Eucharist this noon included John 1:29-42 as the Gospel lesson, wherein At John the Baptist makes this famous proclamation. I couldn’t help but think of the ninth-century mosaics at Santa Prassede in Rome.
I was explaining to someone my upcoming research project into the sources of the earliest collections of papal letters recently, and this question came up. It’s actually a very good question, because it helps clarify what the person with whom you are speaking actually means by the terms. There is a certain kind of Roman Catholic, for example, who would say that not only are ‘Bishop of Rome’ and ‘Pope’ synonymous, the office of the Bishop of Rome has pretty much always been invested with the same authority and whatnot.
My answer was that, for my research, I use the terms interchangeably. However, it is more that I mean ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’ when I say ‘Pope’ than that I mean ‘Pope’ when I say ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’. That is, I am conscious of a development in the office of the Roman Bishop and his role in ecclesiastical polity that means that ‘Pope’ Siricius (d. 399) and ‘Pope’ Innocent III (d. 1216) and ‘Pope’ Francis do not all have exactly the same job or role in the wider church.
John Moorhead’s 2015 book, The Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity takes the same tack, although Moorhead eschews the adjective ‘papal’ and noun ‘papacy’, with good reason. I choose not to because they are short words and everyone knows what they mean; instead, I frame my use of pope-related words at the beginning of my work so people know what is going on. Calling Leo ‘Pope’ is perfectly legitimate; therefore, talking of his papacy makes a lot of sense to me — although I can also see Moorhead’s perspective, trying to avoid clouding the issue of how the Roman Bishop’s role developed.
What is a ‘pope’? A ‘pope’ is a papa in Latin — a father. The term is used in the fifth century of bishops beyond the Bishop of Rome, although eventually it becomes restricted to said bishop in its usage. I am fairly certain no one ever legislated the term ‘pope’. It is also used in Eastern churches; hence the current Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. At St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus, it is painted in a fresco on the exterior of the building; the fresco is of the Council of Nicaea, and the poor fifteenth- (sixteenth-?) century artist knew neither Pope Sylvester’s name nor the fact that he wasn’t even there, so simply painted ‘Papa Romis’ over his head.
It is a title of honour, originally used to esteem the person and activity of spiritual direction of the bishop. Therefore, even though Bishops of Rome in the late 300s and 400s were not the same sort of Pope as Innocent III, they are still Popes — and they still claim a primacy of honour. And Pope Leo the Great, in fact, even claims that all clerical ministry descends from Peter, and therefore Rome.
How the pope, in his role of Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy, and holder of a primacy of honour, Patriarch of the western church, comes to be invested with universal jurisdiction and appoints all bishops is a different story. But to call someone ‘pope’ need not imply said jurisdiction or vision of the papal role.
The other day I was sitting in a coffee shop reading Trevor Jalland, The Life and Times of Pope St. Leo the Great (as you do), and he mentioned the fact that Rome’s most ancient churches are all western oriented. That is, when you walk in and look towards the altar and apse, you are facing West, not East. At first, I didn’t believe Jalland. I had been told that all traditional churches face East — and, taking stock of a few I know (St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, the Duomos of Milan and Florence, Westminster Abbey, Jedburgh Abbey, Ayia Sophia in Nicosia), this is broadly true.
Then I thought about it and realised that Jalland was right — St Peter’s, St John’s (Lateran), Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere — these churches, two in place of fourth-century foundations, one fifth-century foundations respectively, all face west. This isn’t the sort of thing one says and is wrong, of course. Still, I was a bit taken aback.
You see, there is a bit of controversy about ‘facing East’ and ‘facing West’, liturgically speaking. Regardless of the compass points at your church, if your priest faces liturgical East during the celebration and consecration of the Eucharist, then you and the cleric are facing the same direction (sometimes called ‘facing away from the congregation’). If your priest faces you, that is facing liturgical West. Until Vatican II, most churches faced East — all in the same direction — and now, outside of the Eastern communions, only a few scattered congregations maintain previous practice in this regard.
