In today’s Collect (formerly called the Opening Prayer) at Mass, one of the things we ask God for, is “apostolic courage.” The great saint whom we celebrate today, Ambrose, is a powerful example of this “apostolic courage.”
As apostles of Christ Jesus, we are called to be His witnesses in the world. Oftentimes it takes great courage to be the kind of witnesses that God asks us to be. St. Ambrose displayed that courageous witness throughout his life. He came from a noble family, and like many from noble families at that time, Ambrose saw his position in society was for the service of the public. He entered into public service, and eventually because the governor of Milan; a position pretty much second only to the emperor. As governor, Ambrose was renown in his service to the people, his fairness and justice, and not for using his position of power for his own personal advantage.
While he was governor of Milan, the bishop of Milan died, and as was the custom of the Church at that time, the people of the diocese gathered to elect a new bishop. At the time the Church was being divided by the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Fearing that there would be trouble between the orthodox Christians and the Arians, Ambrose, with some of his army, presided over the meeting for the election of the new bishop. His personal witness of integrity inspired the people to cry out, “We want Ambrose as bishop.” Ambrose tried to decline, but the people insisted. Fearing that his refusal might lead to the rioting that he wanted to prevent, Ambrose finally agreed to be made bishop. There was one little problem: Ambrose was not a Christian. He was a catechumen, but he had not yet been baptized. So Ambrose was baptized and consecrated bishop on the same day.
As bishop, St. Ambrose demonstrated the same justice and concern for the people as he had as governor, but now it was transformed by the grace of Christ. He demonstrated apostolic courage when he blocked the empress from giving one of the churches of Milan to the Arians. And he exercised it to an even greater extent when he publicly called Emperor Theodosius to repentance after in a fit of rage, the Emperor unjustly killed many people in a town who challenged his authority. We must remember that publicly correcting the empress and emperor was not just risky because of who they were, but personally challenging for Ambrose because, through his career in public service, he had undoubtedly become friends with them. Standing up to your friends when they are wrong can be very hard.
I suspect that most of us do not have friendships with political leaders like St. Ambrose did, but we all are called to practice the same kind of apostolic courage. It is easy (but necessary) to write to our elected officials to challenge them with the truth of the Gospel, when they are pursuing policies which are immoral and contrary to the common good. It takes even more apostolic courage, however, to challenge a family member, neighbor, co-worker, or friend when they are following a sinful path. Yet fraternal correction is an act of charity, for true charity is seeking to help the beloved reach their eternal destiny — heaven.
Today, as we celebrate the great St. Ambrose, let us ask him to intercede for us so that we will have the apostolic courage to correct error and call to obedience those whom we love.