An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius

053115I have begun a series on the blog that I am tagging the “Courage” series. (Our new blog format, to be unveiled soon, will feature tags at the bottom of each post.) I will be highlighting courageous persons and acts both from both Scripture and Church history. It’s going to take a lot of courage going forward.

Bishops, priests, and God’s people are going to have to be willing to accept persecution, fines (which we should refuse to pay), jail, and even death for insisting on biblical truth and morality. Radicalized Islam has already claimed many victims, but militant secularism and those who accuse us of “hate speach” for quoting Scripture and the Catechsim are also growing bold in their threats and legal maneuvers. It’s going to take courage and the heart of a lion.

In this installment I want to highlight a remarkable event that took place between the Emperor Theodosius and St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan. What makes it remarkable is that it shows an ancient bishop (Ambrose) and a politician (Theodosius) interacting over the dignity of human life. The Emperor Theodosius had the power of life and death over Ambrose the Bishop. St. Ambrose knew he had to correct the Emperor but also knew that this might endanger his freedom or even his life. Nevertheless, he did it and wrote a personal letter of rebuke to the Emperor.

Let’s look at this remarkable incident of a courageous bishop.

 The Offending Incident – Theodosius (Roman Emperor from 378 to 392) was in many ways an extraordinary emperor. He had successfully dealt with the Goths and other tribes and brought greater unity to the troubled Roman Empire in the West. But he was also known to have a very bad temper. In 390 A.D. in Thessalonica, a terrible riot broke out, which resulted in the death of Botheric, the captain of the Roman garrison there. It seems that a certain charioteer  had become very popular with the crowds. Now this charioteer also lived a rather debauched life. This offended Botheric, a Goth, and also a very upright and disciplined man. He had the charioteer arrested for debauchery. The crowds rioted, rising up in favor of the charioteer. In addition to the arrest there may also have been ethnic jealously involved on both sides since the Roman Garrison was comprised largely of Goths and the town was largely Greek. In the riot Botheric, the Captain was killed.

When Theodosius  heard of this, he was incensed. He ordered  the Roman army to round up the entire town and place them in the stadium  to be slaughtered.  7000 were killed that day!  The day after issuing the order, when his temper had cooled, Theodosius regretted his decision and sent another messenger to try to stop the massacre, but it was too late.

Theodosius  was mortified. He went to Milan to seek solace from St. Ambrose. But Ambrose, fearing the Church was  just being used as a political prop or fig leaf, left the city before Theodosius  arrived, in effect refusing to meet with the emperor.  This surely endangered Ambrose, for it risked inflaming the emperor’s infamous temper once more.

Ambrose then wrote the emperor a private letter (now known as Letter 51). You can read the whole letter here: . The letter was a respectful but clear call to public repentance by the emperor and a refusal to admit him to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or to celebrate it in his presence until such public repentance had occurred. Here are some excerpts:

 The memory of your old friendship is pleasant to me, and I gratefully call to mind the kindnesses which, in reply to my frequent intercessions, you have most graciously conferred on others. Whence it may be inferred that I did not from any ungrateful feeling avoid meeting you on your arrival, which I had always before earnestly desired. And I will now briefly set forth the reason for my acting as I did …

 Listen, august Emperor, I cannot deny that you have a zeal for the faith; I do confess that you have the fear of God. But you have a natural vehemence [i.e., temper] , which … if any one stirs it up, you rouse it so much more that you can scarcely restrain it … Would that … no one may inflame it! … restrain yourself, and overcome your natural vehemence by the love of piety …

  This vehemence of yours I preferred to commend privately to your own consideration, rather than possibly raise it by any action of mine in public …

 There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it, and that which you yourself show by revoking it too late you consider to be grave, this I could not extenuate [i.e., minimize]  when done. When it was first heard of … there was not one who did not lament it, not one who thought lightly of it; your being in fellowship with Ambrose was no excuse for your deed …

 Are you ashamed, O Emperor, to do that which the royal prophet David, the forefather of Christ, according to the flesh, did? … he said: I have sinned against the Lord. Bear it, then, without impatience, O Emperor, if it be said to you: You have done that which was spoken of … say: I have sinned against the Lord. If you repeat those words of the royal prophet: O come let us worship and fall down before Him, and mourn before the Lord our God, Who made us. [I]t shall be said to you also: Since you repent, the Lord puts away your sin, and you shall not die.

