(Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by St. Ambrose To Enter Milan Cathedral)
St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Ambrose, one of the greatest doctors of the Church, a fearless defender of her rights, a terrible scourge to heresy, a most perfect example for all prelates, a miracle of Christian wisdom and eloquence, was the son of a Roman nobleman, who presided in Gaul as imperial governor. One day, while Ambrose was yet in his cradle, a swarm of bees alighted on his mouth without in the least harming the sleeping infant. It is believed that God by this announced the future sweet and yet powerful eloquence of St. Ambrose. After his father's death, the Saint went to Rome with his mother, brother and sister. There he, one day, saw the people kiss the hand of a bishop, and, on his return home, he offered his hands to some children to kiss, saying: "Kiss my hands; for, when I grow up I shall be a bishop." These words, spoken in childish jest, were prophetic. Ambrose was endowed by the Almighty with unusual facility for acquiring knowledge. Untiring in his studies, he became so excellent an orator, and so celebrated a jurist, that he was made governor of Emilia and Liguria when he was hardly thirty-two years old. Probus, the imperial chancellor, said to him, before his departure: "Go, and administer your functions, not as a judge, but as a bishop." He meant by this that Ambrose should not govern by severity but with love and mildness; heaven's signification of these words, however, was different.PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS.
When Ambrose, invested with this high dignity, arrived at Milan, he so completely gained all hearts by his wise and mild government, that the people obeyed him implicitly, and loved him most devotedly. Hardly had he been two years at Milan when Auxentius, the Arian bishop, whom the Emperor Constantius had placed in the episcopal chair, died. The Catholics desired a Catholic, the Arians, an Arian bishop, and the conflict of contending parties produced a dangerous excitement. Ambrose, as imperial officer, thought it his duty to prevent greater mischief, and hence, going into the church, he endeavored by his eloquence to calm the people. Hardly had he ended his speech, when a child cried aloud: "Ambrose, bishop!" This came like a call from heaven, and all the people, together with the clergy, rejoiced and repeated three times: "Ambrose, our bishop!"
This sudden accordance of so many different minds could only be regarded as providential, the more so, as Ambrose was still a layman, and not even baptized; as, at that period, some delayed their baptism until they had become quite old. Ambrose, inexpressibly amazed at this unexpected turn of affairs, employed all his eloquence to change the thoughts of the people; he mingled his tears with his words, and when he found that all was of no avail, he secretly fled. Being soon found and brought back, he twice attempted to escape again, but was each time found. Valentinian, the emperor, was greatly pleased with the choice, and when Ambrose recognized that it was the will of the Almighty that he should fill the vacant See, he made no further resistance. After having prepared himself, he was baptized, ordained priest, and consecrated bishop; and then entered upon his high ecclesiastical functions with the most holy intentions.
He who would endeavor to relate all that the bishop, so miraculously elected, performed for the welfare of the Church, and the holy life he led, would have to write many volumes. Let it suffice to say, that he exercised himself in all kinds of good works. Early in the morning he passed a long time in prayer. He often exhorted others to do the same, saying: "Do you not know, O man, that you owe your first thoughts, the first words of your mouth to the Lord your God? Daily must you make Him this offering." His severity in fasting was extremely great, and when advised to moderate it, for the reason that it would occasion his early death, he said: "Many have found death from too much eating, no one from fasting." Unbounded was his charity to the poor, and his episcopal revenues were almost all employed to assist the needy. Three points he had determined to observe most strictly: to say Mass every day; to preach to the people every Sunday, and to leave nothing undone to spread the true faith, abolish heresy, and correct the morals of the people.
In his sermons, he spoke so frequently of the merit and worth of virginal purity, that the number of those can scarcely be counted who made the vow of chastity, and received from his hands the consecrated veil. Still greater was the number of hardened sinners and heretics whom he converted by his sermons. Among the latter was Augustine, who afterwards became so shining a light in the Church. St. Ambrose baptized him with his own hand, to his great consolation. The knowledge of the divine mysteries which Ambrose manifested in his preaching and writings, was imparted to him by heaven; hence he is represented with a dove at his ear, as a symbol of the Holy Ghost, who inspired him when he spoke or wrote. An Arian heretic testified that he had seen an angel speaking to St. Ambrose in the pulpit; and this miracle converted the heretic. The fortitude with which he protected the rights and privileges of the Church against the heretics and against crowned heads, was almost more than human.
