Ambrose: Public Sin, Public Penance

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review
Feb. 2005
Reproduced with Permission

We look to Saint Ambrose (340-397) to learn how a great bishop once dealt with a great politician who had sinned publicly. In matters of religion, said Ambrose, the bishop instructs a Catholic emperor; in that area, emperors do not judge bishops. He matched deeds with words. Two giants met, the one standing tall in the Church, the other tall in statesmanship. The world is better today because of their sterling good example.

The bishop of Milan walked with ease among law-makers and emperors, being a son of Ambrose, Prefect of Gaul, the highest position under the emperor in the West. Ambrose himself was rising in the ranks of political power as governor of Liguria and Aemilia when, in the year 374, he was summarily "drafted" by the people to became Bishop of Milan.

Milan was capital of the Roman Empire in the West when Ambrose became its bishop. Catholic Valentinian I who ruled during 364-375) had moved his court from Rome to Milan. As a result Catholic members of the imperial family attended Sunday Mass at the basilica were Bishop Ambrose offered Mass. When Valentinian I died in 375, Ambrose became the guardian and tutor of his two young sons, Gratian age sixteen, who would become Emperor in the East, and Valentinian II age four, named to be Emperor of the West. Gratian was the son of the emperorŐs Catholic wife, Valentinian II was the son of a liaison with Justina who was an Arian. She acted as regent for her son in Milan, while Ambrose was bishop there.

When Arians in Milan requested that a church be granted to them, with the support of Justina, the court in Milan was inclined to agree. But the last thing that Ambrose wanted was for the Arians to have a church in this city. The court stated that the emperor had a right to transfer the church "because everything is in his power." To which Ambrose responded that this right is acknowledged, but it does not include churches. "Palaces are a matter for the emperorŐs concern, but churches belong to the bishop" (Philip Hughes, The History of the Church, Vol. 1, pp 217).

When push came to pull, Catholics occupied the church, while imperial soldiers surrounded it, allowing people to enter but not to exit. Ambrose joined the occupiers, encouraged them, preached to them, and sang psalms with them. They spent the night with alternate choirs singing psalms in the beautiful Ambrosian manner.

Negotiations continued, and Ambrose insisted: "In cases where matters of faith are in question it is the custom for bishops to judge emperors when the emperors are Christians, and not for emperors to judge bishops." No temple of God can belong to Caesar, he said simply. Two wonderful phrases date from this time: "The emperor is within the Church, and not above it." To the Arians he said that they were the worst of all heretics because,"they were willing to surrender to Caesar the right to rule the Church" (Hughes. 217). The bishop held his ground, and the church was not transferred.

In 379, General Theodosius became the Emperor of the East in Constantinople. The Catholic Encyclopedia gives him deserved high praise:

Theodosius is one of the sovereigns by universal consent called Great. He stamped out the last vestiges of paganism, put an end to the Arian heresy in the empire, pacified the Goths, left a famous example of penitence for a crime, and reigned as a just and mighty Catholic emperor. His father, the Comes Theodosius, was a distinguished general; both he and the mother Thermantia were Catholics at a time when Arianism was at its strongest (Catholic Encyclopedia, CD-ROM).

Ambrose was well disposed toward Theodosius because he opposed the Arians (Johannes Quasten Patrology Vol. 4, p.148). But Theodosius was now in Constantinople, where the emperor was accustomed to act both as Caesar and as a political pope, whereas Ambrose was bishop in the West, where the policy was upheld: "Pay therefore unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and unto God what belongs to God." The two would soon test where the domains of Caesar and the domains of God are delineated.

Confrontation in the Basilica of Milan

When a group of Christians had been insulted by Jews during a procession, the Christians pulled down the synagogue in response. This happened in Calamicus in Mesopotamia. Theodosius was informed about it by the court of the East. He ordered the bishop and their Christians who had demolished the synagogue to rebuild it and to be punished severely. Bishops of the East then appealed to Ambrose to obtain a mitigation of the sentence (See "Ambrose" in a CD of ButlerŐs Lives of the Saints).

Ambrose then wrote a private letter to Theodosius, protesting the action. In matters pertaining to religion the Emperor should not act without the advice of the Bishop, He added that he would make the matter public if the emperor did not withdraw the order. The emperor ignored the private letter. He was in Milan at the time. The bishop then made the matter public. While Theodosius was attending Mass the bishop addressed him from the pulpit. He rebuked him for having given that order. After the sermon, Theodosius stood up to challenge the bishop. "As the bishop came down from the pulpit the emperor stood in his way. The bishop insisted. If the emperor would not withdraw his order ... the bishop would not offer the sacrifice. Theodosius submitted" (Hughes, 218). Perhaps the bishop felt throbbing in his body the grace of the power given to bishops to teach, to govern and to sanctify.

