties sought him out for advice?
That’s what happened to a fourth-century governor named Aurelius Ambrosius. As an up-and-coming official in the Roman Empire, this young man never imagined that God would call him to help shepherd the Church. But when it happened, he decided to become the best bishop he could possibly be. We know him today as St. Ambrose.
Who, Me? Born around the year 340, Ambrose was the youngest of three children in an ancient Roman family that had embraced Christianity early on. His father held a high government position, and Ambrose followed in his footsteps, rising quickly through the ranks of the civil service. By his early thirties, he was enjoying a good career as a regional governor based in Milan, Italy.
Although Ambrose seems to have been wise and just in his official dealings, we might never have heard about him if he had not intervened to resolve a dispute one day in 374. The bishop of Milan had died, and followers of Arianism, a widespread heresy that denied Christ’s full divinity, were agitating to have one of their own elected as his successor. Mind you, this was not just a friendly debate. Arianism had been tearing the Christian community apart for decades, and elections like this one ran the risk of turning violent and bloody.
Sure enough, when everyone met in the Milan cathedral to choose a bishop, a riot broke out. Ambrose rushed over to restore order, as any conscientious official might do. A gifted speaker, he was appealing for calm when a young voice cried out, “Ambrose, bishop!” Much to his surprise, everyone else joined in immediately.
Why did people on both sides of the divide choose Ambrose? Some may have known that his family followed the traditional teaching of Rome, and others may have assumed that he had Arian views, like the deceased bishop. But over these doctrinal issues—which had many political overtones—it seems that most of the people thought that Ambrose would treat everyone fairly and without prejudice.
For his part, Ambrose wanted no part of being a bishop. It was a dangerous job! And what about his political career? His lack of training? The fact that he was still a catechumen and hadn’t yet been baptized? When all his protests fell on deaf ears, he retired to a friend’s house to hide. In the end, though, encouraged—or, more likely, pressed—by the emperor and other bishops, Ambrose felt obliged to accept his new role.
Giving His All. So now Ambrose stood at a crossroads. How would he deal with this abrupt shift of vocations? He could have decided to be a bishop in name only, performing his duties mechanically while changing little of his lifestyle. He could have used the office to enlarge his fortune, as others had done. He could have taken up his new responsibilities grudgingly, even resentfully.
But no—Ambrose accepted this new vocation as an invitation from God and a great treasure. Looking back on it later in life, he prayed, “Preserve, O Lord, that gift which you gave me even though I fled from it. For I knew I was not worthy to be called a bishop. . . . But by your grace I am what I am.”
Within a week, he was baptized, confirmed, and ordained. He sold all of his property and gave away his considerable wealth. With the intensity and passion that he had once devoted to advancing his career, he plunged into his second education—a prayerful, in-depth study of the Scriptures.
Unlike most Church leaders in the West, Ambrose was proficient in Greek. This enabled him to correspond with bishops and other pastors in the East—most notably, St. Basil, another vigorous opponent of Arianism. Ambrose read and studied Greek scholars like Origen, whose Scripture commentaries emphasized the importance of meditating on God’s word. Thanks to this contact, as Pope Benedict XVI observed, Ambrose initiated the practice of lectio divina in the West.
All of this prayerful study and reading made Ambrose a dynamic preacher. One young man who was attracted to his preaching—the future St. Augustine—remarked, “He was one of those who speak the truth, and speak it well, judiciously, pointedly, and with beauty and power of expression.”
Firmness and Mercy. It wasn’t only the bishop’s words that attracted Augustine, though, but the witness of his life. One thing he admired about Ambrose was his courageous—and contagious—stand for the truth. At the Synod of Aquileia, for example, Ambrose opposed two influential bishops who were teaching Arian doctrines and succeeded in having them deposed. About five years later, around 385, when the emperor and his mother demanded that one of Milan’s churches be handed over to the Arians, Ambrose and his congregation barricaded themselves inside and sang hymns as the imperial guard surrounded them. Impressed, Augustine wrote: “The devout people of Milan stayed put, ready to die with their own bishop.” As the story goes, the soldiers eventually joined in the singing and retreated.
Near the end of his life, Ambrose took a firm stand with another emperor, Theodosius. This one, however, was not a heretic. When Theodosius put down a rebellion by having thousands of civilians massacred, Ambrose decreed that he could not return to church until he publicly repented. And such was Ambrose’s influence that the emperor submitted to this demand. “There is no bishop in the empire,” he said, “worthy of the name, except Ambrose.”
But though he was unbending on truth and matters of doctrine, Ambrose was full of compassion for those in need. When an Arian priest was taken captive, Ambrose arranged for his ransom. He even went on diplomatic missions for the empress Justina, who had tried to take his church from him. Once, to ransom some hostages, he had some of the cathedral’s sacred vessels melted and converted into gold. “The church has gold, not to store up but to lay out and to spend on those in need,” he told his critics. His door was open to all, rich or poor, whatever their beliefs.
A Shepherd’s Heart. Could Ambrose the government official ever have imagined that he would come to be known as one of the Church’s first musicians? As unlikely as it may sound, this is exactly what happened. As bishop, he composed many hymns, some of which survive to this day. Many of them focused on God’s sovereignty and mercy and on the beauty of creation.
The hymns reveal Ambrose’s pastoral sensitivity and his dedication to true doctrine, for he used song to communicate the truths of Christianity. For example, to combat the confusion caused by different heresies that denied that God is a Trinity, Ambrose composed simple hymns on the subject, setting them to the metrical tunes used by the Roman soldiers. The effort was successful, as Ambrose explained:
What has more power than the confession of the Trinity which is daily celebrated by the mouth of the whole people? All eagerly vie with each other in confessing the faith, and know how to praise in verse the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So they all have become teachers.
Ambrose also developed a special gift of discernment. Called upon to arbitrate many conflicts and controversies, he learned when to stand his ground and when to be flexible.
In fact, the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is attributed to him. He reportedly said this when dealing with differences between the Church of Rome and the Church of Milan when it came to the practice of fasting. As far as Ambrose was concerned, the basic, indisputable truths of the faith are worth dying for, but there is room for cultural diversity when it comes to other customs and traditions.
Echoes of Ambrose’s approach resound right up to the present. Catholics around the world all celebrate the same Mass, but in different languages and with different types of music. A Mass in India may sound nothing like a Mass in the United States, but the faith and reality are the same.
Christ Is Everything! Ambrose died on Holy Saturday, April 4, in 397, after a short illness. Hearing that he was sick, many citizens came to his bedside, urging him to pray for his own recovery. “I have not lived among you in a way that I am ashamed to go on living,” Ambrose told them, “but I do not fear to die, for our Lord is good.” And indeed, as his earthly life was ending, he told a brother bishop that Jesus had come to his side and smiled at him.
More than twenty years earlier, Ambrose said yes when Jesus called him to become a priest and bishop. It was a challenging road, but along with the challenges came the peace of being where God wanted him, along with the deep joy of growing closer to the Lord. “Christ is everything for us,” Ambrose often used to say.
If we want to say the same, we have only to follow his example and give God’s plans priority over our own.
Christine Difato Layton lives in Jacksonville, Florida.