Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo
Image of St. Ambrose


Death: 397

At 33 Ambrose had it all - a successful career as a lawyer, an important position as governor of Milan, the approval and friendship of the emperor, and a large estate.

Then the bishop of Milan died. At this time, about 374, heresies threatened to destroy the Church. The bishop had supported the Arian heresy that argued against the divinity of Christ. Who would take his place - an Arian or a Catholic? Both sides met in the cathedral and a riot broke out.

Public order was Ambrose's responsibility as governor so he hurried to the church and made a passionate speech not in favor of either side, but in favor of peace. He begged the people to make their choice without fighting, using restraint and moderation.

Suddenly, while he was speaking, a voice called out, "Ambrose for bishop!" Soon everyone was shouting, "Ambrose for bishop!"

The other bishops of the province were only too glad to have this controversial decision taken out of their hands. But Ambrose was not about to give up a successful career for the dangerous position of bishop - a life- threatening occupation in these heretical times. So Ambrose ran away. When he appealed to the emperor to overturn the decision on the basis that he hadn't even been baptized yet, the emperor answered that he was happy that he chose governors fit for the episcopal office. Ambrose hid in a senator's house but the senator surrendered Ambrose when he heard about the emperor's decision.

With nowhere else to run, Ambrose gave in. Since he'd been forced to take the position, no one would have been surprised if he'd decided to keep on living the way that he had before ordination. Instead, Ambrose immediately gave his property to the poor and put himself under the instruction of Saint Simplician to learn Scripture and theology.

The Arians thought Ambrose would be "their" bishop because Ambrose had been a member of court and many in government were Arians. But Ambrose used his skills as a lawyer and orator to fight the Arians in church, court, senate, and even the emperor's own family. The same stubbornness that had made him refuse the position in the first place was now his weapon in fighting heresy and pursuing sanctity.

Ambrose's Treasure

When the Goths invaded the empire and took captives, Ambrose paid out all the money he had in ransom. He said the best and most effective charity was ransoming captives and hostages. He even took all gold vessels belonging to the Church and had them melted down. He said, "It is a better thing to save souls for the Lord than to save treasures. He who sent forth his apostles without gold had not need of gold to form his Church. The Church possesses gold, not to hoard, but to scatter abroad and come to the aid of the unfortunate.

"Would not the Lord say to us: 'Why have you let so many needy perish of hunger? Since you had gold, you should provide for their needs'...Could we say: 'I feared to leave the temple of God without ornament.' But that which can't be bought with gold does not take its value from gold. The best way to use the gold of the Redeemer is for the redemption of those in peril."

Ambrose always was more concerned for the poor than for power. He often reproached the wealthy for ignoring the poor: "God created the universe in such a manner that all in common might derive their food from it, and that the earth should also be a property common to all. Why do you reject one who has the same rights over nature as you? It is not from your own goods that you give to the beggar; it is a portion of his own that you are restoring to him. The earth belongs to all. So you are paying back a debt and think you are making a gift to which you are not bound."

Sentenced to Death

When the emperor died, the Empress Justina, an Arian, became regent for her four year old son. Maximus, a former Roman soldier, realized the emperor's death might weaken the empire enough for his army to conquer it. Justina begged Ambrose to negotiate with him. In spite of the fact that she was his enemy, Ambrose went on a diplomatic mission that convinced Maximus not to invade.

Justina's idea of showing gratitude to Ambrose was to demand that Ambrose's basilica be handed over to the Arians. Ambrose answered that he would never give up the temple of God.

The people were on Ambrose's side. It is possible he could have even started a coup to overthrow Justina. But Ambrose was careful never to say or do anything to start violence. When Catholics seized an Arian priest and were going to put him to death, Ambrose intervened in the name of peace and prayed God suffer no blood to be shed. He sent out priests and deacons to rescue his Arian enemy.

Ambrose said, "When I was told the church was surrounded with soldiers I said I cannot give it up but I must not fight." The soldiers came in to the basilica - but they came in to pray.

Justina then persuaded her son to make a law legalizing Arians and forbidding Catholics to oppose Arians under pain of death. No one could even present a petition against a church being yielded up.

On Palm Sunday, Ambrose preached a sermon about not giving up churches. The congregation, afraid for their lives, barricaded themselves in the basilica with their pastor Ambrose. The imperial troops surrounded the basilica in an attempt to starve them out, but on Easter Sunday all the people were still inside.

