Celebrated December 7
He was born the son of a prefect in Gaul (modern France) in about 340 and was raised in a powerful, ambitious, and influential family. As such, he was appointed the governor of the province of Liguria when he was twenty-nine.
As governor, he ruled from Milan and he ruled with wisdom, discretion, and fairness. When the bishop of Milan died, there was great confusion and striving for the office. As secular governor, he attended the election gathering and spoke calming words to the assembly.
Then, a child cried out, “Ambrose bishop!” and the cry was instantly taken up by the crowd who wanted such a wise and fair governor as their Church leader. Though yet only a catechumen, Ambrose reluctantly allowed himself to be elected. He was baptised and ordained bishop in 374. He was thirty-four years old.
One of his first acts as bishop was to request from St. Basil the relics of St. Dionysius. Western society in his day was falling to pieces and the Church was locked in a struggle with the Arians. He set an example of holiness, fasting frequently, and living simply.
When he had to feed the poor as bishop, he sold the treasured church plate to raise the money. When criticised for this as sacrilege, he simply said, “Which is more valuable—church vessels or living souls?” He strove against the Arians and suffered from their harassment.
He had always been close to his brother and sister and when his brother died, Ambrose was overcome with grief. “What can I do now?” he exclaimed. “What is there worth living for?” He was depressed and comforted himself with thoughts of the future resurrection. He continued to be a good pastor to his flock. One of his most famous pastoral acts was the conversion and baptism of the then-young Augustine and his son.
He could also be stubborn and unyielding before secular powers. When Emperor Theodosius had a crowd of Thessalonian rioters massacred in 390, Ambrose excommunicated him and called him to repent of murder. Theodosius appeared at church and Ambrose would not admit him. “How can you uplift a prayer with hands which still drip with blood? I say, Repent!” Theodosius repented and did public penance, prostrating himself in church and weeping.
Ambrose continued to serve as a pastor to his flock. He introduced antiphonal singing to his congregation (which was popular before in the East). He taught catechumens and wrote sermons for their instruction. The “Te Deum” hymn is ascribed to him. He discovered the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, long since buried.
When he fell ill with his final illness, he said, “I am not afraid to die for we have a good Lord.” He said that he saw the Lord coming to his bedside. He lay with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross and died whispering prayers, on Paschal eve in 397. He was fifty-eight and had governed Milan as bishop for over twenty-three years.
Kontakion of Ambrose, Bp. Of Milan in the Third Tone
Flashing lightning-like with godly doctrines, thou, O Ambrose, dravest off the darkness of the impious error of Arius; and working wonders and signs by the Spirit’s might, thou, O good shepherd, didst heal divers sufferings. Righteous Father, thou initiate of sacred mysteries, entreat Christ God to grant great mercy unto us.