Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Ambrose of Milan
"Catechesis Is Inseparable From the Testimony of Life"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 24, 2007
Dear brothers and sisters:
The saintly Bishop Ambrose, of whom I will speak to you today, died
during the night in Milan between April 3-4, 397. It was the dawn of
Holy Saturday. The day before, toward 5 p.m., he began to pray as he was
lying in bed with his arms open in the form of the cross. That is how he
participated in the solemn Easter triduum, in the death and resurrection
of Our Lord. "We saw him moving his lips," testified Paulinus, the
faithful deacon who was invited by Augustine to write Ambrose's
biography entitled "Vita," "but his voice could not be heard."
Suddenly, the situation seemed to come to an end. Honoratus, bishop of
Vercelli, who helped Ambrose and who slept upstairs from him, was
awakened by a voice that repeated: "Get up, quick! Ambrose is
approaching death." Honoratus immediately went downstairs, Paulinus
recounted, "and offered the saint the Body of the Lord. After having
taken it, Ambrose surrendered his spirit, carrying with him viaticum.
Thus, his soul, strengthened by virtue of that food, now enjoys the
company of angels" ("Vita," 47).
On that Good Friday of 397, the open arms of the dying Ambrose expressed
his mystical participation in the death and resurrection of Our Lord.
This was his last catechesis: Without speaking a word, he spoke with the
testimony of life.
Ambrose was not old when he died. He was not even 60, for he was born
around 340 in Trier, where his father was prefect of the Gauls. The
family was Christian. When his father died, and he was still a boy, his
mother brought him to Rome to prepare him for a civil career, giving him
a solid rhetorical and juridical education. Around 370, he was sent to
govern the provinces of Emilia and Liguria, with headquarters in Milan.
It was precisely there where the struggle between orthodox Christians
and Arians was seething, especially after the death of Auxentius, the
Arian bishop. Ambrose intervened to pacify those of both factions, and
his authority was such that, despite the fact that he was nothing more
than a simple catechumen, he was acclaimed by the people as bishop of
Until that moment, Ambrose had been the highest magistrate of the Roman
Empire in northern Italy. Highly prepared culturally, but deficient in
knowledge of Scriptures, the new bishop began to study them
energetically. He learned to study and comment on the Bible from the
works of Origen, the undisputed master of the school of Alexandria. In
this way, Ambrose brought to the Latin environment the practice of
meditating on Scriptures initiated by Origen, beginning the practice of
"lectio divina" in the West.
The method of "lectio" soon guided the preaching and writing of Ambrose,
which emerged precisely from prayerful listening to the word of God. A
famous opening from one Ambrosian catechesis distinctly demonstrates how
the holy bishop applied the Old Testament to Christian life: "When we
read the histories of the patriarchs and the maxims of Proverbs, we come
face to face with morality," the bishop of Milan told his catechumens
and neophytes, "in order that, educated by these, you can then accustom
yourselves to enter into the life of the fathers and to follow the path
of obedience to the divine precepts" ("I misteri," 1,1).
In other words, neophytes and catechumens, in the opinion of the bishop,
after having learned the art of living morally, could then consider
themselves prepared for the great mysteries of Christ. In this way, the
preaching of Ambrose, which represents the heart of his prodigious
literary work, originates from the reading of sacred books ("The
Patriarchs," the historical books, and "Proverbs," the sapiential
books), to live in conformity with divine revelation.
It is evident that the personal testimony of the preacher, and the
exemplarity of the Christian community, conditions the efficacy of any
preaching. From this point of view a passage from St. Augustine's
"Confessions" is significant. Augustine had come to Milan as a professor
of rhetoric; he was a skeptic, not a Christian. He was looking, but he
wasn't able to truly encounter the Christian truth. For the young
African rhetorician, skeptical and desperate, it was not the beautiful
homilies of Ambrose that converted him -- despite the fact that he
appreciated them immensely. Rather, it was the testimony of the bishop
and the Church in Milan, which prayed and sang, united as a single body.
It was a Church capable of resisting the bullying of the emperor and his
mother, who had demanded again the expropriation of a Church building
for Arian ceremonies in early 386.
In the building that was to be expropriated, Augustine wrote, "the
devout people of Milan stayed put, ready to die with their own bishop."
This testimony in the "Confessions" is invaluable, because it shows that
something was moving deep within Augustine. He continued, "Despite the
fact that we were still spiritually lukewarm, we participated as well in
the fervor of the entire population" ("Confessions" 9, 7).
