This Day in World History
December 7, 374
Ambrose consecrated Bishop of Milan
On December 7, 374, after a quickly arranged baptism and eight days of instruction, Ambrose was consecrated as a bishop. No one, perhaps, was more surprised by this turn of events than the new bishop himself.
At the time Milan was in the midst of two decades of religious turmoil. For twenty years, Bishop Auxentius had ruled the see. Auxentius followed the Arian faith, a Christian doctrine that denied the divinity of Jesus and thus the Trinity, and the bishop made sure that much of the priesthood was Arian as well. Most people in the city followed the faith that developed into orthodox Roman Catholicism, however, and they chafed under Arian control. When Auxentius died late in 374, a succession crisis arose. Orthodox Catholic officials asked the emperor Valentinian to name his successor, but he insisted on leaving the decisions to the priests. A noisy meeting was being held in the city’s basilica, with the priesthood on one side and a crowd of citizens on the other. Ambrose, the Roman governor of the province of Milan, had the task of keeping order. According to tradition, after he finished a speech aimed at calming emotions, a voice shouted, “Ambrose, Bishop.” The suggestion was loudly acclaimed, and the selection approved by an official vote. The emperor confirmed the appointment, and Ambrose reluctantly accepted.
In his twenty-five years as bishop, Ambrose became one of the leading figures of the early church. He worked to remove Arian influence in Milan, promoted the incorporation of Greek learning into Catholic thought, introduced new music and wrote hymns, gained renown for his strict morality, and tried to assert the church’s moral authority by criticizing actions by different emperors that he thought reprehensible. He also was a principal figure in the conversion of Augustine of Hippo, who—like Ambrose himself—is considered one of the fathers of the church. It was quite a career for the accidental bishop.