The picture to the right is a painting by Anthony Van Dyck of St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, physically preventing the Roman emperor Theodosius from enter into the cathedral. It so happened, that the emperor, in order to suppress an uprising in Thessalonica, killed 7,000 of its citizens. St. Ambrose demanded that he do several months worth of public penance; and penance the Roman emperor did. This was a crucial turning point in world history. The era of the all-powerful State was coming to an end.
When the Catholic Church speaks with one voice and with moral clarity, she is a force to be reckoned with. And when her oneness in love and truth is visible for all to see she is a font of spiritual and cultural renewal. In periods of the Church's strength and confidence, clergy and laity alike have spoken with moral conviction; sometimes at a great cost. Indeed, the Catholic Church has a legacy of protecting the citizen and the lowly from the tyranny of the State. And one of her greatest accomplishments was that she tamed the overbearing dominance of the State and converted it from a cruel master to a servant; a servant to its citizens who had to answer to a higher divine law.
One man who helped changed the way people looked at the State is St. Ambrose. In 392 A.D. the Roman Emperor Theodosius II, a professed Christian, killed 7.000 Thessalonians in an uprising. Having been informed of this while the emperor was still miles away, St. Ambrose, a bishop of Milan, wrote him a letter. In this letter he said, “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, who would not suffer single offenders to be put in peril, should not mourn that so many have perished.”
In no uncertain terms, the saintly bishop cautioned Theodosius that “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,’ if we have sinned, does not forgive any but those who repent.” St. Ambrose then recounted a dream he had of the emperor coming into the Church. In this dream, the emperor arrived at the cathedral in Milan, but the Lord had forbidden the saintly bishop to offer the Sacrifice at the altar. St. Ambrose took this to mean one thing: If the Theodosius does not heed his warning, he was willing, if need be, to publicly confront the unrepentant head of State.
Inspired by these convictions, St. Ambrose was determined to publicly call the Roman emperor to public penance. There came a day when Theodosius presumptuously attempted to enter the cathedral where St. Ambrose was presiding. However, this heroic bishop physically prevented him from entering. St. Ambrose demanded that this powerful head of State repent from killing so many people before partaking of the Holy Sacrifice of the Liturgy. This Saint and Father of the Church was too concerned for Theodosius’ soul and the souls of onlookers to let his sin go uncensored.
The inevitably confrontation was not only an act of courage but it was the highest kind of pastoral love a spiritual father could give to a son. Amazingly, Theodosius II did public penance. A clean heart and a steadfast spirit were renewed within him (cf. Psalm 51). Furthermore, it was a precedent that the great shepherds of the Church aspired to in the centuries that followed. And that precedent- the standard that was held high throughout the Church’s history –was that repentance from sin was to be an indispensable condition of our communion with the Lord Jesus and His Church.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen this standard held up or enforced in the last five to six decades. But with bishops like His Excellency, Ambrose of Milan, the miter and the scepter will meet again. The golden standard of pastoring will be restored and a stronger Church will emerge. The fruit of this is that the State will not only be held to account by a higher, divine law, but it will further profess Christ as Lord and Savior just as every individual is bound to do.