The Arians persecuted him in every possible manner, especially after the death of the pious emperor Gratian, when the wicked empress Justina, wife of Valentinian the younger, ruled the land. The holy man, however, always resisted bravely. One day, the emperor Valentinian, counselled by the empress Justina, sent an order to him to give up a church to the Arians at Milan. The bearer of this order menaced the bishop with death in case he refused; but Ambrose paid no attention to the menace, refused to obey the order, and reprimanded the emperor. Among other things he said to him: "Do not imagine that you possess an imperial right over that which belongs to God. To the emperor belong the palaces, but the churches to the priests. You have power over the walls of the churches, but not over the sanctuary." To this subject belongs, also, what he wrote at another time to the emperor Theodosius: "The purple makes one a king or an emperor, but not a priest." Justina raged with anger, and hired a man to carry the bishop off secretly out of the city, that she might deal with the Catholics according to her own pleasure. The hired ruffian waited in the neighborhood of the church with a carriage, into which he was forcibly to place the bishop; but the Saint was accompanied by so many people, that the plan of the empress could not be executed. God even so ruled it that, a year later, this godless man was taken out of the city in the same vehicle, on account of his crimes.
At another time, the Arians sent an assassin into the episcopal palace to murder the Saint; but when the wretch raised the sword for the deadly stroke, his arm suddenly stiffened in such a manner that he was unable to move it. He then repented of his evil design, knelt at the feet of the bishop, and begged pardon. Ambrose not only forgave him, but also restored the use of his arm, and admonished him to reform his life. At another time, they bribed a magician to strangle the Saint in his own room by his witchcraft. Although this magician conjured several demons of hell, and commanded them to strangle the Saint, they could not harm him, nor even go near his dwelling, as it was surrounded by angelic hosts. The bishop, thus miraculously protected, was not to be frightened by the persecutions of the Arians, but continued in his zeal to work against them, so that many of them became converted. He strove with equal fortitude against the heresiarch Jovinian and his followers, whom he banished entirely out of his diocese.
The Saint never manifested greater strength of mind than at the time when the pious emperor, Theodosius, at the instigation of some wicked courtiers, had cruelly slaughtered several thousand inhabitants of Thessalonica, in reprisal for the assassination of one of his generals. When, some time afterwards, the emperor wished to enter the Church, the bishop, clad in his episcopal robes, went to meet him, and commanded him to stop and not enter the sacred building until he had done penance. The emperor, awestruck at this proceeding, said: "Did not King David sin?" The holy bishop replied: "You have followed King David in his sin; follow him also in doing penance;"--and permitted him not to enter the church until he had done penance during eight months. Much that the holy man did for the honor of God and the welfare of the true Church and of his flock, we must omit, and say a few words of his happy departure from this life.
St. Ambrose became enfeebled by the unceasing labor imposed upon him, and also by his rigorous fasting and other penances, and his soul longed to see God, the end and aim of his being. The day of his death was revealed to him, and when he was seized by his last illness, he was begged to pray that his life might be prolonged for the benefit of the Church and the salvation of souls; but he replied: "I have lived in such a manner among you that I need not be ashamed; and I fear not to die, because we have a merciful Lord." St. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, was at that time in the palace of the bishop. During the night he was suddenly awakened by a voice saying to him: "Honoratus, rise quickly; the Saint is dying." Honoratus repaired hastily to the sick bishop, administered once more the holy sacraments to him, after which the Saint, his arms folded over his breast, gave his soul to our Lord, in the year 397 of the Christian era, at the dawn of Easter Sunday. Oh! how happy a dying day! God, who had glorified His faithful servant during life by miracles and especial graces, ceased not to increase his glory after his death. The many eloquent works which still exist of this great Father of the Church, are witnesses of his perfect holiness and heavenly wisdom.
