chapter fifteen

The Fourth Century: 350-400 The Arian Threat in the West: The Ambrosian Influence

    Saint Ambrose had been born into a Roman Christian family in Treves, Gaul where his father was assigned as the Prefect there. Upon the family returning to Rome, Ambrose took up law at the Roman universities. Receiving his doctorate, he headed for Milan which was the best city in the empire for practicing law. Because of his father's connections and his own accomplishments as well, Ambrose was appointed governor of northern Italy with headquarters in Milan. He had come to be loved by all and when the Arian bishop of Milan died, a great controversy arose as to his successor. The factions on both sides gathered in the streets with the threat of violence. Ambrose gave an impassioned speech to the frenzied crowd and immediately after, in the silence of the moment, a little child shouted from the multitudes: "Let Ambrose be our bishop." At once the crowd affirmed the choice, crying out the same thing and so Ambrose was chosen. Yet he was only a catechumen at the time, not ordained, and he shied away from such a responsibility, but the people demanded it and within eight days he was not only baptized, but received minor orders, ordained and consecrated the Bishop of Milan. Talk about fast! But as always, God works in mysterious ways and it isn't man's time that is important but His time. So also with the course God had for Ambrose who gave all his wealth and property to the Church to support her and to take care of the poor, proclaiming: "Whether we are poor or rich, before Christ we are all alike." This further endeared the people to Ambrose who insisted on strong discipline and would not permit the Arians to have any say in Church matters as long as they persisted in heresy.

    With his background in law, he strove for not only fairness, but a way to make the true faith understandable and workable in daily life. He is often pictured holding a church in his hand because of his staunch defense of Holy Mother Church, and with a beehive which represents wisdom for it was holy wisdom that prompted him to emphasize the social aspects of Christ's teachings and to introduce a set liturgy and chants the people could relate to and recite. This led to the Ambrosian chant, iambic diameter verse form of the Psalms and other hymns - a simple rhythm that would be the precursor to Gregorian chant. He also established the Ambrosian Rite in the liturgy of the Mass which is still used today in the archdiocese of Milan. It was also a forerunner to the rich liturgy of the Church established in later centuries.

    Always considered a fair man, one of Ambrose's greatest tests came in 390 when the Roman Emperor Theodosius the Great tried to enter Ambrose's church in Milan. The saint knew the emperor had unjustly approved of the massacre of the Thessalonians and thus ordered this proud ruler to perform public penance before he could enter. It was a clash of Church vs. State and the Holy Spirit prevailed with the emperor submitting to Ambrose's charge. It was a situation that strengthened the status of the Church in the eyes of the people. Ambrose, never one of great health, died in 397 after contributing greatly in the area of moral teachings of the Church. Quite possibly his greatest contribution was his personal teaching, urging, and conversion of his greatest student - Saint Augustine.

    There were many Fathers of the Church in the 4th Century and the first part of the 5th Century that were not covered in previous installments, but space does not permit details on each. Suffice it to list the names in chronological order: Arnobius of Africa,, a Rhetorician, which is a master or teacher of rehetoric (310 AD); Lactantius of Fermo, also a Rhetorician (325); Eusebius of Caesarea, the historian (340); Firminius, martyr (340); Saint James of Nisbi (345); Saint Eustachius of Antioch (360); Saint Hilarius of Poitiers (367); Saint Opatus of Milevi, Africa (370); Luciferus of Cagliari in Sardinia, who fought Arianism (371); Saint Athanasius of Alexandria (373); Titus of Bostra (378); Saint Ephrem Cyrus, Deacon of Nisibi, Mesopotamia (379); Saint Zeno of Verona (380); Saint Macarius, Senior Elder (390); Saint Amphilochius of Iconium (394); Saint Philostratus of Brescia (391); Saint Pacianus of Barcelona (392); Didymus of Alexandria (394); and Saint Asterius of Amasea in Pontus (400). The beginning of the 5th Century the illuminaries were Saint Epiphanius of Salamina in Cyprus (403); Saint Prudentius of Spain, who styled the glory of the Christian Poets (405); Rufinius of Aquileia, a priest and monk (410); Sulpicius Severus of Agen, also a priest (415); Saint Jerome of Stridon in Dalmatia (420); Sinesius of Ptolemais(429); Saint Nilus of Mount Sinai, abbot (430); and Saint Paulinus of Nola (430).

    But the greatest of all the Doctors thus far and most influential Fathers of the Church, was St. Augustine. Because of his vast influence, we will devote the sixteenth chapter entirely to him and his lasting influence in the Church in The Augustinian Era next issue.