Ambrose was born into a Christian family in 340 AD, in Trier, in modern day France. His family belonged to the Roman aristocracy, and were deeply committed Christians. After his father died, Ambrose was educated in Rome and served successive Emperors. Despite his political career, Ambrose was renowned for his devotion to his religion and his ascetic lifestyle.
Ambrose was the Governor of Liguria, in Northern Italy, until 374, when he became the Bishop of Milan. He was elected Bishop of Milan by the people because they believed that only he could defeat the Arian heretics, who were trying to take over the city. Ambrose did not want to be bishop, but he knew it was his Christian duty to help his fellow Catholics. Ambrose defeated the Arian efforts to take over the city. He did not use force, but employed his eloquence and learning.
Ambrose proved to be a very effective bishop. He was also a noted champion of the Church as it resisted the attempts of the Emperor to control its administration and doctrines. Ambrose coined the principle: “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.” He publicly condemned the Emperor Theodosius for ordering the massacre of 7,000 people in Greece. The emperor did public penance for his part in the slaughter because of Ambrose’s outspoken criticism.
As bishop, he was very generous to the poor. It was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the morals of his congregation, and he introduced popular reforms in ceremonies and rituals of the Church. He was an exemplary Bishop, and influenced many who have held episcopal office down the centuries.
Ambrose was also a great theologian. He championed many ideas, such as the Immaculate Conception. He had a profound influence on St. Augustine, perhaps the greatest theologian in Church History.
Ambrose was reputedly the author of several hymns, including the Te Deum. His contribution to the religious music of the Church was immense.
Ambrose died in 397 AD. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the church of St. Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been venerated since his death.
There are several miracles attributed to Ambrose. In one, he had a dream where the location of the bodies of two Christian martyrs were revealed to him after two centuries.
Another miracle was involved an assassination attempt on him by a heretic. The assassin’s arm was raised with sword in hand, ready to strike down the saint. As he was about to bring the sword down, his arm grew rigid and he could not move. The saint’s life was saved.
The saint was very keen to promote the ascetic life:
"Many have died from eating too much, none from fasting."
In his writing he urged Christians not to fear death:
"Fear not death, we have a merciful Lord."
St Ambrose is the patron saint of Milan, and is still much loved in his adopted home.