The early fourth century AD saw the legalization of Christianity, as well as the rise of a heresy called Arianism. Arius was a presbyter in Alexandria, Egypt who taught that Jesus was not eternal – “There was when the Son of God was not,” as he put it. Bringing Jesus down to the level of a creature would nullify salvation, and therefore the Church rebuked such false teaching. In AD 325 Emperor Constantine called the Council of Nicea in order to settle this theological dispute. Arius was condemned, and the first part of the Nicene Creed was written. Nevertheless, Arianism continued in many parts.
Ambrose was born in Trier (modern day Germany) most likely in AD 339. His father (also named Ambrose) was prefect of the Gauls. Ambrose had an older sister Marcellina and an older brother Satyrus. When Ambrose was young his family moved to Rome, perhaps at the death of his father, and his sister took up a life of virginity. Ambrose was raised in a devout Christian household. When Ambrose used to see his sister and his mother’s servant girl kissing the hands of the bishops, he would jokingly offer his own hand for them to kiss, saying that he was going to be a bishop.
Ambrose studied the liberal arts, law, and the Greek language in preparation for a position in the civil realm. He became prefect of Liguria and Aemilia in northwest Italy, whose capitol was Milan. The bishop of Milan, an Arian named Auxentius, died in AD 374. The city was divided between Arians and Catholics (a term used at the time to refer to orthodox Christians). There was great unrest among the people at the search for a new bishop, so much unrest that Governor Ambrose had to come to settle them. Paulinus, a biographer of Ambrose who wrote around AD 422, relates:
“Lest the people of the city be endangered, he went to the church, and there, as he was speaking to the throng, the voice of a small child all at once made itself heard among the people: ‘Ambrose for bishop!’ At the sound of this voice the whole tone of the gathering changed, and they acclaimed Ambrose as their bishop. So it was that those who had previously been violently divided, because the Catholics and the Arians each wanted to best the other and to have a bishop ordained for themselves, suddenly agreed, with remarkable and unbelievable harmony, on this one man” (Paulinus of Milan, The Life of St. Ambrose, §6).
Ambrose was quickly baptized and ordained as bishop of Milan. He made a fine bishop indeed. He was a staunch defender of the orthodox faith against Arianism, preached and wrote extraordinarily well, and shepherded the flock in Milan with the care of a dear father. A few years after his ordination he visited Rome and went to the house of his youth, where he found his mother’s servant girl and his sister. As his sister Marcellina kissed his hand he said, “See, just as I told you: you are kissing the hand of a bishop” (Paulinus, §9).
We thank Christ for raising up Ambrose to defend the Christian faith against heresy and to shepherd the flock of God in Milan. May the Lord continue to raise up such pastors!