Those who uphold facing East tend to quote St Basil of Caesarea (330-379) in their defence:
For this reason we all look towards the East in our prayers, though there are few who know that it is because we are in search of our ancient fatherland, Paradise, which God planted towards the East. (On the Holy Spirit 66, quoted [& presumably trans] by Andrew Louth, ‘Experiencing the Liturgy in Byzantium’, p. 83)
Elsewhere, I have heard the reference to facing East because the rising sun symbolises the resurrection and Christ’s return in glory. Another argument in favour of the practice is the idea that priest and people are praying together, so they face the altar together.
What does the western orientation of ancient roman churches mean, then?
According to Jalland, the priests would still have faced East. Thus, they would have faced the congregation, facing, in contemporary terms, liturgical West.
This changed, he says, when the Via Ostiense and local topography forced them to build San Paolo fuori le Mura facing East. This is the first eastern-orientated church in Rome. The priest continued to face East, but now, so did the people, so they all faced the same direction, the priest with his back to the congregation.
I don’t know how true or accurate this is — Jalland gave no references for how we know which way people faced, and his book is from 1941. I do imagine, based upon what I’ve read in J Richards, The Popes and the Papacy in the Early Middle Ages, that facing East, if it is as common in the East as we imagine, would likely have become more and more common after Justinian’s mid-sixth-century Reconquest, when the Roman liturgy took on a variety of Greek influences, often because of a growing Greek population in Rome and Greek clerics (sometimes refugees from eastern problems) in the city.
It is certainly the case that San Teodoro and San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, both sixth-century foundations, face East, as does Sant’Agnese fuori le Mura, a seventh-century construction.
Anyway, it is interesting to think about how architecture, theology, and liturgical practice can all influence one another.
On Sunday, I took the opportunity to visit the Basilica di San Clemente, just a few minutes’ walk from the Colosseum. It is a gem, well worth visiting; the upper church, the main basilica, dates to ca. 1100 (after the old one got trashed by some Normans* [typical behaviour on their part]). It is built on the basilica plan I discussed here and has some lovely frescoes as well as a sixth-century schola cantorum down the middle, not dissimilar to the fourth-century one at Santa Sabina, and a few sculptures to be admired.
The star of the show, however, is the mosaic. It is one of those gilt masterpieces of Late Antique and Romanesque art, with the Cross as the Tree of Life at the centre, and persons from all walks of life as well as animals living in the branches of the tree. It is flanked by Evangelists and Prophets, surmounted by (essentially) Christ Pantokrator, and stands above lambs whom I assume represent the Apostles. The little book I bought, written by an Irish Dominican (after we suppressed them in the 1600s, the Irish Dominicans moved to San Clemente), says that, given its Late Antique feel, this apsidal mosaic is possibly either a reproduction of the original, fourth-century mosaic or at least the same sort of iconography.**
After viewing this lovely upper church, I bought some postcards and a ticket to visit what lies beneath. Beneath 12th-c San Clemente lies 4th-c San Clemente. After the Norman troubles of 1084, it was filled with rubble to form the foundation of the new church, and you can clearly see that the low, vaulted ceiling is not original, not least because the frescoes all end partway up. The frescoes depict scenes from the life of Saint Clement (saint of the week here) as well as some other folks and Sts Cyril and Methodius (saints of the week here) who brought St Clement’s (alleged) remains home to Rome. These frescoes are Romanesque, not Late Antique, though (although the architecture is fourth-century), dating to the ninth century. The lower church is wider than the upper church.
Below it you will find a Roman house (possible storage facility, in fact) and a Mithraeum. Sadly, I could only view the Mithraeum through bars. Alas. These were filled with rubble to serve as the foundations for the basilica in the fourth century. San Clemente operates on a pattern.
It was a most exciting event to visit a fourth-century basilica, no matter how low-ceilinged and dimly-lit. The earliest I’d yet visited were fifth-century basilicas such as Santa Sabina and Santa Maria Maggiore. There is an elegance and simplicity to these oldest church buildings in Rome.
A church to Saint Clement is mentioned as early as St Jerome, and it is assumed it is that fourth-century building down below. I highly recommend San Clemente — it even ties (marginally) into my research, as my next post will show!
*In their defence, they were in Rome to support the pope.
**Note that this makes it a Romanesque fresco in Late Antique style, not Byzantine, despite what one of the other tourists was saying while I was there. It is true that art at Rome in the Middle Ages maintains many of the Late Antique features shared with Byzantine art, and that in the Early Middlel Ages Rome was part of Byzantine Italy, but that does not mean we should run around calling these items Byzantine. (End of rant.)
