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Fr. Robert Grant's Remarks Before His Induction to Classe Ambrosiana

April 2014


One's speech "should be neither too wordy nor too abrupt...the style should be spontaneous, simple, transparent and clear, thoughtful and dignified, without affected elegance yet always pleasing" (Ambrose of Milan: de Officiis 1.22.101). These, of course, are Ambrose's words of advice to his own clergy. Thanks to Monsignor Pasini's insightful interpretation of Ambrose's thoughts and deeds we are all more aware of how well Ambrose followed his own sage advice. I must add that don Cesare too, in his Ambrose of Milan, lives up to that high standard. Indeed, one of the most endearing qualities of his biography is the simple, spontaneous and always pleasing charm. One gets a genuine sense of the author who has, indeed, imbued the instructions of his patron saint.

I met Mons. Pasini after having read his Ambrogio di Milano. He has not gotten rid of me since. I told him that the English speaking world had great need of his text. Thus I was launched into a task for which I was less prepared than was Ambrose when he was chosen bishop. This is what happens when one doesn't follow Ambrose's admonishment: "Now what should we learn before anything else," he says, "than to be silent? How many have I seen fall into sin by speaking?" (de Officiis I.2.5).

The question remains, however: why was it so important for this particular book to be rendered into English?

First, there have been very few English-language biographies of Ambrose in the past 50 years. While we have translations of Paredi and of course Paulinus, none are of recent date and we still lack Duddon, Nauro, and Savon. There are a few relatively new English-language interpretations of one or another aspect of Ambrose's influence. Ambrose has received serious attention from scholars such as Craig Alan Satterlee and Marcia Colish. Most recently Ambrose has become a central figure for J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz and Peter Brown. And new scholars are emerging including Angela Russell Christman of Loyola University, Maryland, Christina Sogno of Fordham, and my own colleague at St. Ambrose University, Ethan Gannaway. Most notably, we have Neil McLynn's Ambrose of Milan: Church and Court in a Christian Capital, 1994 and D. H. Williams' Ambrose of Milan and the End of the Nicene-Arian Conflicts, 1995.

A few important points can be made briefly. First, rather than eclipsing the need for a biography, many of these works require the reader to have a prior understanding of Ambrose. More importantly, most English language studies written in the last 20 years rely very heavily on an image of Ambrose most forcefully asserted by McLynn. Indeed, Monsignor Pasini himself graciously admits an occasional reliance on McLynn including, for example, the latter's careful examination of the Council of Aquileia.

Which still begs the question: why is Pasini's book necessary in English? Because the pendulum has swung too far. It is true that early biographers of Ambrose have been uncritical, if not outright hagiographic (John Moorhead puts it wryly: "no one could accuse Paulinus of having minimized the worthiness of his subject"). Williams, asserts that this hagiographical gloss extends well into the 20th century. Writing about the homoean/nicaean conflict he writes that "among the many important personalities during this period, Ambrose of Milan is certainly the most central and the most apotheosized...the glorification of his later career has all but obscured the process by which he reached this position of eminence." For this ‘apotheosization' Williams blames Homes, Dudden, Palanque, Paredi, and Duval for the "hagiographic traditions and perspectives [still] discernible in the more major treatments of Ambrose." He concludes that "there exists a tremendous need to rediscover the ‘historical Ambrose'...." That may have been the case in 1995, though by then McLynn had already produced a book that even the polite don Pasini says offers us an Ambrose who is "elusive and a bit of a Machiavellian." The result is not Saint Ambrose, but Ambrose the ‘religious politician.'

In the English world, Ambrose is treated as an ambitious politician, if not a proto-Machiavellian Prince of the Church. For example, in his 2004 tome The Roman Empire at Bay: a.d. 180-395, historian David Potter treats Ambrose as a politically savvy climber. His appointment to bishop was "rigged" by Probus; the ‘Ambrosiana' basilica is his "stronghold;" his career as bishop is one of "spectacular self-aggrandizement and intolerance." This caricature continues throughout this entire section of the text. The affair of the Altar of victory became a matter of concern for Ambrose's personal "prestige" while, in contrast, "the sentiments of religious toleration pleaded by Symmachus were rapidly being consigned to the thesaurus for lost causes." The crisis over the Portiana (Potter agrees that this is very probably this very San Lorenzo), while described in terms that muddle the chronology, is won by Ambrose's adroit political outmaneuvering of a weak court.

Throughout his argument Potter relies on D. H. Williams and especially Neil McLynn. Moorhead also accepts Williams interpretations, though not always uncritically and more importantly, he twice sides with McLynn's characterization of events: the discovery of Gervasius and Protasius was a political defeat for the court; Ambrose was the political loser in the stand-off regarding Callenicum. They are not unique.

