St Ambrose was reluctantly made a bishop, but embraced Christianity to become one of the most prominent ecclesiastics of his time
Ambrose (c 340-97) is regarded, along with St Jerome, St Augustine and St Gregory the Great, as one of the four leading Doctors of the Church. Yet his early endeavours were directed entirely towards secular success.
He was born in Trier, where his father held sway as prefect of Gaul. On the death of this powerful parent, Ambrose returned with his mother and sister to Rome, where he became a formidable Greek scholar.
He also proved a highly successful advocate, whose talents were rewarded when Emperor Valentinian established him in Milan as governor of Liguria and Aemilia.
Ambrose’s life, however, changed dramatically in 374, after the death of Auxentius, the bishop of Milan. Auxentius had been sympathetic to the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ; and now there was fierce strife in the town about whether an Arian or an orthodox bishop should be appointed as his successor.
Ambrose, as governor, strove to keep the peace between the warring factions. He spoke so eloquently that, to his consternation, the mob began to cry that he should be appointed the new bishop.
Though nominally a Christian, Ambrose had not at that stage even been baptised. Yet when he appealed to the emperor to take heed of his unsuitability for ecclesiastical office, Valentinian coolly returned that he was flattered to have chosen a governor who was also qualified to be a bishop.
Ambrose embraced his destiny, and as bishop immediately signalled his new way of life by giving away his personal effects to the poor and his estates to the Church. He applied himself to theology, becoming an implacable opponent of the Arians.
The young St Augustine, when he visited the bishop in 384, found him overwhelmed with work and callers. Yet Ambrose, through his sermons, and through his resolutely metaphysical approach to religion – he dismissed the body as a “tattered garment” – helped to deliver Augustine from Manichaeism.
In line with this contempt for the purely physical, Ambrose developed an exalted view of virginity, “the one thing that separates us from the beasts”. Some mothers became so alarmed by this view that they forbade their daughters to listen to him. You are wrong, Ambrose shrewdly riposted: the more virginity is honoured, the more the population will increase.
In church, Ambrose popularised the chanting of psalms, introducing exciting new eastern melodies.
The extraordinary force of his personality meant that he became one of the first ecclesiastics to exercise influence in high politics, as when he persuaded the usurper Maximus not to invade Italy.
Yet he never compromised his principles, as the dowager Empress Justina discovered when she urged the Arian cause. Indeed, even the Eastern Emperor Theodosius, the most powerful man in the world, deemed it wise to submit to Ambrose’s chastisements.