Today is the feast day of Saint Ambrose. Ora pro nobis.
“If you demand my person, I am ready to submit; carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist but I will never betray the church of Christ…I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it.” St Ambrose (13)
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
Saint Ambrose, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, a fearless defender of her rights, a terrible scourge to heresy, a most perfect example for all prelates, a miracle of Christian wisdom and eloquence, was the son of a Roman nobleman, who presided in Gaul as imperial governor. One day, while Ambrose was yet in his cradle, a swarm of bees alighted on his mouth without in the least harming the sleeping infant. It is believed that God by this announced the future sweet and yet powerful eloquence of St. Ambrose. After his father’s death, the Saint went to Rome with his mother, brother and sister. There he, one day, saw the people kiss the hand of a bishop, and, on his return home, he offered his hands to some children to kiss, saying: “Kiss my hands; for, when I grow up I shall be a bishop.” These words, spoken in childish jest, were prophetic. Ambrose was endowed by the Almighty with unusual facility for acquiring knowledge. Untiring in his studies, he became so excellent an orator, and so celebrated a jurist, that he was made governor of Emilia and Liguria when he was hardly thirty-two years old. Probus, the imperial chancellor, said to him, before his departure: “Go, and administer your functions, not as a judge, but as a bishop.” He meant by this that Ambrose should not govern by severity but with love and mildness; heaven’s signification of these words, however, was different.
When Ambrose, invested with this high dignity, arrived at Milan, he so completely gained all hearts by his wise and mild government, that the people obeyed him implicitly, and loved him most devotedly. Hardly had he been two years at Milan when Auxentius, the Arian bishop, whom the Emperor Constantius had placed in the episcopal chair, died. The Catholics desired a Catholic, the Arians, an Arian bishop, and the conflict of contending parties produced a dangerous excitement. Ambrose, as imperial officer, thought it his duty to prevent greater mischief, and hence, going into the church, he endeavored by his eloquence to calm the people. Hardly had he ended his speech, when a child cried aloud: “Ambrose, bishop!” This came like a call from heaven, and all the people, together with the clergy, rejoiced and repeated three times: “Ambrose, our bishop!”
This sudden accordance of so many different minds could only be regarded as providential, the more so, as Ambrose was still a layman, and not even baptized; as, at that period, some delayed their baptism until they had become quite old. Ambrose, inexpressibly amazed at this unexpected turn of affairs, employed all his eloquence to change the thoughts of the people; he mingled his tears with his words, and when he found that all was of no avail, he secretly fled. Being soon found and brought back, he twice attempted to escape again, but was each time found. Valentinian, the emperor, was greatly pleased with the choice, and when Ambrose recognized that it was the will of the Almighty that he should fill the vacant See, he made no further resistance. After having prepared himself, he was baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop; and then entered upon his high ecclesiastical functions with the most holy intentions.
He who would endeavor to relate all that the bishop, so miraculously elected, performed for the welfare of the Church, and the holy life he led, would have to write many volumes. Let it suffice to say, that he exercised himself in all kinds of good works. Early in the morning he passed a long time in prayer. He often exhorted others to do the same, saying: “Do you not know, O man, that you owe your first thoughts, the first words of your mouth to the Lord your God? Daily must you make Him this offering.” His severity in fasting was extremely great, and when advised to moderate it, for the reason that it would occasion his early death, he said: “Many have found death from too much eating, no one from fasting.” Unbounded was his charity to the poor, and his episcopal revenues were almost all employed to assist the needy. Three points he had determined to observe most strictly: to say Mass every day; to preach to the people every Sunday, and to leave nothing undone to spread the true faith, abolish heresy, and correct the morals of the people.
In his sermons, he spoke so frequently of the merit and worth of virginal purity, that the number of those can scarcely be counted who made the vow of chastity, and received from his hands the consecrated veil. Still greater was the number of hardened sinners and heretics whom he converted by his sermons. Among the latter was Augustine, who afterwards became so shining a light in the Church. St. Ambrose baptized him with his own hand, to his great consolation. The knowledge of the divine mysteries which Ambrose manifested in his preaching and writings, was imparted to him by heaven; hence he is represented with a dove at his ear, as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, who inspired him when he spoke or wrote. An Arian heretic testified that he had seen an angel speaking to St. Ambrose in the pulpit; and this miracle converted the heretic. The fortitude with which he protected the rights and privileges of the Church against the heretics and against crowned heads, was almost more than human.
The Arians persecuted him in every possible manner, especially after the death of the pious emperor Gratian, when the wicked empress Justina, wife of Valentinian the younger, ruled the land. The holy man, however, always resisted bravely. One day, the emperor Valentinian, counselled by the empress Justina, sent an order to him to give up a church to the Arians at Milan. The bearer of this order menaced the bishop with death in case he refused; but Ambrose paid no attention to the menace, refused to obey the order, and reprimanded the emperor. Among other things he said to him: “Do not imagine that you possess an imperial right over that which belongs to God. To the emperor belong the palaces, but the churches to the priests. You have power over the walls of the churches, but not over the sanctuary.” To this subject belongs, also, what he wrote at another time to the emperor Theodosius: “The purple makes one a king or an emperor, but not a priest.” Justina raged with anger, and hired a man to carry the bishop off secretly out of the city, that she might deal with the Catholics according to her own pleasure. The hired ruffian waited in the neighborhood of the church with a carriage, into which he was forcibly to place the bishop; but the Saint was accompanied by so many people, that the plan of the empress could not be executed. God even so ruled it that, a year later, this godless man was taken out of the city in the same vehicle, on account of his crimes.
