Ambrose Autpert Discovered the Church’s True Face

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

During his general audience on April 22, Pope Benedict XVI resumed his series of catecheses on the great medieval writers of the Church both from the East and the West.

He focused his attention on Ambrose Autpert, a little-known Benedictine monk who lived in the eighth century, an era of great turbulence.

Dear brothers and sisters,

The Church lives within her people, and whoever wishes to know the Church and understand her mystery has to examine those persons who have lived and who continue to live her message, her mystery. That is why for some time now I have been speaking during these Wednesday catecheses about those people from whom we can learn what the Church is.

We began with the apostles and the Fathers of the Church and slowly we have made our way to the eighth century — to the time of Charlemagne. Today I would like to speak about Ambrose Autpert, a relatively unknown author. His works have, in fact, been largely attributed to other more famous figures, ranging from St. Ambrose of Milan to St. Ildephonsus, not to mention those of his works that the monks of Montecassino attributed to one of their abbots, who was also named Ambrose, but who lived a century later.

Apart from some brief autobiographical references that he included in his well-known commentary on the Book of Revelation, we have little information about his life.

Nonetheless, we can discover in his teaching a precious theological and spiritual treasure for our times by carefully reading those works that critics have attributed to him over time.

A Short Biography

Born in Provence into a distinguished family, Ambrose Autpert — according to Giovanni, a later biographer — was part of the court of Pepin the Short, a Frankish king, where, in addition to his responsibility as a court official, he was also a tutor to Charlemagne, the future emperor.

Autpert traveled to Italy, probably after Pope Stephen II’s visit to the Frankish court in 753-754, where he had the opportunity to visit the famous Benedictine abbey of St. Vincent at the source of the Volturno in the Duchy of Benevento.

Founded at the beginning of the eighth century by three brothers from Benevento — Paldone, Tatone and Tascone — the abbey was renowned as an oasis of classical and Christian culture.

Shortly after his visit, Ambrose Autpert decided to embrace religious life and entered that monastery, where he could receive adequate formation, especially in theology and spirituality, according to the tradition of the Fathers of the Church. He was ordained a priest around 761.

In October of 777, with the support of the Frankish monks, he was elected abbot, despite the opposition of the Lombards, who favored Potone, their fellow countryman. These nationalistic tensions did not subside during the ensuing months.

As a result, Ambrose resigned a year later (in 778) and withdrew with some of the Frankish monks to Spoleto, where he could count on the protection of Charlemagne.

Nevertheless, even this did not bring an end to the quarreling at the monastery of St. Vincent.

A few years later, when Potone himself was elected abbot in 782 after the death of Autpert’s successor, conflict broke out once again. Complaints about the new abbot reached the court of Charlemagne, who sent those involved in the conflict before a pontifical tribunal convened in Rome. Autpert was called in as a witness, but he died unexpectedly — probably murdered — while en route to Rome on Jan. 30, 784.

Ambrose Autpert was a monk and abbot during a time marked by great political tensions, which also had repercussions on life within the monasteries. He frequently voiced his concerns in his writings.

For example, he decried the contradiction between the splendid outward aspect of the monasteries and the “lukewarmness” of the monks themselves. Undoubtedly, he had his own abbey in mind when he made his criticism.

A Moral Theologian

For this reason, he wrote the biographies of the three founders of the monastery with the clear intention of offering the future generations of monks a benchmark by which they could measure themselves.

He had the same purpose in mind when he wrote a short treatise on asceticism entitled Conflictus Vitiorum et Virtutum (The Conflict Between Vice and Virtue). It was a great success in the Middle Ages and was published in 1473 in Utrecht under the name of Gregory the Great and a year later in Strasbourg under St. Augustine’s name.

In it, Ambrose Autpert sought to teach monks concrete ways of facing the spiritual struggles of daily life. It is significant to note that he applied the words of 2 Timothy 3:12 — “All who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” — not to external persecution, but to the assault from the forces of evil that Christians have to confront within themselves. In a sort of juxtaposition, he presents a battle between 24 pairs of combatants where various vices seek to entice the soul with their subtle reasoning while the corresponding virtues rebut their efforts, preferably using words from Scripture.

In this treatise on the conflict between vices and virtues, Autpert contrasts cupiditas (greed) with contemptus mundi (contempt for the world), a contrast that would become an important element in monastic spirituality. This contempt for the world is not contempt for creation — for the beauty and goodness of creation and the Creator — but contempt for the false vision of the world that greed presents in order to ensnare us.

Greed insinuates that “having” is the ultimate value of our existence, of living in the world under the appearance of having importance. Thus, greed distorts creation and destroys the world.

Autpert goes on to note that the lust for profit among the rich and powerful members of the society of his time also existed in the souls of monks. For this reason, he wrote another treatise entitled De Cupiditate in which he, like the apostle Paul, denounced greed as the root of all evil. He wrote: “Many thorns sprout from the ground from different roots. But in the hearts of men, the sharp sting of all vices comes from a single root — greed!” (De Cupiditate 1: CCCM 27B, p. 963).