I am in Rome for about a month, starting earlier this week. One my wild research trips. Two days ago, I went into the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva — Rome’s only Gothic church, run by Dominicans. While there, I saw the tombs of St Catherine of Siena and Fra Angelico. Because of my week in Florence, I am already well-acquainted with Beato Angelico, but St Catherine of Siena? Merely a name.
So I downloaded a (somewhat garbled) copy of her ‘Dialogue‘ onto my Nook eReader and have been perusing the works of the Sienese saint. The first section was essentially all about the necessity of persevering at prayer, and how God makes himself known to us through prayer, and that we need to clear our minds to pray.
Tonight at supper, I came across this striking passage:
No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster mother and nurse of charity. (trans. Algar Labouchere Thorold)
I like the image of humility as charity’s foster mother and nurse.
Every once in a while I think about charity, and not just because Leo the Great has a habit of addressing people as tua/uestra caritas, but because charity, as understood properly, is one of the great theological virtues.
We have stained the word with the idea of our cast-offs, our unwanted things for unwanted people. In that famous ‘sermon’ he gave to George W Bush a few years ago, Bono said that what Africa needs from the West is not ‘charity’ but ‘justice’ — a mere tithe of the US Gov’t’s cash would ‘solve’ a lot of problems, says Bono.
But is that justice? I’m not sure. Given that justice has both a restorative and retributive side, I don’t think Africa needs or wants justice. Africa, and everyone we meet, needs charity.
It has been remarked (in the Friendship Book of Francis Gay one year, I believe) that when the translators of the KJV those long years ago needed a word to express the great, boundless, unfathomable, unconditional love of Almighty God, they chose charity, from Latin caritas, the word commonly used in the Latin Bible for agape — as in I Corinthians 13.
Charity, in the Latin Christian tradition, comes to mean that supernatural love that can love the unlovely, moving beyond the bonds of mere affection or the uncontrolled/uncontrollable amor. It is, as C S Lewis observes in The Four Loves, to love the unlovely. To love the unloveable.
It is a great thought. A powerful thought. One often left as mere ‘sentiment’.
Lack of humility, I think.
Certainly this is what holds me back from acting and feeling charitably towards others. Charity and compassion for the poor beggars on the street, charity for tourists in the way everywhere you go, charity for library employees, charity for people whose dogs poop on the sidwalk, charity for late buses/subways/train, charity for other drivers in traffic, charity for loud Americans in Europe, charity for queue-jumpers…
If I didn’t think I was better behaved, or too busy, or better educated, or too important, or in too much of a rush, or any of a hundred other comparatives that put me above others in one way or another, perhaps I would have more charity.
So humility. It is a powerful theme that runs through so many of the Fathers and Mothers and spiritual masters of Christianity. Let’s hunt it down and get ourselves into it, into the foster mother and nurse of charity (and without charity, what am I?).
Besides being author of the famous Tome and orchestrator of the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Pope Leo I is most famous for meeting with Attila the Hun and stopping him from sacking Rome. We first hear of this in Prosper of Aquitaine’s Chronicon for 455:
Now Attila, having once more collected his forces which had been scattered in Gaul [at the battle of Chalons], took his way through Pannonia into Italy. . . To the emperor and the senate and Roman people none of all the proposed plans to oppose the enemy seemed so practicable as to send legates to the most savage king and beg for peace. Our most blessed Pope Leo -trusting in the help of God, who never fails the righteous in their trials – undertook the task, accompanied by Avienus, a man of consular rank, and the prefect Trygetius. And the outcome was what his faith had foreseen; for when the king had received the embassy, he was so impressed by the presence of the high priest that he ordered his army to give up warfare and, after he had promised peace, he departed beyond the Danube. (cf. Medieval Sourcebook)
The Liber Pontificalis makes this encounter with Attila pretty much the most important thing in Leo’s pontificate. And why not?
Well, it certainly wasn’t a big deal to Leo, it seems.