The accepted image of Ambrose is as a thoroughly political animal. Ambrose is re-created as a vulnerable power player who fought for his political life. His missions to Maximus were craftily taken for "certain political advantages which he would be able to use in the future with great profit" (Williams). He is supposed to have taken advantage of his brother's death for his own purposes and was even "lucky in the timing of his [own] death" (McLynn). It is not my intent to rebut that image here.

Nor am I suggesting that Monseigneur Pasini's biography is a rebuttal. It is true that he gently counters some of the more outrageous interpretations (including that Satyrus‘ death was used by a very cold Ambrose for his own purposes). No, his Ambrose of Milan is much more important than that, and more challenging. The politicized image we have of Ambrose in the English world is almost the inevitable consequence of a radically secularized view of history. Writing, as it were, ‘from the outside,' historians simply cannot see, let alone account for, an Ambrose who was motivated by faith. Thus, they must invent, or at least exaggerate, Ambrose's political self-interest to account for the otherwise incomprehensible thoughts and deeds of the bishop.

And this, exactly, is why the biography of this saint written by a theologian is so important. As my students would say: "Pasini gets Ambrose." don Pasini explicitly attempts to "reach into the soul" of Ambrose who, after all, was not a politician. On the contrary, his "episcopal ministry [emerges] as the fundamental and unifying aspect of his life." I do not impute this controversial claim to don Cesare, it is just that this is what motivated me to dedicate three years of my life to interpreting someone else's words.

I must be clear: the work of English-speaking secular historians and critics is vital. We should be particularly grateful for the reminder that, for most of his episcopacy, Ambrose was not a master amidst amateurs, but simply one rather vulnerable individual jostling with diverse opponents on many sides who were at least as well positioned to suppress, if not snuff out, this Nicaean gadfly. Their work supplies us with a necessarily critical--if finally also too harsh--appraisal of Ambrose. We are reminded that Ambrose could be heavy handed, stubborn, and perhaps myopically fixed on his own sense of righteousness. This justly causes us to wonder whether Ambrose might be a zealot or fundamentalist or worse. We need to address that.

Pasini does. He also goes much further. His Ambrose is consistent if not systematic; driven by his faith, not personal ambition; not seized by ideology, but possessing courage. Even when wrong--and don Cesare confronts this directly--we are given to understand that Ambrose was desperately trying to defend the Church against the state, against the more powerful influence of a deeply entrenched ancient pagan tradition, the great surge of homoeanism, and a more established Judaism.

The most important insight that Pasini offers is that Ambrose understood himself to represent the very best of the Tradition of Rome which, far from being threatened by Christianity, is enhanced and fulfilled. "The continuity of Rome's traditions...which had made Rome great through the ages remain in all of their force...tradition is not broken but rather will continue and will be perfected in Christianity which, with its truth, will finally complete the attestation of the betterment that Rome carries in itself to the end of the ages." Along the way, Ambrose, who is a sharp witted rhetorician, "never wishes to offend his adversary, not only because of their common senatorial origins and friendship dating back a long way, but more substantially for the complete fidelity they share for the political, military, and civil traditions of Rome.

This illustration helps us to reconstruct an Ambrose of Milan who, frankly, makes much more sense than the version created by modern English-language critics who are generally unconvincing in their contorted pains to explain why, for example, the supposedly self-promoting Ambrose would risk his life to retain the Portiana basilica, or prefer loyalty to the homoean Valentinian II to political advantage through the orthodox Maximus, or risk alienating his ‘natural political ally' Theodosius in respect to Callenicum and Thessaloniki. They must proof-text the sources, carefully excising anything that upsets their constructs while highlighting, if not enhancing, those that reinforce their presuppositions. In contrast, Monseigneur Pasini proposes an Ambrose who wed his romanitas to his faith. Pasini illuminates a stunning new phenomenon in the history of Christian theology. For the first time a member of the Senatorial class eschews his patrimony and abandons the cursus honorem in favor of a minority religion shivered by schism and set upon on all sides and who nonetheless employes his learning, his position, his wealth, his status and yes, his astute political skills, in order to defend what he had come to believe, in the deepest conviction of his faith, to be the truth. One can be, if we follow the Ambrose that don Pasini reveals to us, both Christian and patriotic, both faithful and loyal, and all the while critical of both Church and state out of love for the one and respect for the other.

Secular historians lacking this informed faith perspective are left with only political motives and as a result, we in the English world have been handed a shallow, ambitious and even manipulative Ambrose. Monseigneur Pasini's book is important to us, not because he glosses over these assertions, but because he offers an explicit alternative. Ambrose of Milan: Thoughts and Deeds of a Bishop is not the book I would have written. I would have been much more aggressive, much less gracious, excessively defensive. My greatest concern, in fact, is that readers of the English version of this book may miss the careful, subtle and nuanced re-balancing that Pasini achieves. They may read it as too sweetly hagiographic when in fact it is solid, rigorous, critical, and yet also gentle and gentlemanly in the way he graciously and softly re-focuses attention toward an Ambrose who is, I must say, much closer to what we who share his faith would expect.

(Translated from Italian to English)

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