By Barb Arland-Fye
As the relationship between Church and state grows more hostile, St. Ambrose University in Davenport took a look back last week at its namesake’s profound influence on Church-state relations in the late fourth century.
Saint Ambrose, a rising political leader in Milan, Italy, walked away from power and prestige to become a bishop whose leadership meshed the best of Roman tradition with the demands of the Gospel message, explained Msgr. Francesco Braschi of the Accademia Ambrosiana in Milan. A founding member of the Accademia who has written extensively on the fourth century doctor of the Church, Msgr. Braschi gave The Saint Ambrose of Milan Lecture on March 4.
Ambrose was ordained a bishop in 374, a period of relative peace from a secular point of view, but one of division between two factions of Christians. It was an era when the emperor and the Church were seeking to define their mutual relations. “The words and actions of the bishop of Milan were of ‘worldwide’ interest, and could make him either a Court bishop … or the most challenging Church’s spokesperson to the ‘Christian’ Emperor,” Msgr. Braschi observed.
Prior to his ordination, Ambrose was a young governor of Milan and a catechumen who “felt it was his personal duty to go to the church where the various factions were heavily discussing, each trying to impose its own leader.”
His leadership skills and compassion inspired Catholics to call for him to serve as their bishop. Ambrose resisted their pleas. He and other believers recognized the serious commitment required of the baptized and thus delayed baptism until well into adulthood. For Christians, baptism “required an actual commitment to serve God’s will through one’s own life and work,” Msgr. Braschi said. Ultimately, “the consent of the emperor and the persistent cries of the people for (Ambrose) to be made bishop appeared to him to be a clear sign of the divine will, which he did not wish to oppose.”
As bishop, Ambrose “shaped a cultural vision for Christian faith,” Msgr. Braschi told The Catholic Messenger. “The time when (Ambrose) lived was a transitional one. The ancient pagan and Roman imagery was more and more useless in order to answer questions arising from everyday life: the meaning of life, death, of begetting children, of working … Ambrose was able to build up — using Bible stories and examples, but also Roman history and traditional custom — a new vision of the world that was able to preserve all that was good in Roman tradition (sense of loyalty, honor, love for right, law and justice…) and in the same time to re-shape it according to the Gospel.”
Through his preaching, teaching and personal example, Ambrose proved it is possible to live fully in the world, appreciating his cultural heritage, while not being afraid to take new, courageous and innovative positions.
Ambrose was also noted for his “defense of the true faith in Christ, as true man and true God … Believing in the full divinity and in the full humanity of Christ means to recognize that it is really possible for us to imitate Christ’s human life, and through this imitation we are made able to get to his full ‘sonship’ toward God the Father,” Msgr. Braschi said. Ambrose strongly affirmed the Trinity’s desire for full communion with people; therefore, people are “capable of entering a true and life-giving relationship with God and this is the basis of (people’s) dignity and equality.”
The Bishop of Milan also defended the Church’s (and believers’) “freedom in front of political power … He could not think of a political power that pretends to overcome and subdue man, taking for itself the place of God.” Nonetheless, “he never forgot his duty as a bishop, to love even the emperors and to care for their souls and for their salvation. This is — in my opinion — an enormous change of perspective caused by Ambrose’s genuine Christian spirituality: even the man who is in charge of a high office, even the emperor, deserves to be regarded as a man, needing someone to care about him. This always moves me, when I think of people — even in the Church — that are only able to despise, to move accusations, but often forget to look at their opponents as human beings.”
One important example of Ambrose’s influence on today’s Church can be seen in his vision of social justice, Msgr. Braschi said. “He did make decisions that were unexpected, for instance when he ordered that golden sacred vases and even chalices be fused and made into gold bars in order to pay for the liberation of hostages kidnapped by the Barbarians. This clearly stated that men are above things, even above the Church’s furniture and worship accessories.”
Another example: the first Eucharistic Prayer (the Roman Canon), which is prayed during Mass, has been transmitted to the Church through one of Saint Ambrose’s works. “He shaped not only the Ambrosian (i.e., Milanese Church’s) liturgy, but also the Roman Catholic one: through the hymns and prayers that he wrote.”
Asked how Ambrose’s leadership compared with that of Pope Francis, Msgr. Braschi said: “The main aspect that makes me think of Ambrose, when I look at Pope Francis, is the perfect fusion of tenderness, love, openness and good attitude toward all people with clear-mindedness and firmness about Christian doctrine. And it is clear that both for Ambrose and Francis, Christian doctrine is not just a series of ideas, principles and obligations, but is the concrete and living person of Christ. Both Francis and Ambrose love Christ, not as an idea, but as a person that is present to them.”
St. Ambrose University theologian Father Bud Grant said he hoped those attending Msgr. Braschi’s lecture would better understand how Saint Ambrose – who could have become an imperial “patsy” — became instead the most influential bishop of his age. His legacy continues to influence the Church today. “He is the epitome of the Catholic intellectual tradition: something that SAU stands for to its core,” observed Fr. Grant, director of the Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan.
The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan and Student Government Association sponsored The Saint Ambrose of Milan Lecture that Msgr. Francesco Braschi delivered March 4 at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.