Indeed, if it weren’t for the fact that Prosper published the entry for 452 in 455, I would doubt that this ever happened. I would say that Prosper had made it up to glorify his great hero Leo (second only to Augustine for this Augustinian) or that Prosper, way over in Gaul, had been misinformed.
I would say such because the evidence is a bit weak. Leo wrote eight letters in 452 that have come down to us, on 27 January, 22 May, 11 June, and 25 November. He preached an Epiphany sermon (Serm. 37), a Lent sermon (Serm. 45), two Holy Week sermons (Serm. 62 & 63), an Advent sermon (Serm. 19), and a Christmas sermon (Serm. 28). He seems to have been in Rome for much of the year. The trip to meet up with Attila must not have taken up a lot of time.
Leo’s episcopate lasted for nine more years after Attila left Italy. Leo wrote many more letters and preached many more sermons that have come down to us. In none of these does he mention an encounter with Attila.
If Prosper is correct about this encounter, what does that say about Leo?
Something good, I reckon.
There has been talk of upping the number of female saints included on this blog. This is a good thing (cast your votes now: St. Teresa of Avila or Mary Ward, who first?), as would be upping the number of non-monastic persons, especially adding some who were even married. Holiness is attainable to all persons, regardless of gender or marital state. Somehow, though, the monastic men make the bulk of the big ST’s…
Apologies also for how Orthodox this blog is getting. I’ll try to play to my Anglican and Evangelical constituents a bit more someday. For now, though, I would like to discuss two stellar exemplars of missionary work who can inspire Christians of all stripes, from evangelical Baptists to charismatic Anglicans to Pope Leo XIII (who enrolled them into the western calendar of saints in 1880) and the Russian Orthodox.
In the West, the “Holy-Equal-to-the-Apostles” Cyril and Methodius, Apostles to the Slavs and co-patrons of Europe with St. Benedict of Nursia, are commemorated in the West on the same day as St. Valentine (he was the weekly saint a year ago), in the East they share a feast on May 11.
Sts. Cyril (d. 869) and Methodius (d. 885) were brothers from Thessalonica. St. Cyril started his career as a librarian at Ayia Sophia (librarians can be destined to greatness, and not just Rex Libris!) while St. Methodius served as a soldier. Both left their secular employment to become monks.
It seems that they began their work not among the Slavs but among the Khazars when their king asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael to send missionaries for them to learn more about Christianity and the Trinity. There is a chance that they converted the king and many noble Khazars to the Christian faith, but I don’t vouch for the accuracy of that (if you CAN, please tell us in the comments with a citation).
Their big work, their life’s work, began in 862 when a similar petition was made by Rastislav of Moravia for people to come and instruct him in the Christian faith. The monastic brothers from Thessalonica were sent to fulfill King Rastislav’s request.
There was already a Christian presence in Moravia, founded by western missionaries, and Cyril and Methodius came to continue their work, as Rastislav had expelled the western missionaries in his angling for political power against the Frankish King (Mediaeval and Byzantine religion is never far from politics). They set about organising the church ministry and hierarchy.
Whilst in Moravia, it is said that they met some of the western missionaries whom they said believed the “Heresy of the Three Languages” — that worship and the Scriptures could only be in one of three languages — Hebrew, Greek, or Latin. This was clearly contrary to how Cyril and Methodius envisaged the church operating, for they devised a new alphabet for the Moravians and their language, then proceeded to translate service books into the local tongue. The Heretics of the Three Languages opposed this, but, apparently, the pope supported such action and protected Sts. Cyril and Methodius (see abbamoses).
Indeed, their work was so highly favoured by Rome that Pope St. Nicholas I himself invited them to Rome and praised them for their work, despite the attempts of certain Roman clergy to claim that the Thessalonian brothers were messing around in their turf. This was in 867. They returned to Moravia and continued their work, not only structuring the state-supported church but evangelising as well.
In 869, Cyril died. St. Methodius continued the work alone until his death. Unfortunately, after the death of these brothers, the pressure against their followers in Moravia (from fellow Christians!!) was so great that they left and brought the Gospel and the Cyrillic alphabet to the Bulgars instead. That alphabet was the basis of the alphabet for all Slavic languages today, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian. That missionary enterprise was the basis of the Slavic churches today as well.