Theodosius does public penance for a public crime

That Emperor Theodosius was indeed a convinced and devoted Catholic is evidenced by his first visit to Rome as the conquering ruler in 388. He made a grandiose entrance with a march of triumph. Two elephants pulled his chariot. Quickly he worked to de-paganize Rome and to make it thoroughly Catholic. "He abolished the remains of idolatry, prohibited pagan festivals and sacrifices, and caused the temples to be stripped of their ornaments and the idols to be broke in pieces. But he preserved those statues which had been made by excellent artists, ordering them to be set up in galleries or other public places, as an ornament to the city" ("Ambrose" in Butler CD).

But in April 390 imperial soldiers committed a great massacre of citizens for which crime the emperor had to take the blame. At a riot in Thessalonika a high public official had been murdered. In response the emperor, at the strong urging of his subordinate that the emperor must make a show of strength, ordered his troops to do an organized massacre, killing at random 7000 civilians during a three hour pogrom. "This inhuman commission was executed with the utmost cruelty, while the people were assembled in the circus, soldiers surrounding and rushing in upon them. The slaughter continued for three hours, and seven thousand men were massacred, without distinguishing the innocent from the guilty" ("Ambrose" in Butler CD).

A public crime had been committed under the auspices of the Catholic Emperor. Ambrose gave the Emperor time to reflect before he responded. Then he wrote a private letter. The emperor was only a man. He has sinned. Sin is not taken away but by tears and penance. "Until the emperor acknowledges his wrong-doing and submits to penance, in no church, while he is present, will the holy sacrifice be offered" (Hughes, 219).

A public penance was a severe ritual. The confessing sinners were not allowed to enter the church to attend Mass, but knelt outside, asking those who entered to pray for them. Ambrose and Theodosius dialogued about the penance:

(Theodosius to Ambrose) "I will not enter the sacred porch contrary to the rules: but I beseech you to free me from these bonds; and not shut against me the door which the Lord hath opened to all penitents." The bishop said, "What penance have you done, after having been guilty of such a crime?" "It is your part," said the emperor, "to inform me what I ought to do; to prescribe the remedies, and apply the plaster: and it is mine to submit, and to comply with the prescriptions" (Butler, CD).

For eight months the emperor knelt outside of the basilica, while others passed into the Basilica for Mass. Finally Ambrose absolved him so that he could join the community at Christmas Mass. The action taught by deeds what had been spoken in words: "The Emperor is in the Church, and not above it."

The story of the emperor's worst crime, the massacre of at least 7000 citizens of Thessalonica in revenge for a tumult (April, 390); of St. Ambrose's refusal to allow him to enter the Church; of his acceptance of eight months of penance, is one of the memorable incidents of Church history (Catholic Encyclopedia CD).

After sin there must be penance

The stern penance reflects the dangerous situation of public sinners who have once known the truth and then have fallen away. Ambrose and Theodosius had respect for this reality, in which heaven or hell are at stake:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy "on the testimony of two or three witnesses." How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay. "And again, "The Lord will judge his people." It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10: 26-31).

USCCB: Legislators sin if they do not oppose the crime of abortion

Ambrose, now in heaven, is watching the contest in the USA, between Catholic legislators who commit the crime of promoting abortion, and their bishops in whose churches they attend Mass. The Bishops reminded legislators in the document issued in Denver, June 2004, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. Being intrinsically evil, it cannot be permitted by the state. A governing body that does permit it thereby cooperates in this evil. This has in fact happened in the United States. Lawmakers commit sin if they do not work to correct the situation. "Those who formulate law therefore have an obligation in conscience to work toward correcting morally defective laws, lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good." Ambrose would agree.

Before Ambrose brought the full power of the bishop into play, he wrote privately to Theodosius. He provided time for reflection, and he used pastoral powers of persuasion. This is comparable to the phase that the Bishops propose "from the pulpit of Denver" in the June 2004 document:

Our obligation as bishops at this time is to teach clearly. It is with pastoral solicitude for everyone involved in the political process that we will also counsel Catholic public officials that their acting consistently to support abortion on demand risks making them cooperators in evil in a public manner. We will persist in this duty to counsel, in the hope that the scandal of their cooperating in evil can be resolved by the proper formation of their consciences.

Perhaps Ambrose might have added that if the pastoral approach does not bring the required results, then individual bishops must go public, because "it's not enough that a person is right with God within the privacy of the person's own conscience; one must also be right with God in that arena that everyone can see: public actions" (Fr. Frank Pavone, Priests for Life site, June 23, 2004).

Ambrose might say today: "Legislators are under the Ten Commandments, not above them." He spoke, he acted. We pray: "Ambrose, support our bishops when they descend from the pulpit." "We pray to the Lord."