Posted by: Peadar Ban | December 8, 2009

A Man For Our Time

For at least fifteen hundred years before the attack on Pearl Harbor the date, December 7, was not associated with the phrase “a day that will live in infamy.”  I did not see it that way yesterday, and doubt that I may ever think of it entirely in that way in the future.

You are entitled to wonder why.  I will try to enlighten you.

It has to do with something about my Catholic faith.  You see, we Catholics live ( or ought to live) with our heads (and hearts?) in two worlds, or maybe three, and it is sometimes hard to give pride of place on some days to what the rest of the world may have decided is right and proper for the day’s place in our minds and lives.  For a common instance one need only observe what is happening to Christmas these days, or the difference between what the “world” feels about New Year’s Day and what Holy Church has to say about the Solemnity of Mary, the Holy Mother of God.

Well, on December 7, we are invited to celebrate the Feast of Saint Ambrose of Milan, a Bishop and Doctor (that is, a teacher) of the Church.  I am coming more and more to love the way that the “Ferial Calendar” presents for our attention throughout the year the lives of these men and women of grace and virtue, and encourages us to think of them, ponder their lives and pattern them, with the help of God, after their examples.  Not only that, we are enthusiastically encouraged to  enlist their aid in continuing to intercede for us  before God and to support us on our way to Him.  This is, to be sure, anachronistic if not mad behavior to many on the part of a diminishing number of people.

Be that as it may.  It is, I think, something which should be more common in our lives.  The men and women who are looked to today as patterns for the most part combine in their example a dismal mixture of pride, shallowness of character and willingness to compromise truth for immediate personal gain.  Think for a second of any politician, any “world leader”, any popular athlete, celebrity or such-like and try to argue against the point.

Ambrose, I believe, is the kind of man who would know, almost to the point of sadness, what I am speaking about.  The son of a Roman official, he was appointed to govern a Roman Province with his headquarters in Milan. When the bishop of the place, an Arian heretic and much disliked by the orthodox believers died a disagreement broke out in the cathedral among those gathered to choose a new bishop.  Ambrose as governor came to the place and spoke to the crowd words of reconciliation.  At the time he was a “catechumen”, someone on his way to full membership in the Catholic church, a process which could take years…then.

Someone shouted, “Ambrose for bishop!”  The cry was taken up by everyone who saw in him someone who was both popular and able.  He fled, and only allowed himself to be installed when the Emperor sided with everyone else.  But, he had to be baptized first.

Upon assuming his office, he disposed of all his wealth and possessions, giving the proceeds to the poor.  As regards that, he once said that the rich had an obligation to share their wealth with the poor, since the poor had as much right to it as they.  It wasn’t charity.  It was paying a debt owed them.

Like a much later fellow, Thomas a’Becket, who was a government official before he became a bishop, Ambrose had his difficulties with civil powers making demands.  Though he didn’t suffer martyrdom, he was quite ready to do so.  On one occasion, the army of the emperor surrounded his cathedral and demanded that he and all within it come out.  He refused, and instead had the congregation begin to sing hymns, alternating stanzas between one side of the church and another.  Soon the soldiers outside joined them, and all ended peacefully.

This is said by some to be the beginning of  liturgical singing in Catholic churches.

On another occasion, the emperor Theodosius the Great was brought to his knees by Ambrose.  Theodosius had massacred 7,000 people after an uprising of some sort.  Ambrose refused to allow him inside a church, refused him the sacraments, until he performed public penance for several months.  He excommunicated the man quite publicly.  Imagine!

Ambrose orders the Emperor Theodosius out of town

The painting to the right hangs in the Chicago Art Institute and tells the story well of the kind of fellow Ambrose was.  Theodosius, after all, had done him a big favor, ordering the Empire to become orthodox and forget about Arianism.  Still, Ambrose was adamant.  Even his friends, even the most powerful man in his world, weren’t above being publicly humiliated and made to do penance.  Ambrose wasn’t concerned a bit, one thinks, about power.  His primary goal was the soul of the man and saving it for God.  And, Theodosius listened.  Maybe that’s a good part of the reason why he’s called to this day Theodosius the Great.

I’m no art critic, but when I saw this painting a few weeks ago I knew I was in the presence of a great and good man, one who it would be wise to stay on the good side of.  Even the Emperor pleads, as seems evident to me in this work.  Incidentally, the story has a happy ending.  Theodosius did as he was told (like King David) and the two of them became friends;  to the point that Ambrose delivered a panegyric for his friend the dead Emperor , “De Obitu Theodosii”, in which he says, “I loved him and am confident that the Lord will hearken to the prayer I send up for his pious soul.”

Would that Henry II had paid as much attention to his bishop, or for that matter, Patrick Kennedy and others today.  They might have learned, and might yet learn the lesson of true love.

Ambrose will certainly understand when I say that we live in days of infamy, now.  He knew much the same thing, but did his best to change them.  May his memory inspire us to the same kind of love and devotion to Truth as he had, and his prayers for us all bear fruit.  For this alone he is a man for this season, our time.



    • There is a lot I left out, Dr. Mullan. The man fascinates me, but so does Augustine. His is a life that would make a heck of a play, a heck of a film. Can you see what he might do here with a few of our congressmen and senators, a few of our pundits?

      I am aware that without him we have no Augustine. Interesting sidelight. He wrote the Te Deum for Augustine’s baptism.

  2. Peter, I am increasingly aware a large segment of our society, many of them among the “better” educated, no longer accept a supernatural dimension in our lives. We who do live in different world and speak a different language. The movers and shakers are playing with a deck without honors. The world needs catechisis, and catechists like St. Ambrose. Fr. Simeon

    • Hello Father Simeon!

      I just read a few hours ago that today is the 39th anniversary of the death of Arch-Bishop Fulton Sheen of happy memory. There are some, too few, who follow in his graceful footsteps; like George Rutler and Arch-Bishop Chaput and cardinal Arinze and His Holiness. Alas the audience is not there for them. They seems to be to me “still small voices” in a wilderness of noise and clutter I remember Father O’Sullivan, the good man who christened my children, telling me that he believed we would become a remnant, and soon.

      Let it be, I say, if God wills. But, I wish it weren’t so. I do.

      God bless you,

  3. The great example to be derived from Ambrose’s example is that each bishop must speak out against sin and injustice. Ambrose was not concerned with political actions; he was concerned for the salvation of the soul of one of his flock. That soul happened to be that of an emperor; it could as well have been that of a beggar.

    Compare our bishops with those living in China, in Vietnam, in India. We do not [yet] imprison our bishops for speaking out against the powers of the world. But it may come to that.

    Poor Patrick Kennedy missed the point of his Bishop Tobin’s speaking up. He is endangering his soul. He does not know whether he may unwittingly step in front of a bus and go early to join his father.

    • Hello Gabriel,

      Amen! I once approached my bishop with the suggestion that he say something about embryonic stem cell research. he literally ran from me. Several weeks later, I was allowed by my pastor to speak about the matter after all the Masses. One person, only one, commented to the pastor that it was very unfair to ask people to oppose such a thing. She was sure that such research would lead to a cure for her son’s very severe cerebral palsy.

      That was in 1992. Of course we haven’t had anything vaguely approaching a therapeutic use coming from research with ESC lines. We won’t, is my guess. But, God knows we will try like the devil (literally) to produce one.

      I figured it was a no brainer for the bishop. I figured wrong if the lady is any measure. And, one may draw a line from her to Patrick Kennedy and his ilk…dead souls, I fear.


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