  Holy Job, himself also powerful in this world, says: I hid not my sin, but declared it before all the people …

 I have written this, not in order to confound you, but that the examples of these kings may stir you up to put away this sin from your kingdom, for you will do it away by humbling your soul before God. You are a man, and it has come upon you, conquer it. Sin is not done away but by tears and penitence. Neither angel can do it, nor archangel. The Lord Himself, Who alone can say, I am with you, Matthew 28:20 if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent …

  I urge, I beg, I exhort, I warn, for it is a grief to me, that you who were an example of unusual piety, who were conspicuous for clemency … The devil envied that which was your most excellent possession. Conquer him while you still possess that wherewith you may conquer. Do not add another sin to your sin by a course of action which has injured many.

 I, indeed, though a debtor to your kindness, for which I cannot be ungrateful, that kindness which has surpassed that of many emperors … but have cause for fear; I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.

 Lastly, I am writing with my own hand that which you alone may read … Our God gives warnings in many ways, by heavenly signs, by the precepts of the prophets; by the visions even of sinners He wills that we should understand, that we should entreat Him to take away all disturbances, to preserve peace for you emperors, that the faith and peace of the Church, whose advantage it is that emperors should be Christians and devout, may continue.

 You certainly desire to be approved by God. To everything there is a time, Ecclesiastes 3:1 as it is written: It is time for You, Lord, to work. It is an acceptable time, O Lord. You shall then make your offering when you have received permission to sacrifice, when your offering shall be acceptable to God. Would it not delight me to enjoy the favor of the Emperor, to act according to your wish, if the case allowed it….when the oblation would bring offense, for the one is a sign of humility, the other of contempt.  For the Word of God Himself tells us that He prefers the performance of His commandments to the offering of sacrifice. God proclaims this, Moses declares it to the people, Paul preaches it to the Gentiles. … Are they not, then, rather Christians in truth who condemn their own sin, than they who think to defend it? The just is an accuser of himself in the beginning of his words. He who accuses himself when he has sinned is just, not he who praises himself.

… But thanks be to the Lord, Who wills to chastise His servants, that He may not lose them. This I have in common with the prophets, and you shall have it in common with the saints … If you believe me, be guided by me … acknowledge what I say; if you believe me not, pardon that which I do, in that I set God before you. May you, most august Emperor, with your holy offspring, enjoy perpetual peace with perfect happiness and prosperity.

Assessment – So here is a bishop speaking the truth to the emperor and calling him to repentance. Remember there were no laws protecting Ambrose from execution or exile for doing this. An emperor could act with impunity doing either. Yet St. Ambrose speaks a rebuke meant to provoke sincere repentance. Neither would Ambrose allow the Church to be used as a prop for some false and flattering acclamation. What was needed was sincere and public repentance. He rebukes both with the emperor’s salvation in mind as well as the good of the faithful. He used the Shepherd’s staff (which is a weapon used to defend the Sheep) to defend the flock from damnation, error, and discouragement. He insisted on truth when it could have gotten him killed by the wolf.

So what did Emperor Theodosius do? He went to the Cathedral of Milan and brought his whole entourage. Ambrose agreed to meet him there. The emperor walked into the door of the cathedral, shed his royal robes and insignia, and bowed down in public penance. One year later, in 391, he personally went to Thessalonica and asked for forgiveness. Theodosius died in 395 at the age of 48 and likely saved his soul by listening to Ambrose and placing his faith higher than his civil authority.

This is a remarkable story of the power of the gospel to transform the hearts of all. It is a remarkable story showing what risking to speak the truth can do. May God be praised.

Disclaimer – I do not relate this story to critique the modern struggle of some bishops (and priests) to speak the truth to those in power. Rather, I write to encourage us all through an epic tale from the past. Every bishop must make prudential judgments in each situation based on the individual politician or prominent person involved, on what is best for the faithful, and on the common good. Some have judged to speak forth as did Ambrose. Others in different circumstances pursue quieter measures. Still others judge that public rebukes would only make heroes of those being rebuked.  It is a prudential judgment that every bishop has to make. A bishop in the Midwest may face one set of circumstances while a bishop in the Northeast faces another. The faithful do well to encourage their bishops and priests and pray for them to make good judgments.

