In the Mass today we honor St. Ambrose, who became the bishop of Milan Italy in 375 A.D. Let me review the complicated history that led up to Ambrose becoming bishop.
When the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, died in 337 A.D. his son Constantius became emperor in Constantinople, while his second son, Constans, who was living in Milan, Italy began acting as emperor in the west. A major difference between those two was that while Constans remained a true Christian, his brother Constantius in Constantinople became an Arian, that is, a quasi-Christian who did not believe that Jesus was truly the Son of God.
Then, in the year 350 in Milan both Constans and the Christian bishop of Milan died, and Constan’s successor Valentinian appointed an Arian named Auxentius bishop of Milan. For the next twenty-four years Auxentius preached sermon after sermon in which he pleaded with people to regard Jesus as no more than a good man.
When that bishop Auxentius died in 374 the new emperor of the west, residing in Milan, told the governor of northern Italy to gather the people for an open debate for choosing a new bishop who would be acceptable to both the Christians and the Arians. That governor had been in daily attendance on the emperor, and the emperor depended on him for many things. As the two sides of the debate fought to be heard the shrill voice of a boy rang out over the hall. He cried, “Let the governor be our new bishop!”
As a boy the governor had been a catechumen, but he had never been baptized, but still choosing him seemed somehow right to everyone there. He accepted the role. He was baptized the next day, and made bishop the following day.
That governor, or now ex-governor, was St. Ambrose. As bishop he saw that his first duty was to restore people’s respect for Jesus as true God and true man. To bring that about he hit on an unusual plan. He would make everybody behave toward Jesus in the Eucharist the way they behaved toward the emperor. They would have to kneel before the Eucharist; and they could only allow it to be touched by fine linens and pure gold. His trick worked. By kneeling and observing respectful silence at Mass people came around to regarding Jesus with great awe.
The trick had one drawback. It changed the Mass for people. Before Ambrose changed things people at Mass imagined themselves reclining on the floor with Jesus and the Apostles at the Last Supper. They could hear a whispered request from Jess that they join him in making themselves into pleasing gifts to God. Now, at Mass they imagined they were at the rear of the mighty emperor’s audience hall, hearing the usher telling them to “Bow, bow, bow!”