CAPTION: St Ambrose Polyptych, Bartolomeo Vivarini, Gallerie dell’Accademia
When we talk of Church Fathers, we talk of people coming from every walk of life. One of the great Latin Church Fathers is Saint Ambrose (337-397). Lots of people know him only in reference to another other giant, Saint Augustine, because the Bishop Ambrose was instrumental in the conversion of Augustine. But indeed there is much more in him to be said. He was, as Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa and Basil, a strong opponent of Arianism, a heresy that has really rocked the Church in the first centuries.
He came from a rich Christian family. His story his quite singular because at the beginning he takes on some sort of political responsibilities, being the governor of certain regions, but at the death of the Bishop of Milan, who was in favor of Arianism, people acclaim him as the new Bishop. So he has to be ordained as priest and then consecrated as Bishop on December 7, 374. He donated most of his wealth to the poor. With the goal of converting more people to the true faith he also studied carefully the Scripture and the Church Fathers, so to be able to win over as many people as possible who were previously led to error (like Augustine). Later in life, he will write many works, especially exegetical texts. He is also known as the father of Latin hymnody, he is credited with the creation of some hymns for the people who were under strong persecution for the reason of keeping their orthodox faith. It would be nice also today to have hymn writers who through their composition of hymns can help people to be led to the right path. One of his most famous hymns was the morning hymn Splendor Paternae Gloriae. It starts like this: “Splendor paternae gloriae, de luce lucem proferens, lux lucis et fons luminis, diem dies illuminans” (“O splendor of God’s glory bright, O Thou that bringest light from light, O Light of Light, light’s Living Spring, O Day, all days illumining.”)
In a general audience (October 24, 2007), Pope Benedict XVI referred to Ambrose: “Dear brothers and sisters, I would like further to propose to you a sort of ‘patristic icon,’ which, interpreted in the light of what we have said, effectively represents ‘the heart’ of Ambrosian doctrine. In the sixth book of the Confessions, Augustine tells of his meeting with Ambrose, an encounter that was indisputably of great importance in the history of the Church. He writes in his text that whenever he went to see the Bishop of Milan, he would regularly find him taken up with catervae of people full of problems for whose needs he did his utmost. There was always a long queue waiting to talk to Ambrose, seeking in him consolation and hope. When Ambrose was not with them, with the people (and this happened for the space of the briefest of moments), he was either restoring his body with the necessary food or nourishing his spirit with reading. Here Augustine marvels because Ambrose read the Scriptures with his mouth shut, only with his eyes (cf. Confessions, 6, 3). Indeed, in the early Christian centuries reading was conceived of strictly for proclamation, and reading aloud also facilitated the reader’s understanding. That Ambrose could scan the pages with his eyes alone suggested to the admiring Augustine a rare ability for reading and familiarity with the Scriptures. Well, in that ‘reading under one’s breath,’ where the heart is committed to achieving knowledge of the Word of God – this is the ‘icon’ to which we are referring -, one can glimpse the method of Ambrosian catechesis; it is Scripture itself, intimately assimilated, which suggests the content to proclaim that will lead to the conversion of hearts. Thus, with regard to the magisterium of Ambrose and of Augustine, catechesis is inseparable from witness of life. What I wrote on the theologian in the Introduction to Christianity might also be useful to the catechist. An educator in the faith cannot risk appearing like a sort of clown who recites a part ‘by profession.’ Rather – to use an image dear to Origen, a writer who was particularly appreciated by Ambrose -, he must be like the beloved disciple who rested his head against his Master’s heart and there learned the way to think, speak and act. The true disciple is ultimately the one whose proclamation of the Gospel is the most credible and effective.”
It is very important to reflect on these words of Benedict XVI, that call us, as for Ambrose, to be coherent with our faith, at least recognizing our indignities. The Pope continues: “Like the Apostle John, Bishop Ambrose – who never tired of saying: ‘Omnia Christus est nobis! To us Christ is all!’ – continues to be a genuine witness of the Lord. Let us thus conclude our Catechesis with his same words, full of love for Jesus: ’Omnia Christus est nobis! If you have a wound to heal, he is the doctor; if you are parched by fever, he is the spring; if you are oppressed by injustice, he is justice; if you are in need of help, he is strength; if you fear death, he is life; if you desire Heaven, he is the way; if you are in the darkness, he is light…. Taste and see how good is the Lord: blessed is the man who hopes in him!’ (De Virginitate, 16, 99). Let us also hope in Christ. We shall thus be blessed and shall live in peace.”
Yes, this is the great lesson of this saint: let us put our concerns and troubles in the hands of the Lord and he will know how to make them lighter for us.