Thursday, December 7, 2023

The Conversion of Saint Ambrose

December 7 is the feast of Saint Ambrose, and his story really is a great conversion story. Here is the text that appeared in my column in the February 2019 issue of Magnificat:

In the fourth century, Roman society was in a difficult transition from a thousand years of paganism (that had shaped its laws and modes of governance) to the newly “official” Christianity of Emperor Constantine and his successors. Many Romans in powerful positions became merely nominal Christians, and some even tried to manipulate the Church. Others were sincerely convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but saw difficulties in reconciling that conviction with their political position in the society of late antiquity.

Aurelius Ambrosius was one of the latter people. He was born in Trier in Gaul (where his father was Imperial Prefect) around 340, into a family of Roman nobility that also had a Christian lineage. He was given a thorough education in preparation for a political career. Though enrolled as a catechumen, he was not baptized in his youth. Wealthy Christian families in Rome generally delayed the baptism of their children, and men committed to government service often remained catechumens indefinitely, as exercising worldly power seemed incompatible with the demands of Christian living.

Ambrose rose to become Governor of Milan. Although he knew the basics of Christianity, tried to live an upright life, and was known and respected for his fairness and equanimity, Governor Ambrose was not ready for baptism even as he approached middle age. As far as he could see, his office required him to belong to what was still a pre-Christian world and to use the sometimes brutal means of that world when necessary.

Still, he had no taste for violent measures. Ambrose preferred persuasion, and he excelled at it. During his governorship, the affairs of the Church in Milan were in an uproar as the upholders of Nicene orthodoxy battled against the Arian party. After the (Arian supporting) bishop died in 374, partisans of both sides nearly rioted over who would succeed him. Governor Ambrose was compelled to intervene to restore the peace. Instead of calling in soldiers, however, he spoke to the people of Milan about the necessity of concord.

Here God’s grace was mysteriously at work. Even as the governor’s words brought the people together, the Holy Spirit inspired within them an unusual but prophetic intuition and desire: that Governor Ambrose himself should become their new bishop. They took up the cry, “Ambrose for bishop!” This was not, however, what the still-unbaptized Emperor’s consul had expected. He resisted what was ultimately a call for his own conversion. In the days that followed, he tried to convince the people that he unworthy of being a bishop. He was a civil official who had used torture and shed blood. He was weighed down with worldly riches. He was bound to the Emperor’s service. When the people continued to insist, Ambrose fled the city and went into hiding. But they sent an appeal to the Emperor himself and received his approval.

Only then did Ambrose lay down the burden of his worldly office. The call of Jesus Christ surrounded him from every side, and he realized that it was time to say, “Yes.” He was baptized on November 30, 374 and was ordained bishop a week later, on December 7. He put aside Imperial power to become a shepherd, and thereafter he dedicated all his intelligence, eloquence, and judiciousness to preaching Christ and serving His Church.