The bishop of Milan and Doctor of the Church, commemorated on 7 December
The Milanese Doctor keeps his liturgical Memorial the day before the Solemnity of the Immaculate Virgin; thus, though there is no rivalry between the saints, Ambrose does not always receive the veneration he deserves. In a similar way, while the Church of Milan takes most of the credit for his episcopal ministry, we must remember that he was born in Trier (since his father was Prefect of Upper Gaul, which then included Britain) and that he was brought up (according to an oral tradition which perhaps lacks the evidence that an archaeological historian would desire) at Rome itself, in a house built by his family in the ruins of a Temple underneath the site of the present Church of Sant'Ambrogio della Massima, near the Fontana delle Tartarughe. This location, unknown to many Romans and still less to people from other countries, has been the seat of the Benedictine Congregation of Subiaco since 1861, which each year keeps a Solemnity in his honour on 6 and 7 December.
Ambrose, or Ambrosius Aurelius, was born around 339 A.D. His father died while he was still a child, and he was brought up by his elder sister, St Marcellina, together with his brother, St Satirus, for whom he would write one day a very beautiful funeral oration. He seems to have followed in his father's footsteps — in what today we would call the Diplomatic Corps or the Civil Service — for by 370 A.D. he had become the imperial governor of Northern Italy. Following the Church customs of those times, he was not baptized in infancy, but merely enrolled as a catechumen; one of the general motives for such a practice was a concern that the acceptance of baptism be a mature and serious affair undertaken in adult life when the difference between good and evil could be discerned more clearly; some, indeed, waited until just before their death to receive Initiation. This speaks to us even today, where tensions can still be felt between the call to holiness and the reality of human frailty.
Ambrose, the civil governor, was chosen as Bishop of Milan in 374; he accepted, was baptized
and ordained. Such a promotion, unthinkable to us, led the young man to spend much time in prayer and in familiarizing himself with the Scriptures. He stood firm against evil, even excommunicating the Emperor Theodosius I when he had massacred a group of innocent civilians in Thessalonica. He became a noted preacher and produced quite a large corpus of writings which are still extant today.
It is thought that his treatise on Virginity (De Virginibus, Lib III) may have been written for his sister, Marcellina, who took the veil as what we would call a consecrated virgin in 353. Oral tradition suggests that she may have made the paternal house into a sort of convent for dedicated women. More than four centuries later, there was to be a convent of Benedictine nuns on the site, which endured until the Napoleonic depredations in 1810. Ambrose's treatise on the Sacraments and on the Holy Spirit are among the first great Latin works of theology, thus gaining him a place among the four great Latin Doctors of the Church.
It is to his everlasting credit that he baptized the young African professor of Rhetoric, [Augustine] of Thagaste, at Easter 386 A.D. Augustine records his impressions of him in the Confessions. Augustine had an experience with him that perhaps a young atheist might have with a Catholic bishop today: he could not see how his arguments, which were addressed to people of faith, could hold weight intellectually, or impress at the rhetorical level. It was only when a "door" opened in his mind that he was able to see the depth of Ambrose, and of his preaching, and that the Scriptures are truly the Word of God.
Ambrose died on Holy Saturday, 4 April 397 A.D. His liturgical Memorial is celebrated on the day of his episcopal ordination in 374. On its anniversary, in 1974, Pope Paul VI of happy memory honoured the Benedictines of S. Ambrogio della Massima by coming to celebrate Mass in their church. The neighbours, and perhaps especially our Jewish brothers and sisters of the Ghetto area, still speak of the visit with fondness. Thus the casual visitor, guidebook in hand, who strays along the Via del Portico d'Ottavia and passes, halfway along, into the narrow entrance of Via di S. Ambrogio, may find himself today before the great gateway that gives on to the almost unknown Church of S. Ambrogio della Massima.
The church is the Sunday seat of the Nigerian community of Rome, which has a very lively and long sung Mass starting around 10:30 a.m.
*Procurator General of the Subiaco Benedictine Congregation and Monk of Prinknash Abbey, Gloucester, England