God bless Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their approach, going so far as to create a new alphabet, is reminiscent of missions to the First Nations of North America, especially the efforts among the James Bay Cree to create a syllabary (by James Evans) with the New Testament for the new believers (adapted for Inuktitut by Edmund James Peck, saint of the week here). May we all seek to translate the everlasting Gospel of Christ into the language of the people, be that language postmodern English, modern Greek, an Amazonian language, or Scots — and communicate it to the hearts of the people that they may understand and find Jesus, with the Gospel taking root in their lives and producing the fruit of the Spirit.
In the year AD 440, the Archdeacon of Rome was away in Gaul on a diplomatic mission. While he was there, the Bishop of Rome, St. Sixtus III, passed away. Despite the fact that he wasn’t there, the powers that be in Rome elected the absent Archdeacon as Bishop. They waited patiently for his return. He thanked them for this patience in his accession speech. This archdeacon was Leo I, the Great.
I have chosen Pope St. Leo the Great (c. 400-461; see my review of Leo the Great as well) because he is a big part of my life right now, and hopefully this state of affairs will continue for the next three and a half years. I have also chosen him because tomorrow is Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, the day we remember the coming of God as a man approximately 2000 years ago, and St. Leo was a theologian of the Incarnation.
We have scant knowledge about Leo before his election to the papacy. We know that he was Archdeacon in the 430’s when he commissioned my friend John Cassian (this post gives a list of my major posts about Cassian) to write On the Incarnation of the Lord Against Nestorius (my thochts on that here). He may also have been involved in the Roman See’s actions concerning the Pelagian Controversy. The fact that he commissioned Cassian’s anti-Nestorian work lets us know that in the decade before his rise to the throne of Peter, St. Leo was involved in the Christological controversies sparked in the East by Nestorius in 428.
Thus, he was already a student of theology by the time he became pope. As Bishop of Rome, he changed the previously un-preachy* nature of the Roman episcopacy (taking his cue from our friend St. Ambrose) and began a cycle of preaching that followed the church year, with at least fifteen occasions throughout the year, including the Advent fast, the Nativity, Lent, the Pasch, ultimately Pentecost, the Feast of St. Laurence, the anniversary of his elevation to the Roman See, and other liturgical moments (see the CCEL for translations of a number of these).
These sermons are explications of the feasts/fasts and the theological underpinnings of the remembrance at hand. In his Advent and Christmas sermons, St. Leo explicates in wondrous beauty the necessity and nature of the Incarnation — a birth “wondrously singular and singularly wondrous” — for our salvation from sin, death, and the devil. The peroration, or conclusion, of each sermon exhorts the people of Rome to virtuous action; he wants to help them see that being a Christian is the same as being a good Roman. He also takes aim at heretics in his sermons, at times Manichees, who had a presence in Rome, at times Eutyches, at times Nestorius.
If you read these sermons, and I encourage you to, you see that St. Leo was a theologian with a pastor’s heart. No, actually, he was a pastor with a theologian’s insight. He demonstrated for the edification of his congregation the theology and action necessary for a healthy Christian life. He also emphasized strongly, contra the now-deceased Bishop of Hippo Regius, the will of God to save all mankind. The question of how it therefore comes about that God happens not to save all mankind is not fully treated in Leo’s corpus.
In the letters, we see Leo as a pastor’s pastor, as a pontifical statesman, and as a controversial theologian. He answered letters, for example, from bishops who had congregants from North Africa who weren’t sure if they had been baptised Catholic or schismatic. His answer was that it was being baptised into the threefold Name of the Most Holy Trinity that counted, not the baptiser. He answered questions about Priscillianism for a bishop in Spain.
He also tried to impose his will, to a degree, on the bishops of Illyricum. Most strikingly, he tried to impose his will on the Bishops of Gaul. He largely succeeded, diminishing to a degree the see of Arles under Hilary, demonstrating the power of the Bishop of Rome in disputes. He saw the Pope as the universal court of appeal for the Church, a man who could intervene in the affairs of other dioceses beyond his own metropolitan zone in order to maintain and restore order.
In the year 444, St. Cyril of Alexandria passed away. St. Cyril had been the theologian of the Incarnation par excellence throughout Leo’s career. He had spearheaded the offensive against Nestorius and had largely engineered the outcome of the First Council of Ephesus. With St. Cyril dead, the mantle of Christologian passed to St. Leo. But was he up to the task?
