Models of Mercy: St. Ambrose

The following is the latest in our series looking at the lives of the saints, for they are models, par excellence, of how we should live our lives in the footsteps of Christ. This month, we reflect on the life of St. Ambrose, bishop and Doctor of the Church, whose feast day we celebrate on Dec. 7.

Born in Milan around the year 338 A.D., Ambrose grew up in a non-Christian family and received his education in Rome. He studied law, literature, and rhetoric; was made the governor of Liguria and Emilia in Italy; and had his headquarters in Milan.

When the bishop of Milan died in 374, Ambrose attended the election of the new bishop to prevent any conflicts between the Nicene Church (the faithful Church) and the Arians (those who followed the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ). While Ambrose was addressing the people and trying to keep the peace, the people (even the Arians ) rose up and began to call for Ambrose to become the next bishop. But Ambrose wasn't even a baptized Christian yet!

Not wanting to become a bishop, Ambrose fled into hiding. The emperor got word of this and imposed penalties on anyone who would give Ambrose shelter. This forced him out of hiding. Ambrose accepted the faith, then was baptized, ordained, and consecrated a bishop a week later. You don't hear of that nowadays!

Was he any good as a bishop with such a quick conversion and ordination? Yes! He responded whole-heartedly to the call of the Lord. He dedicated himself to a life of prayer and serving the people.

The most famous instance of his service for the Lord was his role in the conversion of St. Augustine. Augustine, a rhetorician and non-Christian skeptic, was in Milan with his mother, Monica. Monica had already been praying for Augustine's conversion for many years. In the cathedral, she heard Ambrose's eloquent and learned homilies, and hoped that the saintly bishop would speak to her son. She thought that perhaps Augustine would be open to listening to an eloquent and intelligent Christian.

Saint Ambrose became St. Monica's spiritual director and encouraged her in her persevering prayer, telling her that even if she did not see her son convert for years, she should never give up praying for him.

Augustine did attend some of Ambrose's sermons, and was deeply moved. When Ambrose began to be persecuted by the spread of Arianism, he and his people stood fast. This witness affected Augustine greatly. He wrote in his Confessions: "For it was a year, or not much more, that Justina, mother to the Emperor Valentinian, a child, persecuted Thy servant Ambrose, in favour of her heresy, to which she was seduced by the Arians. The devout people kept watch in the Church, ready to die with their Bishop Thy servant. There my mother Thy handmaid, bearing a chief part of those anxieties and watchings, lived for prayer" (9,7).

In time, after many conversations and letters back and forth with Ambrose, Augustine repented and wept bitterly for his sins. Ambrose baptized Augustine, who was later ordained and became the bishop of Hippo. After his death, Augustine became a saint and Doctor of the Church with Ambrose.

Augustine recounted in his Confessions that every time he went to visit Ambrose, he always found the bishop with a crowd of people seeking his help. Ambrose dedicated himself to helping each one of them find consolation and hope. Whenever he wasn't with the people, Ambrose was deep in prayer. He introduced the Church in the West to the great tradition of lectio divina, prayerful reading of and meditation on Sacred Scripture. From this life of prayer flowed Ambrose's ministry for the Church. Because he prayed, he was able to encourage his flock, including St. Monica, and convert hundreds, including St. Augustine.

Saint Ambrose teaches us the importance of prayer so that we can go out and be merciful to others. We, too, need to spend time each day in prayer and meditation with the Lord, perhaps by reading Sacred Scripture. Our hearts must be filled with mercy so that we can be vessels of God's mercy to those around us.

Ambrose also gives us an example of how to be empathetic and encourage people who are suffering because of a loved one, like Monica, or bringing someone to repentance, like Augustine, through the simple sharing of the Gospel. Who in your life may need some encouragement? Sometimes people just need someone who will listen to them. Do not be afraid to also share the Word of God with those who may be doubting. These are all works of mercy that you can do in your everyday life.

Saint Ambrose, pray for us!


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