St Ambrose was born around 340 in what is now France. He was the son of the Roman prefect of Gaul and, following his father’s footsteps, he embarked upon a career in law and politics. By 370 he had become the Imperial governor of Northern Italy. When the Bishop of Milan died in 374, the people demanded that Ambrose be made their bishop. The neighboring bishops and the Emperor convinced him to accept this call as the will of God, and so the catechumen Ambrose was baptized and ordained deacon, then priest, then bishop, all in a single week!
This politician-turned churchman was profoundly aware of his lack of preparation for this great responsibility and so set himself immediately to prayer and the study of Scripture. His deep spirituality and love of God’s Word married together with the oratorical skill acquired in law and politics made St Ambrose one of the greatest preachers of the early church.
He also proved to be a fierce opponent of heresy, paganism, and hypocrisy. He battled to preserve the independence of the Church from the state, saying that “the emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.” He excommunicated the Emperor Theodosius I for a massacre of innocent civilians in Thessalonica, the emperor later doing public penance for his crime.
St Ambrose also had a significant impact on sacred music through the composition of hymns and psalm tones that are known to this day as Ambrosian chant. Besides numerous sermons and treatises on the spiritual life, St Ambrose is responsible for two of the first great theological works written in Latin, on the Sacraments and on the Holy Spirit.
Around 385, an ambitious professor of public speaking named Augustine came to hear St Ambrose preach in order to study his technique, and in the process, was attracted to the Catholic faith. In 386 Augustine was baptized by St Ambrose and went on to become bishop of Hippo in North Africa. Ambrose and his pupil, Augustine, together with St Jerome and St Gregory the Great, make up the four original Doctors of the Latin Church. St Ambrose died on Holy Saturday in the year 397 AD. His feast day in the Roman calendar is 7 December, the day he was ordained bishop.