I. Remember the words of St. Ambrose: "In too much eating many have found their death; but none in fasting." Heed this sentence well; especially if you belong to those poor and deluded beings who imagine that the fasts, ordained by the Church, are injurious to health. Even the word of God assures us, that many have shortened their lives by intemperance in eating and drinking, and the experience of almost every day is another overwhelming evidence of this fact. But where can you point out to me any one who shortened his life, by observing the fasts ordained by the Church? The word of God assures us that those who are temperate in eating and drinking, prolong their lives. Whom do you believe,--the word of God, or the evil Spirit, who, through the mouth of the freethinkers, the heretics, or of those wicked persons, whose life makes them despicable, says, that fasting and abstaining is hurtful to man, that it is the cause of many infirmities and that it shortens life. The true Church, by whose mouth God speaks, prays: "O Lord, who, by holy fasting and abstinence, dost help both soul and body" which means: curest soul and body as by a remedy. I believe in this prayer, and with me all those who are true Catholic Christians.
II. "I fear not to die, because we have a merciful Lord," says St. Ambrose. So it is; we have a merciful, a most kind Lord. All who endeavor to serve Him faithfully during their life, can and may comfort themselves with the thought of the divine mercy in their last hour. Satan sometimes tries to frighten and drive to despondency even pious souls, but recollecting that they have served the Lord rightly, and confessed their sins, they ought not to listen to the Evil One; but, contemplating the infinite mercy of God, comfort themselves and say: "We have a merciful Lord." In Him will I trust; He will not forsake me. But those who during their life, have abused the divine goodness in order to be more wicked; who sinned because God, so infinitely good and merciful, would forgive them; these, I say, have reason to fear the temptations of Satan in their last hour; for, he generally comes then to throw us into gloom and despair by representing the severity of the divine Justice. Take care not to be of the number of these unhappy people. Serve God faithfully during your life; do not offend Him: and if you have done wrong, do penance and seek to regain the grace of the Almighty. In this manner, you will be able to comfort yourself on your death-bed with the thought of His goodness, and say: "I have a merciful God; in Him will I trust." Exercise yourself to-day in this hope, and say with King David: "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life, of whom shall I be afraid? If armies in camp should stand together against me, my heart shall not fear. Turn not away thy face from me. Be thou my helper, forsake me not, do not thou despise me, O God, my Saviour!" (Psalm, xxvi.) And again: " I cried to thee, O Lord, I said: thou art my hope, my portion in the land of the living." (Psalm, cxli.)
St. Abrose, Father of the Ambrosian Hymn
from the Liturgical Year, 1870
In the midst of dangers which threatened his person, Ambrose's great soul was calm and seemingly unconscious of the fury of his enemies. It was on one such occasion that he instituted, at Milan, the choral singing of the Psalms. Up to that time, the holy Canticles had been given from Ambo by the single voice of a Lector; but Ambrose, shut up in his Basilica with his people, takes the opportunity, and forms two choirs, bidding them respond to each other the verses of the Psalms. The people forgot their trouble in the delight of this heavenly music; nay, the very howling of the tempest, and the fierceness of the siege they were sustaining, added enthusiasm to this first exercise of their new privilege.
Such was the chivalrous origin of Alternate Psalmody in the Western Church. Rome adopted the practice, which Ambrose was the first to introduce, and which will continue to be observed to the end of time. During these hours of struggle with his enemies, the glorious Bishop has another gift wherewith to enrich the faithful people who are defending him at the risk of their own lives. Ambrose is a poet, and he has frequently sung, in verses full of sweetness and sublimity, the greatness of the God of the Christians, and the mysteries of man's salvation. He now gives to his devoted people these hymns, which he had only composed for his own private devotion. The Basilicas of Milan soon echoed these accents of the sublime soul which first uttered them.