At another time, the Arians sent an assassin into the episcopal palace to murder the Saint; but when the wretch raised the sword for the deadly stroke, his arm suddenly stiffened in such a manner that he was unable to move it. He then repented of his evil design, knelt at the feet of the bishop, and begged pardon. Ambrose not only forgave him, but also restored the use of his arm, and admonished him to reform his life. At another time, they bribed a magician to strangle the Saint in his own room by his witchcraft. Although this magician conjured several demons of hell, and commanded them to strangle the Saint, they could not harm him, nor even go near his dwelling, as it was surrounded by angelic hosts. The bishop, thus miraculously protected, was not to be frightened by the persecutions of the Arians, but continued in his zeal to work against them, so that many of them became converted. He strove with equal fortitude against the heresiarch Jovinian and his followers, whom he banished entirely out of his diocese.
The Saint never manifested greater strength of mind than at the time when the pious emperor, Theodosius, at the instigation of some wicked courtiers, had cruelly slaughtered several thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica, in reprisal for the assassination of one of his generals. When, some time afterwards, the emperor wished to enter the Church, the bishop, clad in his episcopal robes, went to meet him, and commanded him to stop and not enter the sacred building until he had done penance. The emperor, awestruck at this proceeding, said: “Did not King David sin?” The holy bishop replied: “You have followed King David in his sin; follow him also in doing penance;”–and permitted him not to enter the church until he had done penance during eight months. Much that the holy man did for the honor of God and the welfare of the true Church and of his flock, we must omit, and say a few words of his happy departure from this life.
St. Ambrose became enfeebled by the unceasing labor imposed upon him, and also by his rigorous fasting and other penances, and his soul longed to see God, the end and aim of his being. The day of his death was revealed to him, and when he was seized by his last illness, he was begged to pray that his life might be prolonged for the benefit of the Church and the salvation of souls; but he replied: “I have lived in such a manner among you that I need not be ashamed; and I fear not to die, because we have a merciful Lord.” St. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, was at that time in the palace of the bishop. During the night he was suddenly awakened by a voice saying to him: “Honoratus, rise quickly; the Saint is dying.” Honoratus repaired hastily to the sick bishop, administered once more the holy sacraments to him, after which the Saint, his arms folded over his breast, gave his soul to our Lord, in the year 397 of the Christian era, at the dawn of Easter Sunday. Oh! how happy a dying day! God, who had glorified His faithful servant during life by miracles and especial graces, ceased not to increase his glory after his death. The many eloquent works which still exist of this great Father of the Church, are witnesses of his perfect holiness and heavenly wisdom. (1)
The First Te Deum
St. Ambrose’s contribution to music during his tenure as bishop of Milan (374 to 397) was enormous. It was he who introduced reponsorial psalmody to the West. Pope Celestine I then incorporated it into the Mass at Rome. In this manner of singing the psalms, the soloist or leader sings the first half of a psalm verse and the congregation responds by singing the second half. Owing to the importance of Milan and to the energy and high personal reputation of St.Ambrose, the Milanese liturgy and music exerted a strong influence not only in France and Spain, but also in Rome. The songs of the Milanese later became known as the Ambrosian Chant.
Thus St. Ambrose is justly styled “the Father of Church-song in the West,” He became like St Hillary, a great champion of orthodoxy against the Arians in the West. And it was while he and his faithful flock were besieged in his Cathedral by the imperial troops that, as St. Augustine tells us, he first composed hymns for them to sing “lest they faint through fatigue of sorrow.” The simple austere hymns of St Ambose have always been considered the ideal in Church song.
Tradition has dramatized the birth of the “Te Deum”, dating it on an Easter Sunday, and dividing the honor of its composition between Ambrose and his most eminent convert. It was the day Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine, in the presence of a vast throng that crowded the Basilica of Milan. As if foreseeing with a prophet’s eye that his brilliant candidate would become one of the ruling stars of Christendom, Ambrose lifted his hands to heaven and chanted in a holy rapture:
We praise Thee, O God! We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord; All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father Everlasting.
He paused, and from the lips of the baptized disciple, Augustine, came the response:
To Thee all the angels cry aloud: the heavens and all the powers therein. To Thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory!
And so, stave by stave, in alternating strains, sprang that day from the inspired lips of Ambrose and Augustine the “Te Deum Laudamus,” which has ever since been the standard anthem of Christian praise. (1)
Image: Crypt of bishop Ambrose and two marthyrs, Saints Gervase and Protase. Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan. (12)
Research by REGINA Staff