Name the saint who was not Catholic until a visit to Italy inspired a conversion and a new life dedicated to Catholic education.
Right answers include St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, St. John Henry Newman, and St. Augustine of Hippo — and they all have the same person to thank: St. Ambrose.
In the middle of the preparations for Christmas, there are a lot of great feast days — for St. Nicholas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego, St. Lucy … and St. Ambrose. He may not be the one we think of first, but his achievements have given us more than we know.
St. Ambrose built an intellectual and social culture that put flesh on the bones of Catholic dogma.
Ambrose (c. 340–397) was an important early scholar in what he wrote against Arianism—a widespread Christian heresy which denied the Trinity—but he was also an important early Church leader in the way he built a Christian culture.
He is simultaneously the man who taught that the poor are not “others” whom the Church serves, but are at the very heart of the Church — and taught that “The emperor is in the Church, not above the Church.”
He was a statesman-turned-bishop in the Northern Italian city of Milan, and the first great saint whose preaching inspired Augustine of Hippo, a bright young seeker from Northern Africa.
“To Milan I came, to Ambrose the Bishop,” wrote Augustine. “To him was I unknowing led by Thee, that by him I might knowingly be led to Thee. That man of God received me as a father, and showed me an Episcopal kindness on my coming.”
Augustine reacted not just to the wisdom of Ambrose, but also his witness. It was the same with John Henry Newman.
Pope Benedict pointed out that, while the Church Fathers were at the heart of Newman’s conversion, the witness of the Church built by their teachings was just as important, especially “the relationship that Newman experienced with a specific local church, the Church of Ambrose.”
Ambrose taught what the Eucharist is — the Church in Milan showed what it is.
The man who Newman called “the majestic Ambrose” was one of the first to articulate the doctrine of the Real Presence and put in theological language the Church’s belief that Jesus Christ is truly present in the consecrated host and chalice.
It was in uncovering what the Church fathers taught that Newman intellectually discovered the truth of the faith. However, it was “In the city of St. Ambrose,” Newman wrote, “one understands the Church of God more than in most other places.”
The first thing that impressed him on his visit to Milan were the churches — each with the Blessed Sacrament consecrated and reserved in a tabernacle.
“There are here about twenty churches open to those who pass in front of them, and in each of them their relics are to be found, and the Blessed Sacrament prepared for the worshipper, even before he enters,” he wrote. “There is nothing that has shown me in so strong a fashion the unity of the Church as the Presence of her Divine Founder and of His Life everywhere I go.”
He was also impressed by the Catholics of Milan, especially “the number of communions: they do not just happen every day, but the rail is crowded several times in the space of an hour.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton saw the same thing in her visits to Northern Italy.
“I assure you my becoming Catholic was a very simple consequence of going to a Catholic country,” she said.
The conversion of Elizabeth Ann Seton began in 1803 while she, at 29, was a guest of the Filicchi family not in Milan, but in another Northern Italian city — Livorno.
Like Newman, she was impressed by the faith of the people. “How happy would we be if we believed what these dear Souls believe, that they possess God in the Sacrament,” she said.
She recounted one incident where, “The other day in a moment of excessive distress I fell on my knees without thinking when the Blessed Sacrament passed by and cried in an agony to God to bless me if he was there, that my whole Soul desired only him.”
When she returned to New York, she still found herself drawn to the tabernacle even while attending her Episcopalian church. “I got in a side pew which turned my face toward the Catholic Church in the next street, and found myself 20 times speaking to the Blessed Sacrament there,” and thinking of Italy, she wrote.
Thus, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s life is a perfect example of Newman’s maxim.
“The heart is commonly reached, not through the reason, but through the imagination,” wrote Newman. “Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us. Many a man will live and die upon a dogma: no man will be a martyr for a conclusion.”
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton loved to quote St. Ambrose to illustrate God’s mercy, saying, “God has taken for his symbol of Reconciliation a bow without arrows,” meaning Noah’s rainbow.
It was the witness of Ambrose to the mercy of God that melted the defenses of St. Augustine.
Mother Seton would quote Augustine saying that where “obstacles seem greatest in the Divine Service there we have reason to conclude that Success will be most glorious.”
The witness of Protestant converts like Newman and Elizabeth Ann Seton show that this is true.
On the feast of St. Ambrose, we pray that we might follow in his and Mother Seton’s footsteps in teaching the true faith to others — both in words, and in authentic lives of devotion and service.
This reflection was originally published in 2019. Click here to view all Seton Reflections.
TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.
Image: Theodosius Repulsed from the Church by Saint Ambrose – Alessandro Magnasco (1667–1749) – between 1700 and 1710 – Art Institute of Chicago