Later on, the whole Latin Church adopted them; and in honor of the holy Bishop who had thus opened one of the richest sources of the sacred Liturgy, a Hymn was, for a long time, called after his name, an Ambrosian. The Divine Office thus received a new mode of celebrating the divine praise, and the Church, the Spouse of Christ, possessed one means more of giving expression to the sentiments which animate her. Thus our Hymns, and the alternate singing of the Psalms, are trophies of Ambrose's victory. He had been raised up by God not for his own age only, but also for those which were to follow.
And we, too, O Immortal Ambrose, unworthy though we be to take a part in such a choir, we, too, will praise thee! We will praise the magnificent gifts which our Lord bestowed upon thee. Thou art the Light of the Church and the Salt of the earth by thy heavenly teachings; thou art the vigilant Pastor, the affectionate Father, the unyielding Pontiff; oh! how must thy heart have loved that Jesus, for whom we are now preparing! With what undaunted courage thou didst, at the risk of thy life, resist them that blasphemed this Divine Word! Well indeed hast thou thereby merited to be made one of the Patrons of the faithful, to lead them, each year, to Him who is their Saviour and their King! Let, then, a ray of the truth, which filled thy sublime soul whilst here on earth, penetrate even into our hearts; give us a relish of thy sweet and eloquent writings; get us a sentiment of devoted love for the Jesus who is so soon to be with us. Obtain for us, after thy example, to take up His cause with energy, against the enemies of our holy faith, against the spirits of darkness, and against ourselves. Let everything yield, let everything be annihilated, let every knee bow, let every heart confess itself conquered, in the presence of Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, the Son of God, and the Son of Mary, our Redeemer, our Judge, our All.
Glorious Saint! humble us, as thou didst Theodosius; raise us up again contrite and converted, as thou didst lovingly raise up this thy strayed sheep and carry him back to thy fold. Pray, too, for the Catholic Hierarchy, of which thou wast one of the brightest ornaments. Ask of God, for the Priests and Bishops of His Church, that humble yet inflexible courage, wherewith they should resist the Powers of the world, as often as they abuse the authority which God has put into their hands. Let their face, as our Lord Himself speaks, become hard as adamant against the enemies of the Church, and may they set themselves as a wall for the house of Israel; may they consider it as the highest privilege, and the greatest happiness, to be permitted to expose their property, and peace, and life, for the liberty of this holy Spouse of Christ.
Valiant champion of the Truth! arm thyself with thy scourge, which the Church has given thee as thy emblem; and drive far from the flock of Christ the wolves of the Arian tribe, which, under various names, are even now prowling round the fold. Let our ears be no longer shocked with the blasphemies of these proud teachers, who presume to scan, judge, approve, and blame, by the measure of their vain conceits, the great God who has given them everything they are and have, and who, out of infinite love for His creatures, has deigned to humble Himself and become one of ourselves, although knowing that men would make this very condescension an argument for denying that He is God.
Remove our prejudices, O thou great lover of truth! and crush within us those time-serving and unwise theories, which tend to make us Christians forget that Jesus is the King of this world, and look on the law, which equally protects error and truth, as the perfection of modern systems. May we understand that the rights of the Son of God and His Church do not cease to exist, because the world ceases to acknowledge them; that to give the same protection to the true religion and to those false doctrines, which men have set up in opposition to the teaching of the Church, is to deny that all power has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth; that those scourges which periodically come upon the world are the lessons which Jesus gives to those who trample on the Rights of His Church, Rights which He so justly acquired by dying on the Cross for all mankind; that, finally, though it be out of our power to restore those Rights to people that have had the misfortune to resign them, yet it is our duty, under pain of being accomplices with those who would not have Jesus reign over them, to acknowledge that they are the Rights of the Church.
