By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Saint Ambrose of Milan’s approach to fostering growth in the Christian life remains an inspiration and model for today’s church, says a Czech theologian who spoke Dec. 6 at St. Ambrose University as part of the Feast of St. Ambrose events.
The fourth-century bishop of Milan, Italy, respected the principle illuminated by Saint Paul that faith grows little by little. God reveals himself to human beings progressively in the history of mankind and in the history of each individual, observed Father David Voprada during the annual Saint Ambrose of Milan lecture. Fr. Voprada teaches Patristics and Early Church History at the Catholic Faculty of Theology, Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic.
He noted that Ambrose approached each catechumen at the individual’s level so that the individual might come to see Jesus truly as the son of God. “He did not primarily desire for his church to grow politically, but to grow from the inside, in her members, in the souls of Christ’s believers united in the church.”
Ambrose believed that a good bishop or parish priest, while he himself is trying to grow, searches for ways that others can make further steps in their lives. His ministry as bishop of Milan was not limited to baptized Christians. Others outside the faith “were allowed to participate in the bishop’s sermons which took place together with the Bible readings during the first part of the liturgical assembly of the church,” Fr. Voprada said.
One of those seekers was Augustine, a man whose mother prayed for years for him to become a Christian. In his autobiographical “Confessions,” Augustine said: “And so I came to Milan, to Ambrose the bishop … At that time his eloquence valiantly ministered to your people, Lord, the abundance of your sustenance and the gladness of oil … I began to like him, at first indeed not as a teacher of truth, for I had absolutely no confidence in your Church, but as a human being who was kind to me.”
Both Augustine and Ambrose today are esteemed as saints and doctors of the church.
Ambrose expected Christians to grow in their faith, a fact that inspired the title of Fr. Voprada’s lecture, “Saint Ambrose and Growth in the Christian Life.” “He desires to bring his people to the perfect knowledge of God and of the world. But he is patient, he is not hasty. He knows there is time and there is a journey ahead and you need your pace to arrive to the end of the path.”
In his teaching to catechumens who expressed a desire to be baptized, Ambrose placed an emphasis on an ethical life. Catechumens were expected to correct their moral lives in order to be initiated into baptism and receive the mystical knowledge, Fr. Voprada said. “Ambrose is convinced that a sinful life leads to the search for falsehood whereas an ethical life leads to truth. That is why the reformation of the lives of the catechumens is necessary before their baptism, and it is simultaneously a requirement for going further in their knowledge of God after it.”
Baptism took place in the baptistery built by Ambrose. In a PowerPoint presentation, Fr. Voprada showed photos of excavations of the baptistery discovered beneath what is now the Duomo of Milan. The octagonal building was decorated with mosaics and inscriptions “that must have made an impression on the baptized,” the priest observed.
Baptism was always linked to other stories of faith: the baptism of Jesus, Moses parting the waters and Jesus healing the paralytic, for example. The imagery was intended to help the faithful understand that “this same God comes to you,” Fr. Voprada said.
Ambrose advised the new Christians that “You need to seal this faith in your life.” But he was painfully aware of the superficiality of the faith of many Christians, and confronted that imperfection with further instruction. The first thing that needed to be done, he noted, was to “exercise ourselves in the warfare of life and mend our ways.” Keeping the Lord’s Law is the route to reach the perfect knowledge of God, Ambrose believed.
He understood that progress to perfect knowledge of God is not continuous or linear. Thus, Ambrose spoke clearly about Christians’ propensity to sin and the need for penance. Fr. Voprada referred to a homily Bishop Martin Amos gave earlier in the day, making an observation about Ambrose’s approach to penance. Bishop Amos noted that Ambrose wrote against the Novatians, a heretical group overly strict on coming to repentance and forgiveness. Ambrose “does urge the necessity of careful and speedy repentance and the necessity of confessing one’s sins,” Bishop Amos said. “But (Ambrose) points out how God is more inclined to mercy than to severity.”
Ambrose believed that by repenting of their sins, the faithful deepened their knowledge of God, a God who is merciful. “We get to know God better when he comes to us in our need. He comes to us in the moment we need him most,” Fr. Voprada said.