St. Ambrose of Milan
Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.
General Audience Wednesday, October 24, 2007
During his general audience on Oct. 24, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Ambrose off Milan, who played an important role in St. Augustine’s eventual conversion and baptism. St. Ambrose, the Holy Father emphasized, is an “icon” for catechists, since his teaching was thoroughly rooted in his entire life. For St. Ambrose, “Christ was everything.”
Dear brothers and sisters,
Ambrose, the saintly bishop of whom I will speak to you today, died in Milan during the night of April 3 and April 4 of the year 397 — at dawn on Holy Saturday. The day before, around five o’clock in the afternoon, he began to pray as he was lying in bed, with his arms open in the form of the cross, thereby taking part in the solemn celebration of the Easter Triduum — in the Lord’s death and resurrection.
“We saw him moving his lips,” Paulinus, the faithful deacon who wrote Ambrose’s biography at the request of St. Augustine, testified. “But we could not hear his voice.” At one point, his condition took a turn for the worse. Honoratus, the bishop of Vercelli who assisted Ambrose and who slept upstairs from him, was awakened by a voice saying repeatedly, “Quick! Get up! Ambrose is about to die.”
Paulinus relates that Honoratus quickly went downstairs “and offered the saint the body of the Lord. Right after taking and swallowing it, Ambrose surrendered his spirit, carrying within him the holy viaticum. Thus, his soul, nourished by the blessing of that food, now rejoices in the company of angels” (Vita, 47).
On that Good Friday of the year 397, the dying Ambrose’s open arms were an expression of how he took part in a mystical way in our Lord’s death and resurrection. This was his last catechesis. He never spoke a word, yet he spoke through the testimony of life.
Ambrose was not very old when he died. He was not even 60. He was born around 340 in Trier, where his father was prefect of the Gauls. The family was Christian.
After his father died while he was still a boy, his mother took him to Rome to prepare him for a career in civil service, providing him with a solid education in rhetoric and law. Around 370, he was sent to govern the provinces of Emilia and Liguria, with his headquarters in Milan. There, the struggle between orthodox Christians and Arians was at its height, especially after the death of Auxentius, the Arian bishop.
Ambrose intervened in order to establish peace between the opposing factions, and his authority was so great that, despite the fact that he was simply a catechumen at the time, the people, by acclamation, elected him as bishop of Milan.
Up to that time, Ambrose had been the highest magistrate of the Roman Empire in northern Italy. Culturally learned but deficient in his knowledge of Scripture, the new bishop quickly began to study Scripture.
Using the works of Origen, the undisputed master of the school of Alexandria, Ambrose learned to study the Bible and comment on it. Thus, Ambrose introduced the Latin Church to the practice of meditating on Scriptures, which had originated with Origen, and began the practice of lectio divina (divine reading) in the West.
This method soon guided Ambrose’s preaching and writing, which flowed from prayerful listening to the word of God.
A famous preamble to one of Ambrose’s teachings demonstrates quite well how this holy bishop applied the Old Testament to Christian life: “When we read stories about the patriarchs and the maxims of the Book of Proverbs, we deal with morality on a daily basis,” the bishop of Milan told his catechumens and those who were newly baptized. (Here “patriarchs” refers to the historical books, and the “Book of Proverbs” refers to the wisdom books.) Thus, formed and educated by them, you can then grow accustomed to entering into the life of the Patriarchs and following the path of obedience to God’s precepts” (see I misteri, 1,1).
St. Augustine of Hippo
In other words, Ambrose felt that these catechumens and newly baptized Christians, after having learned the art of living morally, could then be considered prepared for the great mysteries of Christ. In this way, Ambrose’s preaching, which represents the heart of his prodigious literary work, is rooted in reading the sacred books in order to live in conformity with what God has revealed.
Clearly, both the personal witness of the preacher and the example of the Christian community has an effect on the effectiveness of any preaching. From this perspective, a passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions is significant.
