Embracing Gospel truth can change our life
On Wednesday, 22 April , at the
General Audience in St Peter's Square the Holy Father dwelled on Ambrose
Autpert, an eighth-century Benedictine monk and abbot. The following is
a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The Church lives in people and those who want to know
the Church better, to understand her mystery, must consider the people
who have seen and lived her message, her mystery.
In the Wednesday Catechesis I have therefore been
speaking for some time of people from whom we can learn what the Church
is. We began with the Apostles and Fathers of the Church and we have
gradually reached the eighth century, Charlemagne's period.
Today I want to talk about Ambrose Autpert, a lesser
known author; in fact, the majority of his works were attributed to
other, better known people, from St Ambrose of Milan to St Ildefonsus,
not to mention those that the monks of Monte Cassino claimed came from
the pen of an abbot of theirs of the same name who lived almost a
Apart from a few brief autobiographical notes in his
important commentary on the Apocalypse, we have little
information about his life. Yet, an attentive reading of the works whose
authorship the critic recognizes makes it possible, little by little, to
discover in his teaching a precious theological and spiritual treasure
for our time too.
Born into a noble family in Provence
according to his late biographer, Giovanni
Ambrose Autpert was at the court of the Frankish King Pepin the Short
where, in addition to his function as official, he somehow also played
the role of tutor to the future Emperor Charlemagne. Autpert, probably
in the retinue of Pope Stephen II, who in 753-54 went to the Frankish
court, came to Italy and had the opportunity of visiting the famous
Benedictine Abbey of St Vincent, located near the sources of the River
Volturno in the Duchy of Benevento. Founded at the beginning of the
century by three brothers from Benevento
Pal-done, Tatone and Tasone
the abbey was known as an oasis of classical and Christian culture.
Shortly after his visit, Ambrose Autpert decided to
embrace the religious life and entered that monastery where he acquired
an appropriate education, especially in the fields of theology and
spirituality, in accordance with the tradition of the Fathers.
In about the year 761, he was ordained a priest and
on 4 October 777 he was elected abbot with the support of the Frankish
monks despite the opposition of the Lombards, who favoured Potone the
Lombard. The nationalistic tension in the background did not diminish in
the subsequent months. As a result, in the following year, 778, Autpert
decided to resign and to seek shelter, together with several Frankish
monks, in Spoleto where he could count on Charlemagne's protection.
This, however, did not solve the dissension
at St Vincent's Monastery. A few years later, when on the death of the
abbot who had succeeded Autpert, Potone himself was elected as his
successor (a. 782), the dispute flared up again and even led to the
denunciation of the new abbot to Charlemagne. The latter sent the
contenders to the tribunal of the Pontiff who summoned them to Rome.
Autpert was also called as a witness. However, he died suddenly on the
journey, perhaps murdered, on 30 January 784.
Ambrose Autpert was a monk and abbot in an epoch
marked by strong political tensions which also had repercussions on life
within the monasteries. We have frequent and disturbing echoes of them
in his writings. He reports, for example, the contradiction between the
splendid external appearance of monasteries and the tepidity of the
monks: this criticism was also certainly directed at his own abbey. He
wrote for his monastery the Life of the three founders with the
clear intention of offering the new generation of monks a term of
reference to measure up to.
He also pursued a similar aim in a small ascetic
treatise Conflictus vitiorum atque virtutum ("Combat between the
vices and the virtues"), which met with great acclaim in the Middle Ages
and was published in 1473 in Utrecht, under Gregory the Great's name
and, a year later, in Strasbourg under that of St Augustine.
In it Ambrose Autpert intends to give the monks a
practical training in how to face spiritual combat day after day.
Significantly he applies the affirmation in 2 Tim 3:12: "All who desire
to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted", no longer by
external forces but by the assault that the Christian must face within
him on the part of the forces of evil. Twenty-four pairs of fighters are
presented in a sort of disputation: every vice seeks to lure the soul by
subtle reasoning, whereas the respective virtue rebuffs these
insinuations, preferably by using words of Scripture.
In this treatise on the
combat between the vices and the virtues, Autpert sets contemptus
mundi (contempt for the world) against cupiditas (greed)
which becomes an important figure in the spirituality of monks. This
contempt for the world is not a contempt for Creation, for the beauty
and goodness of Creation and of the Creator, but a contempt for the
false vision of the world that is presented to us and suggested to us
precisely by covetousness. It insinuates that "having" is the supreme
value of our being, of our life in the world, and seems important. And
thus it falsifies the creation of the world and destroys the world.
Autpert then remarks
that the acquisitive greed of the rich and powerful in the society of
his time also exists within the souls of monks and thus he writes a
treatise entitled De cupiditate, in which, together with the
Apostle Paul, he denounces greed from the outset as the root of all
He writes: "In the
earth's soil various sharp thorns spring from different roots; in the
human heart, on the other hand, the stings of all the vices sprout from
a single root, greed" (De cupiditate I: CCCM 27B, p. 963).
