Death of Stalwart Bishop Ambrose

Diane Severance Ph.D. and Dan Graves, MSL

Death of Stalwart Bishop Ambrose

Milan's bishop was dying. Whether consciously or unconsciously, he extended his arms like Christ on the cross. Christ Jesus appeared to him in a vision. People were awed.

Popular singers today have a tremendous influence on our culture. Presidents cultivate their friendships, postage stamps honor their talents, and fans worship their every move. However, when Ambrose of Milan died on this date, April 4, 397, his popularity and influence were as great as anything we see today. The day was a Good Friday. His death made such an impression on the public that five bishops could hardly cope with all the people who requested to be baptized the next day.

Ambrose had been a governor of Northern Italy back in the day when the barbarians were invading the Roman Empire. At that time it was still the custom for the people to elect their bishops, and in 374 the people of Milan could not agree who their new bishop should be. Some wanted an Arian to lead them. Arians denied the full divinity of Christ. Others wanted a bishop who would teach that Christ was the son of God.

When it appeared that a riot was about to break out over the election, governor Ambrose stepped forward and encouraged the people to conduct themselves in an orderly and Christian manner. A child cried out, "Let Ambrose be bishop!" The crowd took up the cry and elected him.

Ambrose tried to duck his new responsibility. He had been a ho-hum Christian up to this point and was not even baptized yet. However, he could not escape his obligation. And so he dedicated himself fully to Christ and His Church. He gave all of his money to the poor and strongly defended Christian truth.

Justina, mother of the Roman Emperor, was an Arian. She demanded Ambrose give up a church for her followers. Despite intense pressure, Ambrose refused. The empress sent soldiers to take Ambrose's own church. Ambrose and his supporters recognized a spiritual battle when they saw one. They chose to fight with spiritual weapons, not swords, rocks and sticks, entering the building and praying. With imperial soldiers surrounding the church, the people stayed inside for several days, praying, singing psalms, and listening to Ambrose preach. During this time Ambrose developed a form of congregational singing in which two groups of the congregation sang alternately.

Fortified by message and song, the people held out against the soldiers. Finally, Justina recalled her troops. Ambrose and his people had won the spiritual battle using spiritual weapons, especially Christian hymns. In his life, he wrote many other hymns. The type of congregational singing Ambrose began in Milan became popular and was used in the church for centuries.


  1. Adapted from an earlier Christian History Institute story.
  2. "Ambrose of Milan."
  3. McGuire, M. R. P. "Ambrose, St." New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967.
  4. Greenslade, S. L. Early Latin Theology. (Westminster Press, 1956).

Last updated June, 2007

Originally published April 28, 2010.

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