In the face of arms and soldiers, Ambrose said, "My only arms are my tears. I will never depart willingly but I won't resist by force."

In order to calm the frightened people Ambrose taught them to sing hymns he had composed. He split the congregation in two in order to alternate verses of the hymns. This is our first record of communal singing in church.

The music of praise and prayer seeped out through the walls of the basilica and into the hearts of the soldiers. Soon the soldiers outside joined in the singing. The siege ended.

The Other Cheek

With the military concentrated on fighting Catholics, Maximus decided Rome was ready for an invasion. Justina and her son were panic-stricken. What could they do?

They turned to one person they knew could handle the mission - the person they had just attacked and threatened. They asked Ambrose to go to Maximus again and stop his invasion.

Who would have blamed Ambrose for refusing?

In a miraculous act of forgiveness, Ambrose went on this mission for his enemies. When Maximus refused to compromise, Ambrose hurried home to warn them. Justina and her son fled to Greece, while Ambrose stayed behind. Fortunately, the eastern Emperor Theodosius intervened and defeated Maximus. However, Theodosius then took over control of the whole empire. Theodosius was Catholic and became a lifelong friend of Ambrose.

Ambrose died in 397, at about the age of 57. His memorial is celebrated on December 7, the date of his ordination.

More about St. Ambrose from Wikipedia

St. Ambrose Comments

More Saints

Browse Saints by Category

Popular Saints




Image of St. Emma

St. Emma

Emma was a relative of Emperor St. Henry II and also known as Hemma. She was raised at Henry's court by St. Cunegund, and according to legend was married to Landgrave William of Friesach. ... continue reading


Image of St. Helena

St. Helena

Empress mother of Constantine the Great. She was a native of Bithynia, who married the then Roman general Constantius I Chlorus about 270. Constantine was born soon after, and in 293, ... continue reading


Image of Sts. Joachim and Anne

Sts. Joachim and Anne

By tradition Joachim and Anne are considered to be the names of the parents of Mary, the Mother of God. We have no historical evidence, however, of any elements of their lives, including ... continue reading

All Popular Saints

Saint of the Day

Image of St. Francis of Assisi

St. Francis of Assisi

Founder of the Franciscan Order, born at Assisi in Umbria, in 1181. In 1182, Pietro Bernardone returned from a trip to France to find out his wife had given birth to a son. Far from being excited or ... continue reading

More Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day by E-Mail

Saint of the Day newsletter icon

Learn about the lives of the saints and other saint resources, including a calendar, over 5,000 saint biographies, our most popular saints, and a list of patron saints. 7 days / week. See Sample


Female Saints

Image of St. Teresa of Avila

St. Teresa of Avila

Less than twenty years before Teresa was born in 1515, Columbus opened up the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. Two years after she was born, Luther started the Protestant Reformation. Out of all of this change came Teresa pointing the way from outer turmoil ... continue reading

More Female Saints

Saint Calendar
Saint Feast Days
Saint Fun Facts


Image of St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael the Archangel

St. Michael the Archangel - Feast day - September 29th The name Michael signifies "Who is like to God?" and was the warcry of the good angels in the battle fought in heaven against satan and his followers. Holy Scripture describes St. Michael as "one of the chief ... continue reading

Image of St. Gabriel, the Archangel

St. Gabriel, the Archangel

The name Gabriel means "man of God," or "God has shown himself mighty." It appears first in the prophesies of Daniel in the Old Testament. The angel announced to Daniel the prophecy of the seventy weeks. His name also occurs in the apocryphal book of Henoch. He was the ... continue reading

Saints Fun Facts

Saints Fun Facts for St. Romulus

St. Romulus

Roman martyr. He was a member of the imperial court under Emperor Trajan. When Romulus spoke out against the persecutions of Christians, Trajan commanded that he should be arrested and put to death ... continue reading

Saints Fun Facts for St. Maximilian Kolbe

St. Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian was born in 1894 in Poland and became a Franciscan. He contracted tuberculosis and, though he recovered, he remained frail all his life. Before his ordination as a priest, Maximilian ... continue reading

Christian Saints & Heroes

Image of St. Therese of Lisieux

Jennifer Hartline: Trying to Learn Humility From St. Therese

By Jennifer Hartline

St. Therese helps me understand: "the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the little violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy.if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the ... continue reading

More Christian Saints & Heroes


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for October 4th, 2015 Image

St. Francis of Assisi
October 4: Founder of the Franciscan Order, born at Assisi in Umbria, in ... Read More