From the life and example of Bishop Ambrose, Augustine learned to
believe and to preach. We can refer to a famous sermon of the African,
which deserved to be cited many centuries later in No. 25 of the
dogmatic constitution "Dei Verbum": "All the clergy must hold fast to
the sacred Scriptures through diligent sacred reading and careful study,
especially the priests of Christ and others, such as deacons and
catechists who are legitimately active in the ministry of the word. This
is to be done so that none of them will become," and here is where
Augustine is quoted, "'an empty preacher of the word of God outwardly,
who is not a listener to it inwardly.'" He had learned precisely from
Ambrose this "to listen inwardly," this diligence in reading sacred
Scripture in a prayerful attitude, in order to truly receive it in one's
heart, and to assimilate the word of God.
Dear brothers and sisters: I would like to present to you a type of
"patristic icon" that, seen in the light of what we have just said,
effectively represents the heart of Ambrosian doctrine. In the same book
of "Confessions," Augustine recounts his meeting with Ambrose, certainly
a meeting of great importance for the history of the Church. He writes
in the text that when he came to see the bishop of Milan, the latter was
always surrounded by hordes of people with problems, whom he tried to
help. There was always a long line of people waiting to speak to
Ambrose, looking for comfort and hope. When Ambrose was not with these
people -- and this only happened for short periods of time -- he was
either filling his body with the food necessary to live, or filling his
spirit with reading. In this respect Augustine praises Ambrose, because
Ambrose read Scriptures with his mouth closed, and only with his eyes
(cf. "Confessions," 6,3).
In the early centuries of Christianity, reading Scripture was thought of
strictly in terms of being proclaimed, and reading aloud facilitated
understanding, even for the one who was reading it. The fact that
Ambrose could read through the pages only with his eyes was for
Augustine a singular capacity for reading and being familiar with
Scripture. In this reading -- in which the heart seeks to understand the
word of God -- this is the "icon" we are talking about. Here one can see
the method of Ambrosian catechesis: Scripture itself, profoundly
assimilated, suggests the content of what one must announce in order to
achieve conversion of hearts.
Thus, according to the teachings of Ambrose and Augustine, catechesis is
inseparable from the testimony of life. The catechist may also avail
himself of what I wrote in "Introduction to Christianity" about
theologians. Educators of the faith cannot run the risk of looking like
some sort of clown, who is simply playing a role. Rather, using an image
from Origen, a writer who was particularly appreciated by Ambrose, he
should be like the beloved disciple, who rested his head on the Master's
heart and there learned how to think, speak and act. In the end, the
true disciple is he who proclaims the Gospel in the most credible and
Like John the Apostle, Bishop Ambrose, who never tired of repeating "Omnia
Christus est nobis!" -- Christ is everything for us! -- remained an
authentic witness for the Lord. With these same words, full of love for
Jesus, we will conclude our catechesis: "Omnia Christus est nobis! If
you want to heal a wound, he is the physician; is you burn with fever,
he is the fountain; if you are oppressed by iniquity, he is justice; if
you need help, he is strength; if you fear death, he is life; if you
desire heaven, he is the way; if you are in darkness, he is the light.
... Taste and see how good the Lord is. Blessed is the man who hopes in
him!" ("De virginitate," 16,99). We also hope in Christ. In this way we
will be blessed and will live in peace.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Pope greeted the people in various languages.
In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the teachers of the ancient Church, we now turn to
Saint Ambrose of Milan. Born into a Christian family in the middle of
the fourth century, Ambrose was educated in Rome and sent as governor to
Milan, where, although a catechumen, he was soon acclaimed as Bishop. He
set about mastering the Scriptures, guided by the writings of Origen and
the practice of "lectio divina," a form of prayerful meditation on the
word of God. It was Ambrose who introduced this practice to the West,
and it deeply permeated his life and preaching. Saint Augustine, who was
converted in Milan and baptized by Ambrose, relates the profound
impression which Ambroseís engagement with the word of God left upon
him. Ambrose, contrary to the custom of the time, did not read the
Scriptures aloud, which Augustine interpreted as a sign of how deeply
the inspired word had penetrated the holy Bishopís mind and heart. This
image can serve as an "icon" of Ambrose as a catechist: his teaching was
inseparable from his prayer and his entire life. For Ambrose, Christ was
everything -- Omnia Christus est nobis! -- and so it must be for every
catechist and indeed for every one of the Lordís disciples.
I am happy to greet the Sisters of the Sorrowful Mother who are gathered
in Rome for their Twentieth General Chapter. I also cordially welcome an
ecumenical pilgrimage of Catholics and Evangelical Lutherans from the
United States of America. Upon all the English-speaking visitors and
pilgrims I invoke Godís abundant blessings of peace and joy.
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