It will not be denied that, according to the Scripture view of the Church, though all are admitted into her pale, and the rich inclusively, yet, the poor are her members with a peculiar suitableness, and by a special right. Scripture is ever casting slurs upon wealth, and making much of poverty. "To the poor the Gospel is preached." "God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom." "If thou wilt be perfect, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor." To this must be added the undeniable fact that the Church, when purest and when most powerful, has depended for its influence on its consideration with the many. Becket's letters, lately published, have struck me not a little; but of course I now refer, not to such dark ages as most Englishmen consider these, but to the primitive Church—the Church of St. Athanasius and St. Ambrose. With a view of showing the power of the Church at that time, and on what it was based, not (as Protestants imagine) on governments, or on human law, or on endowments, but on popular enthusiasm, on dogma, on hierarchical power, and on a supernatural Divine Presence, I will now give some account of certain ecclesiastical proceedings in the city of Milan in the years 385, 386,—Ambrose being bishop, and Justina and her son, the younger Valentinian, the reigning powers.


Ambrose was eminently a popular bishop, as every one knows who has read ever so little of his history. His very promotion to the sacred office was owing to an unexpected movement of the populace. Auxentius, his Arian predecessor in the see of Milan, died, A.D. 374, upon which the bishops of the province wrote to the then Emperor, Valentinian the First, who was in Gaul, requesting him to name the person who was to succeed him. This was a prudent step on their part, Arianism having introduced such matter for discord and faction among the Milanese, that it was dangerous to submit the election to the people at large, though the majority of them were orthodox. Valentinian, however, declined to avail himself of the permission thus given him; the choice was thrown upon the voices of the people, and the cathedral, which was the place of assembling, was soon a scene of disgraceful uproar, as the bishops had anticipated. Ambrose was at that time civil governor of the province of which Milan was the capital: and, the tumult increasing, he was obliged to interfere in person, with a view of preventing its ending in open sedition. He was a man of grave character, and had been in youth brought up with a sister, who had devoted herself to the service of God in a single life; but as yet was only a catechumen, though he was half way between thirty and forty. Arrived at the scene of tumult, he addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting them to peace and order. While he was speaking, a child's voice, as is reported, was heard in the midst of the crowd to say, "Ambrose is bishop;" the populace took up the cry, and both parties in the Church, Catholic and Arian, whether influenced by a sudden enthusiasm, or willing to take a man who was unconnected with party, voted unanimously for the election of Ambrose.

It is not wonderful that the subject of this sudden decision should have been unwilling to quit his civil office for a station of such high responsibility; for many days he fought against the popular voice, and that by the most extravagant expedients. He absconded, and was not recovered till the Emperor, confirming the act of the people of Milan, published an edict against all who should conceal him. Under these strange circumstances, Ambrose was at length consecrated bishop. His ordination was canonical only on the supposition that it  came under those rare exceptions, for which the rules of the Church allow, when they speak of election "by divine grace," by the immediate suggestion of God; and if ever a bishop's character and works might be appealed to as evidence of the divine purpose, surely Ambrose was the subject of that singular and extraordinary favour. From the time of his call he devoted his life and abilities to the service of Christ. He bestowed his personal property on the poor: his lands on the Church; making his sister tenant for life. Next he gave himself up to the peculiar studies necessary for the due execution of his high duties, till he gained that deep insight into Catholic truth, which is evidenced in his writings, and in no common measure in relation to Arianism, which had been the dominant creed in Milan for the twenty years preceding his elevation. Basil of Cæsarea, in Cappadocia, was at this time the main pillar of Catholic truth in the East, having succeeded Athanasius of Alexandria, who died about the time that both Basil and Ambrose were advanced to their respective sees. He, from his see in the far East, addresses the new bishop in these words in an extant Epistle:—

"Proceed in thy work, thou man of God; and since thou hast not received the Gospel of Christ of men, neither wast taught it, but the Lord himself translated thee from among the world's judges to the chair of the Apostles, fight the good fight, set right the infirmities of the people, wherever the Arian madness has affected them; renew the old foot-prints of the Fathers, and by frequent correspondence build up thy love towards us, of which thou hast already laid the foundation."—Ep. 197.

I just now mentioned St. Thomas Becket. There is at once a similarity and a contrast between his history and that of Ambrose. Each of the two was by education and society what would now be called a gentleman. {345} Each was in high civil station when he was raised to a great ecclesiastical position; each was in middle age. Each had led an upright, virtuous life before his elevation; and each, on being elevated, changed it for a life of extraordinary penance and saintly devotion. Each was promoted to his high place by the act, direct or concurrent, of his sovereign; and each showed to that sovereign in the most emphatic way that a bishop was the servant, not of man, but of the Lord of heaven and earth. Each boldly confronted his sovereign in a great religious quarrel, and staked his life on its issue;—but then comes the contrast, for Becket's earthly master was as resolute in his opposition to the Church as Becket was in its behalf, and made him a martyr; whereas the Imperial Power of Rome quailed and gave way before the dauntless bearing and the grave and gracious presence of the great prelate of Milan. Indeed, the whole Pontificate of Ambrose is a history of successive victories of the Church over the State...