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Wednesday's Audience - On St. Ambrose of Milan

10/29/2007 - PST

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"Catechesis Is Inseparable From the Testimony of Life"

VATICAN CITY, OCT. 29, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience in St. Peter's Square on St. Ambrose of Milan.

* * *

Dear brothers and sisters:

The saintly Bishop Ambrose, of whom I will speak to you today, died during the night in Milan between April 3-4, 397. It was the dawn of Holy Saturday. The day before, toward 5 p.m., he began to pray as he was lying in bed with his arms open in the form of the cross. That is how he participated in the solemn Easter triduum, in the death and resurrection of Our Lord. "We saw him moving his lips," testified Paulinus, the faithful deacon who was invited by Augustine to write Ambrose's biography entitled "Vita," "but his voice could not be heard."

Suddenly, the situation seemed to come to an end. Honoratus, bishop of Vercelli, who helped Ambrose and who slept upstairs from him, was awakened by a voice that repeated: "Get up, quick! Ambrose is approaching death." Honoratus immediately went downstairs, Paulinus recounted, "and offered the saint the Body of the Lord. After having taken it, Ambrose surrendered his spirit, carrying with him viaticum. Thus, his soul, strengthened by virtue of that food, now enjoys the company of angels" ("Vita," 47).

On that Good Friday of 397, the open arms of the dying Ambrose expressed his mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Our Lord. This was his last catechesis: Without speaking a word, he spoke with the testimony of life.

Ambrose was not old when he died. He was not even 60, for he was born around 340 in Trier, where his father was prefect of the Gauls. The family was Christian. When his father died, and he was still a boy, his mother brought him to Rome to prepare him for a civil career, giving him a solid rhetorical and juridical education. Around 370, he was sent to govern the provinces of Emilia and Liguria, with headquarters in Milan. It was precisely there where the struggle between orthodox Christians and Arians was seething, especially after the death of Auxentius, the Arian bishop. Ambrose intervened to pacify those of both factions, and his authority was such that, despite the fact that he was nothing more than a simple catechumen, he was acclaimed by the people as bishop of Milan.

Until that moment, Ambrose had been the highest magistrate of the Roman Empire in northern Italy. Highly prepared culturally, but deficient in knowledge of Scriptures, the new bishop began to study them energetically. He learned to study and comment on the Bible from the works of Origen, the undisputed master of the school of Alexandria. In this way, Ambrose brought to the Latin environment the practice of meditating on Scriptures initiated by Origen, beginning the practice of "lectio divina" in the West.

The method of "lectio" soon guided the preaching and writing of Ambrose, which emerged precisely from prayerful listening to the word of God. A famous opening from one Ambrosian catechesis distinctly demonstrates how the holy bishop applied the Old Testament to Christian life: "When we read the histories of the patriarchs and the maxims of Proverbs, we come face to face with morality," the bishop of Milan told his catechumens and neophytes, "in order that, educated by these, you can then accustom yourselves to enter into the life of the fathers and to follow the path of obedience to the divine precepts" ("I misteri," 1,1).

In other words, neophytes and catechumens, in the opinion of the bishop, after having learned the art of living morally, could then consider themselves prepared for the great mysteries of Christ. In this way, the preaching of Ambrose, which represents the heart of his prodigious literary work, originates from the reading of sacred books ("The Patriarchs," the historical books, and "Proverbs," the sapiential books), to live in conformity with divine revelation.

It is evident that the personal testimony of the preacher, and the exemplarity of the Christian community, conditions the efficacy of any preaching. From this point of view a passage from St. Augustine's "Confessions" is significant. Augustine had come to Milan as a professor of rhetoric; he was a skeptic, not a Christian. He was looking, but he wasn't able to truly encounter the Christian truth. For the young African rhetorician, skeptical and desperate, it was not the beautiful homilies of Ambrose that converted him -- despite the fact that he appreciated them immensely. Rather, it was the testimony of the bishop and the Church in Milan, which prayed and sang, united as a single body. It was a Church capable of resisting the bullying of the emperor and his mother, who had demanded again the expropriation of a Church building for Arian ceremonies in early 386.

In the building that was to be expropriated, ...

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