Finally, I am indebted to Rev. Michael John Witt, Church History Professor at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis for the background on this story. He maintains a wonderful Church history site here:  The site includes hundreds of engaging and inspiring lectures on Church history that manifest a great love for the Church.

Priests, too, face challenges in speaking forthrightly to their congregations. They need courage to announce that which may not always be popular or may be out-of-season. In this clip, the famous preacher Vernon Johns (who preceded Dr. Martin Luther King in Birmingham) seeks to rouse a sleepy congregation to realize its own role in perpetuating injustice. Even as bishops and priests are called to speak up, so, too, are the laity. This clip is a remarkable glimpse of what a prophet must sound like. My favorite moment is the classic line, “Are you worthy of Jesus or are you just worthy of the State of Alabama?”

Courage, fellow clergy and people of God, courage!

19 Replies to “An Ancient Bishop Rebukes His Emperor for Crimes Against Life: A Story of St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius”

  1. It’s occurred to me that the fundamental homosexual agenda is to turn the tables on Christians – make us “go into the closet,” make us hide who we are when in public, make us be afraid to speak about what we believe in the workplace, in the public square; make us hide ourselves and live in fear of being afraid of being caught, as they felt they were forced to do by Christianity. The difference is, theirs is sin, ours is Truth.

    So I think any series that acknowledges the coming persecution will help to hearten and remind true believers in Christ that standing up for the Truth may bring very difficult consequences, including even maybe death or imprisonment, but knowing how Catholic heroes have faced these and even more difficult circumstances will certainly help.
    Thank you, and God bless you.

  2. Verbal viciousness attacks by priest sexual abuse victims and their families here in Australia on the person of Cardinal George Pell must stop. It is polarising to say the least, Christ is a merciful Lord.

  3. In the Catholic Encyclopedia it said that the emperor did eight months of penance. St. Ambrose also did the funeral discourse on Emperor Theodosius. Maybe it took a bishop who could stand down an emperor to convert a St. Augustine.

  4. I think your series on courage is a fantastic idea. It seems to me the Body of Christ is in for some challenging, or likely frightening times ahead. THIS IS A GOOD THING.

    Faith does not grow or flourish in good times. As we can see from merely opening our eyes and looking around, the shiny happy new age faith brought to us by the 1960’s has done a tremendous job of driving our numbers down. We need more than sugary sweet love letters to our wayward breatheren. We need a faith(religion) we can sink our teeth into. Our faith needs muscle and you cannot feed the faith muscle with icing. Like any muscle you have to break it down before it will grow and strengthen. We must suffer and sacrifice if we want to survive and for that we will need courage.

    Our bishops must stop trying to make faith and religion easy in an effort to bring people to Jesus. It’s not and it was never meant to be. We have to work for it, it cannot be handed to us. We have to choose and in our tendency toward sloth, we often go the easy route. That is not choice toward religion but choice toward self.

  5. My experiment with courage ended with me getting a letter from our priest that said, “Your services were no longer required at Sacred Heart Church.”

    So I tend to be skeptical when clergy preach about needing to be courageous. I can see where they might want other priests or bishops to be courageous, but I think that as far as laity goes, we need to sit down and shut up.

    it’s a long story and even if I told it as accurately as possible you’d only hear my side and not the priest’s side. However, I really believed that I was in the right by calling him out (privately) for un-holy behaviour. That doesn’t change that fact that I do not belong to a parish now, because my reputation preceded me to a neighboring parish.

    1. Courage is sometimes defined as “strength in the face of pain or grief”.

      I’m sorry you had a bad experience at your church, but you have provided so few details that your point comes across in an unflattering way. You appear angry, unforgiving. Your depiction of your reputation preceding you suggests this was no discreet matter.

      I am fairly certain our parish priests can only name a handful of our members and are quite frankly, forgiving enough to handle such a matter with grace. Are you certain a new parish would not forgive you for this incident (whatever it was)? Though your counsel could have been right, certainly you learned there was a better way to make your voice heard? Would a little humility be so hard to muster?

