Aurelius Ambrosius was born into an aristocratic Christian family, which was very much part of the imperial government of Rome. It is said that at his birth, bees hovered over his cradle, and a drop of honey fell upon his lips, signs that the child would be a ‘honey-tongued’ orator in later life. Ambrose, his name, is Greek for ‘nectar’.
While young, Ambrose studied literature, law and rhetoric, and soon rose to become prefect of Milan, then the second city of the Empire. In this office he exercised such wisdom, restraint and moderation, that by popular acclaim he was made bishop. At this time Ambrose was only a catechumen. He now accepted baptism, and later ordination, and in 374, at the age of 34, he was consecrated bishop of Milan.
Having accepted this office, Ambrose gave all his personal wealth and his lands to the Church, and embraced the ascetic life. He plunged himself into the study of the Scriptures and the Church fathers. He was famous for his very practical, short and bold sermons — “spoken to the point, judiciously, and with tremendous power of expression,” as his young friend St Augustine, no mean preacher himself, was wont to say. It was Ambrose who consoled Monica, the mother of Augustine, and who eventually baptized the young man, after Augustine had kept postponing for many years.
Ambrose combined both pastoral zeal and scholarly attention. All through the day, he made himself available to his people; and by night, he read copiously and wrote his correspondence and his commentaries on Scripture. He believed that the Church’s duty was the moral guidance of society, for which it needed the protection of the state. There were tensions with the government, for the Arian heresy had influential supporters, but Ambrose overcame them all. “Divine blessings are not granted to those who sleep, but to those who keep watch”, he would say.