By Patrick Schmadeke
What I like so much about St. Ambrose of Milan, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow (Dec. 7), is his capacity to resist falling into ideological camps. He rejects the trap of choosing between binary options, or sides of arguments that have already been articulated by his contemporaries.
Instead, he prudently witnesses to the demand of Christianity — to seek creative ways to address problems that others refuse to consider. Draft solutions, try them out, revise, polish, keep chugging along and always keep Christ at the center.
This essential dimension of his character is on display throughout his life, most especially during his tenure as bishop. One incident in particular speaks to this “Ambrosian way.” It happened in the late 370s, following the battle of Hadrianopolis. Here’s the context.
The Emperor Valens and the armies of the Eastern Empire were decimated by the advancing Visigoths. This was the second-worst defeat of a Roman army in the empire’s nearly 1,000-year history. Something like 10,000 legionaries were killed, the emperor along with them. This left the Gothic army free to raid the countryside of the east. Those captured were sold on the slave markets of the east. Chaos reigned. Those who did escape, soldiers and citizens alike, were pouring into the capital of the Western Empire, Milan.
Ambrose greeted these war refugees at the city gates with food, shelter and compassion. He deployed the church’s wealth to meet the needs of these war-torn migrants. However, the sheer scale of need meant that financial resources were quickly depleting.
The consistent witness of the saints, let alone the Gospel, shows this to be the prudent Christian response. What happens next speaks to the challenges that may accompany such a response.
Ambrose smashed the sacred vessels used in the Eucharistic celebration, broke the gold into pieces and sent it with agents to buy back people being sold on the eastern slave markets. To make the situation more complex, those vessels were the physical legacy of Ambrose’s predecessor, with whom he had significant theological disagreement. Ambrose was accused by some of his contemporaries of eliminating the enduring presence of his deceased rival-predecessor or, in other words, political machinations. Complexities abound.
Ambrose melted down sacred liturgical instruments and there is no doubt that he impacted the legacy of his predecessor. That doesn’t seem to be the point. Ambrose’s aim, above all, was the redemption of the captive Romans, in the process of which he made no distinction between recovering Christians and non-Christians.
Furthermore, Ambrose offers his readers an interpretive key to the incident. In recording the events that had transpired, he calls upon the example of St. Lawrence to validate his actions.
Lawrence was a martyr and deacon of the Bishop of Rome in the mid-200’s. His bishop was captured by the Romans and executed. A few days later, they came for Lawrence. The Romans, with an interest in acquiring the church’s money, commanded Lawrence to hand over the wealth of the church. Here is Ambrose’s telling of the event:
For when the treasures of the Church were demanded from him [Lawrence], he promised that he would show them. On the following day he brought the poor together. When asked where the treasures were which he had promised, he pointed to the poor, saying: “These are the treasures of the Church” (De Officiis No.140).
Some truths of the faith are universal. It behooves us to remember, with Saints Ambrose and Lawrence, that the poor and captive, the battered and broken, these are the treasures of the church. The Ambrosian way speaks this resolutely in thought and deed, and serves as an inspiration to us all. Happy feast day.
(Editor’s note: Patrick Schmadeke is a graduate of St. Ambrose University (‘13) and a student in the Master of Divinity program at the University of Notre Dame. His column offers reflections on his coursework, engaging with the richness of the Catholic Tradition and its relevance to the world today.)