      The Lord did not reject you, even if a priest or two may have. Why is it so easy for you to stay away? Please refer back to my definition at he top. I pray you find peace.

    2. beej: Been there (sort of). BUT. I would NEVER stop going to church because of something a priest or priests did or said to me. No way. Because they are just men. But God is God, and the only way I can receive Him is to attend Mass.
      Even if your reputation preceded you, there’s nothing stopping you from attending Mass at the neighboring parish, or even your former parish. So what, whatever they think. Go in, genuflect, kneel, sit and stand when appropriate, say the prayers, and when Mass is over, leave the pew, genuflect, and go home. Have courage NOW. Don’t give up God because of a fallible man. Let God judge him. You did your part. Leave the rest to God.
      P.S. – see Msgr.’s next post about Bearing Wrongs Patiently.
      God bless.

    1. It always aggravates me when someone scrutinizes actions of the past with the standards of the present, and does not evaluate a person in their historical context. For instance, in Roman times crucifixions (Our Lord) and beheadings (John the Baptist) were common if cruel forms of punishment, and the arbitrariness of the passing of the sentence of death is disturbing to read, but both are understandable given the historical context. But crucifixions and beheadings happening today in the Middle East shock and horrify us, and should.

      To judge Ambrose this way is the same as saying: That barbarian Pontius Pilate – what an animal to convict Jesus without cause, to have Him beaten to near death, and then crucified. He must have been a monster. No, we can see it was injustice, but we also should understand how the times were, and how inconsequential the Romans considered the lives of the Jews people.

      If it were today, and Ambrose argued against the rebuilding of a synagogue, it would be something disturbing. But given the historical context, that the Jews and the Christians were in more overt conflict, and given the context of his defense of the Faith, he was probably correct. In our own day, it would be like someone arguing against the forced rebuilding a headquarters for ISIS after a local group destroyed it.

      Whenever someone judges someone of the past by the standards of the present and especially without the historical context, I think they err. We can say we should not think the same way today, but I don’t think we should disparage good people of the past who judged things according to the standards of the day.

  6. I am most impressed by your statement on fines. It is almost certain that eventually the state will attempt to impel obedience to its immoral agenda by first invoking crippling fines, eliminating tax-exemptions and then seizing property.
    My greatest fear isn’t that the Church will cave to their immoral requests, but that it will, in an attempt to “save” its schools and hospitals act by giving them over to secular authorities, which will then acquiesce to immoral actions. Rather it happen that when the fines are first invoked that bishops and laity follow the example of Thoreau and let themselves be marched off to jail. That is about the only action that will wake up the vast majority of people in the Unites States to the overreach of government here.
    Better the Church forces the government to seize its property at gunpoint, with its institutions left empty shells by the abandonment of the faithful, than to quietly continue in ‘safe’ institution which have lost their way.

  7. This could not be more timely. Alas, tho the Church…sometimes…still speaks the prophetic truth, how often is that breath of air followed by action?

    My only critique with your wonderful piece here is with this statement of yours; “I do not relate this story to critique the modern struggle of some bishops (and priests) to speak the truth to those in power.”

    To which I ask; Why not?

    When many political leaders have thru their votes murdered not thousands but millions, why not name names and call upon Bishops all over this country to bar the Blessed Sacrament from the lips of the murderers?

    But no, we must see in our leaders business as usual. Just being nice…

    1. Hear, Hear! The Church must return to the days that it stood for something. The “seamless garment” days are over.

  8. Terrific post Monsignor! I am eager to visit Michael Witt’s site but the link you provided seems to be incorrect. Can you please review what you have and correct it if is in fact it is incorrect?

    Thank you and God bless.


  9. Mnsgr; May the good Lord continue to strengthen n use you always as oracle. I always get insight n inspiration from your messages. Glory to Jesus. Honor to Mary.

  10. Msgr., I do not think we will see one drop of Christian blood shed in the USA. Instead, I think we will experience severe fines: loss of health care, loss of jobs, loss of homes– of course it will all be perfectly legal.

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