St. Leo’s time came in 449 when he received a letter from an Archimandrite (a senior abbot) named Eutyches, whom a local synod in Constantinople had deemed a heretic. Eutyches was appealing to Leo. Soon Leo also received a letter from Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, explaining to Leo the circumstances of Eutyches’ trial. Leo responded to Flavian on June 13 with his famous Tome, letter 28.
This document is the piece of writing for which St. Leo is most famous for. In this letter, Leo has in his sights both Nestorius as Leo understood him and Eutyches. The former, as far as Leo was concerned, denied Christ’s divinity; the latter, Christ’s humanity. The Tome is a text of balance and duality. Leo sets forth for his reader the balance and duality within Christ of the human and divine natures. He strikes a balance that seeks to avoid the perceived pitfalls of Eutychianism and Nestorianism. God the Word took on flesh, he became fully human without the stain of sin, the lowliness not diminishing the glory. This was necessary for our salvation. Christ was and is a living paradox.
That same year, 449, saw the calling of a second general council in Ephesus. This council was engineered by Dioscorus, episcopal successor to St. Cyril in Alexandria, to rehabilitate Eutyches and hold aloft a one-nature Christology, an incipient Monophysite understanding of Christ’s nature. Leo, as was the wont of Rome’s bishop, sent delegates. They were to read aloud the Tome, Leo being convinced that all the Church needed was to read his account of the Incarnation and then all this controversy would end. These delegates were steamrolled by Dioscorus and not allowed to speak. Bishop Flavian received blows that may have led to his death shortly thereafter. He was replaced by a supporter of Dioscorus.
Leo called Second Ephesus a Latrocinium, a den of pirates. He wrote letters to Emperor Theodosius II trying to convince him to change his mind and overturn the decisions of the council. He wrote letters to Pulcheria Augusta, the Emperor’s sister, enlisting her help to convince her brother. Theodosius would not be convinced.
And then, in 450, he fell off his horse and died. His sister married a nonentity named Marcian and became Empress.
In 451, the Council of Chalcedon occurred. This time, Leo’s Tome, along with three letters of St. Cyril, was read out and approved by the Council — albeit, not unanimously, with protests coming from some of the Illyrian, Palestinian, and Egyptian delegates.
It seems, as Bernard Green has argued,** that Leo didn’t really know what Nestorianism was until after Chalcedon. Seeing what the objections to the Tome were, he quickly adjusted certain passages and clarified his thinking. Thus, his letter 124 to the monks of Palestine is more representative of the mature thought of St. Leo and would be a better testimony to his thought for the generations to come.
Leo spent the years from 451 to 465 maintaining his preaching practice in Rome, keeping order in his Metropolitan, clarifying what the Tome was supposed to say, and keeping Attila the Hun from sacking Rome (this last may not be true, but it colourful nonetheless).
He was one of the good popes. He was also one of the first strong steps down the road to the papacy’s claims to universal jurisdiction. We cannot have Innocent III (1160-1216) without Leo I. He produced, ultimately, a clear, lucid theology that dealt with the problems of Eutyches and Nestorius while synthesising the teaching of the great western theologians Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers with a dash of Cyril of Alexandria. He truly deserves the appellation “the Great”, being one of only two such popes along with Gregory I.
*I was going to make up the word un-kerygmatic, but then I figured that if I’m going to neologise, why not at least make a word people will understand?
**See The Soteriology of Leo the Great, pp. 227-247.
I had been tempted to continue the Scotland-related theme, but St. Ambrose’s feast was yesterday, so I couldn’t pass over this one.
If you had been in Milan in the year 390 while the August Emperor Theodosius I was there, you would have noticed something peculiar about the Emperor’s behaviour at the divine liturgy: he did not receive the sacrament. Of course, the truly remarkable fact is that Theodosius was receiving it by Christmastide, for he had been excommunicated by Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, for massacring up to 7000 people in Thessalonica (according to Theodoret of Cyrus, but who can be sure with the figures of ancient historians?) in the middle of the year. The rehabilitation of someone so soon after penance for so great a crime was not common in the ancient world.