I especially point this out because in light of the current world economic crisis this still has great relevance today. We see that such a crisis has its roots in greed.

Ambrose anticipates the objections that the rich and powerful might raise, saying that they are not monks and that certain ascetic practices do not apply to them. His response is as follows: “That is true, but the narrow and steep road applies even to you, according to your social status and the measure of your powers, because the Lord has proposed only two doors and two ways (the narrow door or the wide door, and the steep road or the easy one). He did not indicate a third door and a third way” (l.c., p. 978).

He clearly saw that there are many different lifestyles. But mankind in this world — even the rich man — has a duty to struggle against greed, against the desire to possess and to show off, against a false concept of freedom understood as being able to dispose of everything in accordance with one’s own will.

The rich must also discover the true path of truth, love and a just life. Thus, Ambrose Autpert, a prudent shepherd of souls, could offer a comforting word at the end of his penitential preaching: “I have spoken not against the greedy, but against greed; not against nature, but against vice” (l.c., p. 981).

A Scripture Scholar

Ambrose’s most important work is undoubtedly his 10-volume commentary on the Book of Revelation. Centuries later it remains the foremost in-depth commentary in the Latin world on the last book of sacred Scripture.

This work was the fruit of several years of labor that was carried out in two stages between 758 and 767 before his election as abbot. In the preface, he indicates his sources with great precision, something unusual for the Middle Ages. Through what is perhaps his most significant source — the commentary by Bishop Primasio Adrumetano that was written around the middle of the sixth century — Autpert discovered an interpretation of the Book of Revelation by Tyconius, an African who had lived a generation before St. Augustine. Tyconius was not Catholic. He belonged to the schismatic church of the Donatists, but he was a great theologian nonetheless.

In his commentary, Tyconius saw, above all, a reflection of the mystery of the Church in the Book of Revelation. Tyconius was convinced that the Church was a body that consisted of two parts: One part, he said, belonged to Christ, but the other part belonged to the devil.

Augustine read this commentary and profited from it, but he strongly emphasized that the Church is in the hands of Christ and remains his body, forming a single entity with him and participating in the mediation of grace. For this reason, he pointed out that the Church can never be separated from Jesus Christ.

In his reading of the Book of Revelation, similar to that of Tyconius, Autpert was not so much interested in the second coming of Christ at the end of time as he was in the consequences that the Church of today derives from his first coming — his incarnation in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He speaks a very important word to us: Every day Christ “must be born, die and be resurrected in us, those who make up his body” (In Apoc. III: CCCM 27, p. 205).

In the context of the mystical dimension with which every Christian is cloaked, he looks at Mary as the model of the Church, a model for all of us, because Christ has to be born in us and through us.

A Marian Theologian

Along with the Fathers of the Church who saw in “the woman clothed with the sun” in Revelation 12:1 the image of the Church, Autpert argues: “The blessed and pious Virgin ... gives birth to new people daily, giving form to the general body of the Mediator. Therefore, it is not surprising if she, in whose blessed womb the Church itself merits being united to its head, represents the Church itself.”

In this regard, Autpert sees the Virgin Mary playing a decisive role in the work of redemption (also see his homilies In Purificatione s. Mariae and In Adsumptione s. Mariae).

His great veneration and profound love for the Mother of God inspired him at times to formulate prayers that anticipated in a certain way those of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Franciscan mysticism, without deviating to questionable forms of sentimentalism, because he never separates Mary from the mystery of the Church. For good reason, Ambrose Autpert is considered the first great Marian theologian of the West.

He taught that piety, which according to him should free the soul from any attachment to earthly and fleeting pleasures, must be united to a profound study of the sacred sciences, especially meditation on sacred Scripture, which he describes as “profound heaven, unfathomable abyss” (In Apoc. IX).

In the beautiful prayer with which he concludes his commentary on the Book of Revelation, where he highlights the priority that truth owes to love in every theological quest, he turns to God with these words: “When you are scrutinized by us intellectually, you are not discovered as you truly are. But when we love you, then we reach you.”

A Model for Our Times

Today, we see in Ambrose Autpert a person who lived in a time of great political exploitation of the Church, a time in which nationalism and tribalism disfigured the face of the Church.

But in the midst of these difficulties, which we too have experienced, he was able to discover the true face of the Church in Mary and in the saints. In this way, he understood what it meant to be Catholic — to be Christian — to live on God’s word, to enter into its profound nature and thereby experience the mystery of the Mother of God: to give new life to the word of God and to offer our own flesh to the word of God in our own time.

With all his theological knowledge and with the depth of his knowledge, Autpert realized that God cannot be known as he truly is simply through some theological quest. We attain him only through love.

Let us listen to his message and ask the Lord to help us live this mystery of the Church today in our time.

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