Saints for Today: Ambrose, Bishop & Doctor of the Church (339-397)


Feast Day: December 07

Ambrose was born of a Roman Christian family and his father was an official in Gaul. When his father died, Ambrose moved back to Rome with his brother and sister. There he became a lawyer and eventually a consul in the region of Milan, Italy.

Ambrose was an apostle of charity, a reformer of the liturgy, a director of souls (he instructed and baptized St. Augustine), a defender of the vow of virginity and the consecrated life and a commentator on the Old Testament and the Gospel according to Luke.

In his disputes with the Emperor Auxentius, he coined the principle: “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.” Eventually, the emperor backed down. He publicly admonished Emperor Theodosius for the massacre of seven thousand innocent people. The emperor did public penance for his crime. This was Ambrose, the fighter, sent to Milan as Roman governor and chosen while yet a catechumen to be the people’s bishop.

Despite his lack of preparation for the Office of Bishop, Ambrose quickly made up for lost time. If he was going to be a bishop he believed in doing it properly. Thus he gave away all his property, embraced a severe standard of austerity and daily prayer, and immersed himself in the study of Scripture and theology. He became the protector of the poor and opened his door to all in need. He made a practice of preaching every Sunday in the basilica and personally oversaw the preparation of catechumens and the training of the clergy. In all this he quickly established a reputation as a model bishop.

When the Empress Justina attempted to extort two basilicas from Ambrose’s Catholics and give them to the Arians, Ambrose dared the eunuchs of the court to execute him. His own people rallied behind him in the face of imperial troops. In the midst of riots, he both spurred and calmed his people with wondrous new hymns set to exciting Eastern melodies.

Ambrose emerges as the man of action who cut a furrow through the lives of his contemporaries. Even royal personages were numbered among those who were to suffer crushing divine punishments for standing in Ambrose’s way. His sermons, his writings, and his personal life reveal him as an otherworldly man involved in the great issues of his day. Humanity, for Ambrose, was, above all, spirit. In order to think rightly of God and the human soul, the closest thing to God, no material reality at all was to be dwelt upon.

The influence of Ambrose on Augustine was profound. Ambrose converted Augustine by his preaching and philosophies of life. Augustine’s mother, Monica, loved Ambrose as an angel of God who uprooted her son from his former ways and led him to his convictions about Christ. It was Ambrose, after all, who placed his hands on the shoulders of the naked Augustine as he descended into the baptismal fountain to put on Christ.

Ambrose, always weak in health, died on Good Friday at the age of fifty-seven. In 1928 he was listed as a Doctor of the Church, together with Augustine, Jerome and Gregory the Great.

Ellsberg, Robert. “All Saints.” New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2010.
Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day-Updated and Expanded.” Cincinnati: Franciscan Media, 2013.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar-Updated and Revised Edition.” New York: Alba House, 2012.


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