This event is one of the most famous events of an illustrious career, and it shows us how powerful St. Ambrose (340-397) was, for he secured the penitence of the emperor for an act akin to what many an emperor before and after had perpetrated.
Yet when we consider the Italy of the late fourth century, then the Bishop of Milan is an easy choice for the role of ‘powerful man,’ for by this stage, the emperors were not regularly living at Rome. Constantine had spent much of his early reign in Trier, and had later moved to Constantinople. This trend continued with the most popular western choices falling to Milan and Ravenna.
Furthermore, the papacy in Rome, where many of us would expect to find at least a very influential bishop, was in a bit of hot water in these days. 366 had seen the great low point of the ancient bishopric of Rome, when a contested episcopal election led the deaths of around 160 people within a basilica. It would take St. Leo the Great (read about him here and here) to raise the papacy to the heights that its dignity as a patriarchal see required.
With the papacy in disarray, and Milan one of the most powerful cities in the Empire, the rising star of St. Ambrose strikes me as almost to be expected. This is especially the case when we consider his outstanding talents.
St. Ambrose, according to his biographer Paulinus, had no great intention of becoming an ecclesiastic. His was a standard career for many aristocratic Romans ever since someone inscribed the Twelve Tables of Roman law (c. 450 BC): that of advocate/lawyer. And what is a lawyer in the ancient world but a great orator?
But this orator was everyone’s choice when the see of Milan became vacant, so he reluctantly left behind the lawcourts and was duly ordained then consecrated bishop of Milan. We know that he was well-skilled in oratory not only from the wealth of homilies he left us but also from the testimony of St. Augustine of Hippo who held the chair of rhetoric in Milan for a while, who would go to church just to hear St. Ambrose preach.
St. Augustine also demonstrates St. Ambrose’s ability to communicate the truths of the Gospel, not simply beautiful orations, for it was through this saint’s sermons that St. Augustine was converted, and it was by the Bishop of Milan that he was baptised. For some, this is all they know of St. Ambrose of Milan.
I heard somewhere (this is officially hearsay) that upon his election to the episcopate, St. Ambrose melted down a large quantity of the Church’s flatware and gave to the poor. If this is true, then we see his concern for the evangelical injunctions to help the poor. Worship is not only what goes on in the liturgy.
Of course, worship certainly includes what goes on in the liturgy! It is here that we see more of St. Ambrose’s genius, for he wrote many hymns and has a style of chant and an entire liturgical use named after him. But more on that tomorrow.
Another aspect of Ambrose’s force and sheer awesomeness is his relentless attack on Arianism. He preached against it; he wrote the Emperor Gratian his On the Faith concerning what orthodoxy believes; he did his best to keep Arians away from the emperors and out of bishoprics, especially after Theodosius declared orthodoxy the only orthodoxy allowed in 381.
This attitude towards Arianism and the establishment of orthodoxy is parallelled in his attitude towards pagans & Jewish people and the establishment of Christianity. He was involved in a letter-writing campaign against Symmachus, Rome Prefect and one of the last great pagans, who wanted to reinstall the Altar of Victory in the Senate House. Symmachus’ case may have been as much about tradition and culture as about paganism. Ambrose’s was as much about Christianity as it was about what he believed a Christian emperor should endorse.
This question of Christian-imperial endorsement also explains his chastising of Theodosius regarding the emperor’s shelling out coin for the rebuilding of a synagogue. This was not a matter of ‘Jews are bad; don’t do stuff for Jews,’ as so much else in the ancient Christian world was, but, rather, a matter of, ‘Jews aren’t Christians. You are a Christian emperor. The role of the Christian emperor is to build churches, not synagogues.’ One could argue with that logic, but it was a logic informed by religion and an increasingly Christianised sense of civic duty rather than by racism.*
Ambrose was a man of many talents: an orator, a poet, a politician, a lawyer, a liturgist, a letter-writer, a theologian. He was able to bring the emperor to repentance. He was able to convert pagan philosophers. He truly belongs with the other three ancient doctors of the western church, with St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Jerome, and St. Gregory the Great.
*There are explicit cases of racism in late-ancient Christianity. Or at least, the closest thing the ancient world gets to racism, given that their concept of ‘race’ is not the same as ours.