Augustine had come to Milan as a professor of rhetoric. He was a skeptic, not yet a Christian. He was searching, but he was not in a position to truly discover the truth of Christianity. However, it was not ultimately Ambrose’s beautiful homilies that that moved his heart and finally converted this young, skeptical and desperate rhetorician from Africa, even though he appreciated them immensely. Rather, it was the testimony of the bishop and the Church in Milan, which prayed and sang, united as a single body. It was a Church capable of resisting the arrogant actions of the emperor and his mother, who, early in 386, demanded the expropriation of a church building for Arian ceremonies.
Within the building that was to be expropriated, Augustine wrote, “The devout people of Milan kept vigil, ready to die with their bishop.” This testimony in the Confessions is invaluable because it shows that something was moving deep within Augustine. He went on to say: “Despite the fact that we were still spiritually lukewarm, we, too, were participants in the excitement of the entire population” (see Confessions 9, 7).
From Ambrose’s life and example, Augustine learned to believe and to preach.
Let us refer to a famous sermon of Augustine, which was worthy enough to be cited many centuries later in Dei Verbum, the constitution of the council. “All the clergy must hold fast to the sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study,” we read in section 25 of Dei Verbum, “especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This is to be done so that none of them will become” — and here is where Augustine is quoted — “‘an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly, who is not a listener to it inwardly.’”
It was from Ambrose that Augustine learned “to listen inwardly,” to be diligent in reading sacred Scripture in an attitude of prayer, thereby truly receiving it in his heart and assimilating the Word of God.
An ‘Icon’ for Catechists
My dear brothers and sisters, I would like to present you with a kind of “patristic icon” that, when interpreted in the light of all that we have just said, represents in a very effective way the heart of Ambrose’s teaching.
In his Confessions, Augustine recounts his encounter with Ambrose, which certainly was a meeting of great importance in the history of the Church. He writes that whenever he came to see Ambrose, he always found him surrounded by catervae (hordes) of people with problems, for whom Ambrose did everything possible. There was always a long line of people waiting to speak to Ambrose, seeking consolation and hope.
When Ambrose was not with these people (this only happened for short periods of time), he was either restoring his body with the food that it needed to survive or nourishing his spirit through reading. Here, too, Augustine was amazed because Ambrose read Scripture silently, merely with his eyes (see Confessions, 6,3).
During the early centuries of Christianity, reading was strictly conceived as proclamation; reading aloud facilitated understanding, even for those who did the reading. The fact that Ambrose could read a text merely using his eyes was a sign for the astonished Augustine that Ambrose had a unique capacity for reading and great familiarity with the Scriptures.
This “reading in a whisper,” where the heart is committed to understanding the Word of God, is the “icon” we are talking about.
Here we can perceive the method of Ambrose’s catechesis. It is Scripture itself, which has been assimilated in our innermost being, that suggests the content of what we are to proclaim in order to bring about a conversion of hearts.
Christ Is Everything!
Thus, according to the teachings of Ambrose and Augustine, catechesis is inseparable from the witness of one’s life. Catechists may also find what I wrote about theologians in my Introduction to Christianity useful.
Educators of the faith cannot risk looking like some sort of clown, who is simply acting out his role. Rather, using an image dear to Origen—a writer whom Ambrose especially appreciated — they should be like the beloved disciple, who rested his head on the Master’s heart and there learned how to think, speak and act.
In the end, the true disciple is the one who proclaims the Gospel in the most credible and effective manner.
Like John the Apostle, Bishop Ambrose — who never tired of saying over and over again Omnia Christus est nobis! (Christ is everything for us!) — is still truly a witness for the Lord.
Let us conclude our catechesis with his own words, full of love for Jesus: “Omnia Christus est nobis! If you want to heal a wound, he is the physician. If you are burning with fever, he is the fountain. If you are oppressed by iniquity, he is justice. If you need help, he is strength. If you fear death, he is life. If you desire heaven, he is the way. If you are in darkness, he is the light. …Taste and see how good the Lord is. Blessed is the man who hopes in him!” (De virginitate, 16,99).
Let us also hope in Christ. In this way, we will be blessed and will live in peace.
- November 4-10, 2007