And lastly, dear Saint, in the midst of the dark clouds which lower over the world, console our holy Mother the Church, who is now but a stranger and pilgrim amidst those nations which were her children, but have now denied her; may she cull the flowers of holy Virginity among the faithful, and may that holy state be the attraction of those fortunate souls who understand how grand is the dignity of being a Spouse of Christ. If, at the very commencement of her ministry, during the ages of persecution, the holy Church could lead countless Virgins to Jesus, may it be so even now in our own age of crime and sensuality; may those pure and generous hearts, formed and consecrated to the Lamb by this holy Mother, become more and more numerous; and so give to her enemies this irresistible proof that she is not barren, as they pretend, and that it is she that alone preserves the world from universal corruption, by leavening it with this angelic purity.
Let us consider that last visible preparation for the coming of the Messias: a universal Peace. The din of war is silenced, and the entire world is intent in expectation. "There are three Silences to be considered," says St. Bonaventure, in one of his Sermons for Advent: "the first in the days of Noah, after the deluge had destroyed all sinners; the second, in the days of Caesar Augustus, when all nations were subjected to the empire; the third will be at the death of Antichrist, when the Jews shall be converted." O Jesus! Prince of Peace, thou willest that the world shall be in peace, when thou art coming down to dwell in it. Thou didst foretell this by the Psalmist, thy ancestor in the flesh, who, speaking of thee, said: "He shall make wars to cease "even to the end of the earth; he shall destroy the bow, and break the weapons; and the shield he shall burn in the fire."
And why is this, O Jesus? It is, that hearts, which thou art to visit, must be silent and attentive. It is that before thou enterest a soul, thou troublest it in thy great mercy, as the world was troubled and agitated before the universal peace; then thou bringest peace into that soul, and thou takest possession of her. Oh! come quickly, dear Lord, subdue our rebellious senses, bring low the haughtiness of our spirit, crucify our flesh, rouse our hearts from their sleep: and then may thy entrance into our souls be a feast-day of triumph, as when a conqueror enters a city which he has taken after a long siege. Sweet Jesus, Prince of Peace! give us peace; fix thy kingdom so firmly in, our hearts, that thou mayest reign in us for ever.
(St. Ambrose Baptizes St. Augustine)
The First Te Deum
St. Ambrose's contribution to music during his tenure as bishop of Milan (374 to 397) was enormous. It was he who introduced reponsorial psalmody to the West. Pope Celestine I then incorporated it into the Mass at Rome. In this manner of singing the psalms, the soloist or leader sings the first half of a psalm verse and the congregation responds by singing the second half. Owing to the importance of Milan and to the energy and high personal reputation of St.Ambrose, the Milanese liturgy and music exerted a strong influence not only in France and Spain, but also in Rome. The songs of the Milanese later became known as the Ambrosian Chant.
Thus St. Ambrose is justly styled "the Father of Church-song in the West," He became like St Hillary, a great champion of orthodoxy against the Arians in the West. And it was while he and his faithful flock were besieged in his Cathedral by the imperial troops that, as St. Augustine tells us, he first composed hymns for them to sing "lest they faint through fatigue of sorrow." The simple austere hymns of St Ambose have always been considered the ideal in Church song.
Tradition has dramatized the birth of the "Te Deum", dating it on an Easter Sunday, and dividing the honor of its composition between Ambrose and his most eminent convert. It was the day Bishop Ambrose baptized Augustine, in the presence of a vast throng that crowded the Basilica of Milan. As if foreseeing with a prophet's eye that his brilliant candidate would become one of the ruling stars of Christendom, Ambrose lifted his hands to heaven and chanted in a holy rapture:
We praise Thee, O God! We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord; All the earth doth worship Thee, the Father Everlasting.He paused, and from the lips of the baptized disciple, Augustine, came the response:
To Thee all the angels cry aloud: the heavens and all the powers therein. To Thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry, Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Sabaoth; Heaven and earth are full of the majesty of Thy glory!And so, stave by stave, in alternating strains, sprang that day from the inspired lips of Ambrose and Augustine the "Te Deum Laudamus," which has ever since been the standard anthem of Christian praise.
The Abrosian Hymn: Te Deum
(The faithful who, to give thanks to God for blessings received, devoutly recite
the Ambrosian hymn Te Deum laudamus are granted: an indulgence of 5 years.)