The fifteenth installment of this mega-part series on the History of the Mass and Holy Mother
Church continues dealing with the Arian threat in the West which included all of Italy and Gaul. As we wrote in the fourteenth chapter, while the
Greeks were ripe for the Arian heresy of challenging the concept of the Trinity, the Romans were
blessed with two saints Saint Jerome and Saint Ambrose who contributed much in strengthening
the true faith in the west and defending the true teachings against the cancer of Arianism. In the last chapter we covered the Apostle of Tradition Saint Athanasius. In the next chapter we will cover Saint Jerome and his global influence.
Today we focus on another Doctor of the Church who was so influential: the Converter of Saints, St. Ambrose. Though we have skipped forward from Athanasius to Ambrose, we mean no disrespect for the doctors between and provide links so you might see firsthand their influence in the welfare of Holy Mother Church such as:
Thus today we stay focused on the second half of the fourth century as we cover the Ambrosian influence. This vaunted Saint and mentor of St. Jerome was elevated to Doctor and Father of the
Church by the decree of Pope Boniface VIII in 1298 as we examine the lasting marks he left in the Teachings of the Church through his writings and translations from moral theology and liturgy.
Saint Ambrose had been born into a Roman Christian family in Treves, Gaul (which is today Trier, in Germany) 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.
While Pope Saint Siricus, the 38th successor who had followed St. Damasus as the Vicar of Christ on December 15 384, while being the Pope had little influence in temporal matters for the Roman Emperor dictated and through that power the bishops embraced the Arian heresy. It was Siricus who was the first to assume the salutary title "Pope" after the Greek word for Father - Papa. Church historians also maintain that this derived under Siricus from an acronym for Petri Apostoli Postestatem Accipiens. Both blended perfectly in describing the Sovereign Roman Pontiff and have been such ever since. While Siricus re-emphasized the mandatory celibacy issue for priests, he was actually powerless to do too much more because of the power of Theodosius. That is why Ambrose stand takes on such significance for he was stating the authority of the Pope in the face of civil authority. As God would have it, the Roman Emperor blinked and Ambrose had firmly planted in the sands of time, the miter of might.
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
The Ambrosian influence spread far and wide and it was a turning point in combatting the Arian heresy for his stand showed the strength of the Church spiritually and temporally. Though she continued to go through growing pains, the truths passed on by Ambrose who guided St. Augustine would prove forever fruitful. We shall dedicate a future chapter to this great saint whom Ambrose converted. For more on St. Ambrose, we invite you to go to our "33 Doctors of the Church" section and the short profile on this great Converter of Saints
Before moving onto the fifth century, St. Siricus died on November 11, 399. It would be left to Pope St. Anastasius I to bring the Church into the fifth century, leaving behind the great works and wonders of the many Fathers of the Church in the 4th Century whom we would like to make mention of here since they were not covered in previous installments. 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 Opatus of Milevi, Africa (370); Luciferus of Cagliari in Sardinia, who fought Arianism (371); Titus of Bostra (378); 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).
In the next installment we shall cover the influence of Saint Jerome in our feature From the Vulgar to the Vulgate.