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St. Ambrose and the Spiritual Aspect of Pastoral Administratorship
Written by Nebojsa Pantic Thursday, 22 February 2007 20:57
By Nebojsa Pantic
The work of St. Ambrose pertaining to the priesthood is expounded in his writing De Officiis in which he clearly outlines the duties of the priesthood. Due to the extensive nature of this text and the difficulty of the themes within it, one could turn to other texts in order to more fully understand St. Ambrose’s view on priesthood and Christian ministry. St. Ambrose wrote ninety-one surviving letters to bishops, priests, and lay people throughout his diocese and the known world. Amongst this collection of letters there are fifteen letters designated to priests, which help discern the problems which arise for them while in the service of God. St. Ambrose’s main focus lies in his explanation of spiritual themes, moral themes, and administrative initiatives, which need to be explained to the priests to whom he is responding. The overlying support of all of St. Ambrose’s work, especially in his letters, is his foundation in the scriptures and his understanding of biblical exegesis. This understanding is what ties together all of his concepts, and is the context in which he delivers answers to his priests on the most difficult of questions.
In the first letter, St. Ambrose writes to the priest Horontianus. He begins his guidance by leading the priest towards spiritual matters. His focus is on the condition of the soul and he states that “we can conclude from the prophetic books that the fair and strong soul proceeds without stumbling, but the weak one falls and recovers from her falls and amends her way.”1 This conveys to the priest a need to be aware of the condition of the soul. In St. Ambrose’s second letter to Simplicianus he continues to explain spiritual thoughts, and extends his focus from the soul to simplicity. When talking about rich dignity, peace, and faith St. Ambrose tells us, “for those are riches of a simplicity which nothing scatters, which entertain no despondent thought, or suspicious or fraudulent one, but pours itself out with pure affection.”2 His focus on spirituality of the soul and simplicity in his writings is something that was formed from his own personal spirituality and his mystical formation before he was elected bishop.
The deep love of St. Ambrose for God and His flock is something that truly shines forth in almost all of his letters to priests. In St. Ambrose’s final letter to Simplicianus he reminds the priest that “in deceitfulness there is no food.”3 He further tells Simplicianus “he who has not a sincere and pure conscience cannot partake of the sweetness of feasting”4 which truly gets to the root of the spiritual struggle of self-assessment with which a priest must deal. A deep discussion of spirituality can also be seen in questioning the character of people’s perseverance, such as, “if a weak soul…is shaken by persecutions and separates herself any distance at all from the charity of Christ, she is caught up and reproved as faithless,”5 which also tells the priests of the ongoing struggle one has within themselves. St. Ambrose expects priests to not only worry about the condition of the souls of their flock, but also of their own soul. He instructed the priests to “inquire about the nature of the inheritance of the divine legacy and the reason why it is esteemed of such value that many even offer up their death for its sake.”6 He felt that the priests who were in his diocese needed to be aware of their commitment to God and the people. Their inheritance of the divine legacy was something which they needed to assimilate into their lives and demeanor.
St. Ambrose was often asked difficult questions by priests on how to administer their churches. In an incredible letter to the church at Vercelli, St. Ambrose exhaustively discusses these issues with them. Because of the dissention amongst themselves, he begins by questioning the priests in Vercelli how a church which is divided will be able to endure any kind of decision, especially an administrative one coming from their bishop. St. Ambrose advises the priests to “follow the example of your parents”7 and not allow their division to stop them from acquiring a new bishop. Continuing, St. Ambrose uses Scripture to explain to the priests how to deal with dissent amongst their own people, especially in the spiritual realm. When discussing fasting, which was a topic of great contention during his episcopacy, he tells the priests, “they are mad who chastise their body by fasting in order to make it subject to the spirit.”8 However, he puts a qualifier by saying “those who do not chastise their body and yet wish to preach to others are themselves considered castaways”9 which is directed towards the conduct of the priests. Most importantly, St. Ambrose guides the clergy through many situations and states, “Let the joy of this life be in you”;10 by effective administration, the grace of the priesthood can shine forth, as can their love for the flock and the Lord Jesus Christ.
St. Ambrose also wrote three books on the duties of the priesthood. De Officiis is one of the clearest examples of St. Ambrose’s focus on Scripture and exegesis as keys to understanding spiritual life. Within the first book of De Officiis St. Ambrose explains, “we have seen that the Psalm affords instruction on the kind of patience we require to remain silent and on the importance of waiting for the right occasion to speak.”11 In St. Ambrose’s eyes, only a complete knowledge of the Word of God can provide us with the right tools to be a capable priest. Biblical exegesis, for St. Ambrose, is the tool which allows us to explore the realm of morals, rational behavior, and wisdom. He explains to us, “what do the three books of Solomon show us…if not that the holy Solomon was skilled in this threefold wisdom? It was he who wrote of rational and moral matters in Proverbs.”12 It must be understood that “when love of the heavenly Word is poured into our soul and a holy mind is by some link joined to Reason, wondrous mysteries are revealed.”13 The heavy emphasis on knowledge of scripture was the way in which St. Ambrose taught his fellow clergy how to solve their moral and administrative dilemmas within De Officiis.
In the letter of St. Ambrose to his priests in Milan, his use of biblical exegesis is extensively employed to bring light to the situations that they need to resolve amongst themselves. He admonishes his priests in that “men’s minds are frequently tempted to abandon their duty when they take offense lightly at things which do not fit their personal desires.”14 St. Ambrose sees that his priests are abandoning their duties, and continues further in saying that “I can tolerate this state in other classes of men, but it causes me great sorrow when it is found in those who are dedicated to the service of God.”15 St. Ambrose proceeds to answer this spiritual and administrative dilemma through the use of scripture; he tells his priests that they must work together; St. Ambrose says, “additional words also teach this when Scripture says: ‘Woe to him that is alone: for when he falleth, he hath none to lift him up.’”16 Yet, he explains to the priests that we have hope: “We have died with Christ and we live together with him. Christ died with us to warm us.”17 These texts were used by St. Ambrose to help the clergy in Milan be able to get through their administrative and spiritual problems.
As the bishop of Milan, St. Ambrose wanted the priests he oversaw, and the priests nearby, to be able to use him as a resource for their questions and problems. He, on the other hand, used his biblical studies to answer his own questions and the questions of others. His focus on moral teachings, as well as his focus on spirituality, administration, and biblical teachings, was all a part of what he himself had to reckon with in his struggle to become a Christian and a bishop of the church. His pastoral care for his priests, and priests throughout the world, had a deep impact on the way in which clergy approached the spiritual problems of their flocks. The concentration of St. Ambrose on knowledge of scripture, and the attention he put to solving moral dilemmas through spiritual and logical means is something that the priests of today can place in the forefront of being a good Christian minister, much like St. Ambrose did.
1Beyenka, Sister Mary Melchoir. Trans. The Fathers of the Church: St. Ambrose, Letters, (New York, NY: Fathers of the Church Incorporated, 1954), 231.
11Davidson, Ivor J. Ambrose: De Officiis, vol. 1, (New York: Oxford University Press 2001), pg. 131.
12Ramsey, Boniface, Ambrose, Carol Harrison ed. (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), pg. 162.
14Fathers of the Church, 317
16Fathers of the Church, 318
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