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Saint Ambrose

Ambrose had it all. He had been born at Trèves sometime about 339, the son of a high official in the Roman Empire, and had been educated in Rome. Now, at 34 he had a successful career as a lawyer and was governor of Milan, a friend of the emperor and the owner of a large estate.

Then the bishop of Milan died. This happened about the year 374, at a time when the church was divided by the Arian heresy which argued against the divinity of Christ. The bishop had been an Arian. Who would take his place - an Arian or a Catholic? Both sides met in the cathedral, a meeting that almost turned into a riot. This was when Ambrose had to step in. As governor, he was responsible for public order. He rushed to the cathedral and there made an impassioned speech, not for or against either side, but in favour of peace. He begged them to decide who their new bishop would be without fighting about it. Suddenly a voice from the crowd called out "Ambrose for Bishop!" and soon the whole crowd joined in. "Ambrose for Bishop! Ambrose for Bishop!" The other bishops were only too happy to have the decision taken out of their hands. The only one who was not pleased was Ambrose. He was happy doing what he did, and didn't want to give it all up and take up the post of bishop. In those heretical times being a bishop was a life-threatening occupation. So he did what any sensible man in that position would do - he ran away and hid in a friendly senator's house. He appealed to his friend the emperor to overturn the decision - he couldn't be a bishop because he hadn't been baptised, let alone ordained. The emperor refused, saying that any man that he chose to be a governor was fit for Episcopal office. On hearing this, the senator asked Ambrose to leave his house.

Ambrose was beaten, so he capitulated.

Since he had been forced to take up the office of bishop against his will, everybody expected Ambrose to carry on living in the same opulent way that he had before his ordination. But no! He gave all his property to the poor and started to learn all about Scripture and theology. The Arians thought he would be on their side since a lot of the members of the court and those in government were Arians. They, too, were wrong. He used his debating skills that he had learned as a lawyer to fight the Arians wherever they were - in church, in court, in the senate and even in the emperor's family. He hadn't wanted to be a bishop in the first place, but now he was, he was determined to fight heresy and pursue sanctity.

Then the Goths moved south and invaded the Roman Empire. When they reached Milan they took captives and held them to ransom. Ambrose paid all the money he had, and even took all the gold vessels belonging to the church and had them melted down as well. He had his reasons. "It is a better thing to save souls for the Lord than to save treasures", he said. "He who sent forth his apostles without gold had not need of gold to form his Church. The Church possesses gold, not to hoard, but to scatter abroad and come to the aid of the unfortunate. Would not the Lord say to us: 'Why have you let so many needy perish of hunger? Since you had gold, you should provide for their needs.' ... Could we say: 'I feared to leave the temple of God without ornament.' But that which can't be bought with gold does not take its value from gold. The best way to use the gold of the Redeemer is for the redemption of those in peril." But then, Ambrose was always more concerned for the poor than for power.

When the emperor Valentinian I died, the Empress Justina became regent for her son, Gratian, then only four years old (and who later became Emperor Valentinian II). Meanwhile, Maximus, a general in the Imperial Army, realised that the emperor's death gave him a chance to use his army to take over the empire. Justina went to Ambrose and asked him to negotiate with Maximus on her behalf. Now Justina was an Arian, and so an enemy of Ambrose. Nevertheless, Ambrose went to Maximus and somehow persuaded him not to invade. But Justina had a peculiar way of showing her gratitude. She demanded that Ambrose hand over his basilica to the Arians. He refused. The people were on his side, and he could easily have started a coup to overthrow Justina. But he didn't. He was always careful never to say or do anything to start violence. (Once, when Catholics seized an Arian priest and were going to put him to death, Ambrose intervened. He sent out priests and deacons to rescue his enemy.) This refusal upset Justina, and she persuaded her son to make a law legalising Arianism and forbidding Catholics to oppose Arians under pain of death. No one could even complain against a church being taken over by the Arians.

But this was going a bit too far for Ambrose. On Palm Sunday, he preached a sermon about not giving up churches. This worried the congregation, and, afraid for their lives, barricaded themselves and Ambrose in the basilica. The imperial army set up a siege on the basilica, trying to starve them out, but they were still there on Easter Sunday. In order to calm the fears of the people trapped inside the basilica, Ambrose taught them to sing some of the hymns he had composed. Once they had learnt them, he split the congregation in two and had each half sing alternate verses of the hymns. And so started the practice of communal singing in church. The music of praise and prayer seeped out through the walls of the basilica and into the hearts of the soldiers. Soon the soldiers outside joined in the singing. The siege was over.

With Arians fighting against Catholics and the military occupied with helping the Arians, Maximus decided Rome was ready for an invasion. Justina and her son were panic-stricken and didn't know what to do. In the end they turned to the one person they knew could solve the problem - the person they had just attacked and threatened. They asked Ambrose to intervene again and get Maximus to stop his invasion.

If he had refused, who would have blamed him. Instead, off he went to confront Maximus. But Maximus refused to compromise. Ambrose hurried home to warn Justina and her son, who then fled to Greece. Ambrose stayed behind. Fortunately, the emperor of the Eastern Empire, Theodosius, intervened and, in 394, defeated Maximus. He had his reasons for getting involved. This victory gave him the opportunity of taking over control of the Western empire and once again uniting East and West. Theodosius happened to be a Catholic and became a lifelong friend of Ambrose. Though not for long, as he died the following year to be succeeded by Honorius.

Ambrose died in 397, at the age of 57. His feast day is celebrated on the 7th December, the date of his ordination. He is the patron saint of Milan, and of book-keepers.

Bill Hutchings

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