In the light of the present global
financial crisis, this report reveals its full timeliness. We see that
it was precisely from this root of covetousness that the crisis sprang.
Ambrose imagines the objection that the rich and powerful might raise,
saying: but we are not monks, certain ascetic requirements do not apply
And he answers: "What you
say is true, but for you, in the manner of your class and in accordance
with your strength, the straight and narrow way applies because the Lord
has proposed only two doors and two ways (that is, the narrow door and
the wide door, the steep road and the easy one); he has not
pointed to a third door or a third way" (loc. cit., p. 978).
He sees clearly that
life-styles differ widely. Nonetheless the duty to combat greed, to
fight the desire to possess, to appear, and the false concept of freedom
as the faculty to dispose of all things as one pleases applies to the
man in this world too and also to the rich. The rich person must also
find the authentic road of truth, of love, and thus of an upright life.
As a prudent pastor of
souls, Autpert was thus able to speak a word of comfort at the end of
his penitential homily: "I have not spoken against the greedy, but
against greed, not against nature but against vice" (loc. cit., p. 981).
Ambrose Autpert's most
important work is without a doubt his commentary on the Apocalypse [Expositio
in Apocalypsim] in 10 volumes: this constitutes, centuries later,
the first broad commentary in the Latin world on the last book of Sacred
Scripture. This work was the fruit of many years' work, carried out in
two phases between 758 and 767, hence prior to his election as abbot.
In the premise he is
careful to indicate his sources, something that was not usual in the
Middle Ages. Through what was perhaps his most significant source, the
commentary of Bishop Primasius of Hadrumetum, written in about the
middle of the sixth century, Autpert came into contact with the
interpretation of the Apocalypse bequeathed to us by Ticonius, an
African who lived a generation before St Augustine. He was not a
Catholic; he belonged to the schismatic Donatist Church, yet he was a
great theologian. In his commentary he sees the Apocalypse above
all as a reflection of the mystery of the Church.
Ticonius had reached the
conviction that the Church was a bipartite body: on the one hand, he
says, she belongs to Christ, but there is another part of the Church
that belongs to the devil. Augustine read this commentary and profited
from it but strongly emphasized that the Church is in Christ's hands,
that she remains his Body, forming one with him, sharing in the
mediation of grace.
He therefore stresses
that the Church can never be separated from Jesus Christ. In his
interpretation of the Apocalypse, similar to that of Ticonius,
Autpert is not so much concerned with the Second Coming of Christ at the
end of time as rather with the consequences that derive for the Church
of the present from his First Coming, his Incarnation in the womb of the
And he speaks very
important words to us: in reality Christ "must be born, die and be
raised daily in us, who are his Body" (In Apoc., III: CCCM, 27,
In the context of the
mystic dimension that invests every Christian he looks to Mary as a
model of the Church, a model for all of us because Christ must also be
born in and among us.
Under the guidance of the Fathers, who saw
the "woman clothed with the sun" of Rv 12:1 as an image of the Church,
Autpert argues: "the Blessed and devout Virgin... daily gives birth to
new peoples from which the general Body of the Mediator is formed. It is
therefore not surprising if she, in whose blessed womb the Church
herself deserved to be united with her Head, represents the type of the
In this sense Autpert
considers the Virgin Mary's role decisive in the work of the Redemption
(cf. also his homilies In purification S. Mariae and In
adsumptione S. Mariae). His great veneration and profound love for
the Mother of God sometimes inspired in him formulations that in a
certain way anticipated those of St Bernard and of Franciscan mysticism,
yet without ever deviating to disputable forms of sentimentalism because
he never separates Mary from the mystery of the Church.
Therefore, with good
reason, Ambrose Autpert is considered the first great Mariologist in the
West. He considers that the profound study of the sacred sciences,
especially meditation on the Sacred Scriptures, which he describes as
"the ineffable sky, the unfathomable abyss" should be combined with the
devotion that he believed must free the soul from attachment to earthly
and transient pleasures (In Apoc. Ix).
In the beautiful prayer
with which his commentary on the Apocalypse ends, underlining the
priority that must be given to love in all theological research, he
addresses God with these words: "When you are intellectually examined by
us, you are not revealed as you truly are: when you are loved, you are
Today we can see in
Ambrose Autpert a personality who lived in a time of powerful political
exploitation of the Church, in which nationalism and tribalism had
disfigured the face of the Church. But he, in the midst of all these
difficulties with which we too are familiar, was able to discover the
true face of the Church in Mary, in the Saints, and he was thus able to
understand what it means to be a Catholic, to be a Christian, to live on
the word of God, to enter into this abyss and thus to live the mystery
of the Mother of God: to give new life to the Word of God, to offer to
the Word of God one's own flesh in the present time.
And with all his
theological knowledge, the depth of his knowledge, Autpert was able to
understand that with merely theological research God cannot truly be
known as he is. Love alone reaches him. Let us hear this message and
pray the Lord to help us to live the mystery of the Church today in our