St. Ambrose Defends the Church’s Rights and Publicly Rebukes the Roman Emperor Theodosius

April 13, 2023

St Ambrose Stopping Theodosius from entering the Church. For his responsibility for a massacre at Thessalonika in 390, the emperor Theodosius was excommunicated by St. Ambrose until he had public penance. The emperor is shown on the church steps surrounded by his courtiers. St. Ambrose forbids him to enter.

Even before Theodosius succeeded to the rule of the Empire in the West he had had experience of the saint’s limitless and courageous solicitude for the rights of religion. In distant Osroene a synagogue had been destroyed in a riot. Theodosius ordered that it should be rebuilt at the expense of the local bishop, and the news of this reaching Ambrose he immediately protested. . . . And since it touches the Emperor’s conscience . . . charity demands that the bishop should instruct and warn him—privately first, as by this letter, but, should it be necessary, publicly before all the Church. The Emperor ignored the letter, and Ambrose, true to his word, made the affair the subject of a sermon. Theodosius he compared to David, set by God in the place of the worthless Saul (Valens). God had sent Nathan to rebuke David when, in turn, he, too, promised to be faithless.

Statue of St. Ambrose in Copenhagen

So Ambrose spoke to Theodosius. And Theodosius present at the service heard the rebuke. As the bishop came down from the pulpit the Emperor stood in his way. The bishop insisted. If the Emperor would not withdraw his order that Christians should rebuild a house of impiety, the bishop would not offer the sacrifice. Theodosius submitted.

St Ambrose accepting a repentant Theodosius

Twelve months later a still graver matter produced a second crisis. A serious riot at Thessalonica, in which a high official had been murdered, had been punished, on the Emperor’s orders, by an organized massacre. Ambrose waited, resolved, at the last extreme, to do what hitherto no bishop had dared, to threaten the Roman Emperor with expulsion from the Church. As before he first of all wrote to Theodosius. . . . Once more religion triumphed, and Theodosius, his insignia laid aside, publicly confessed his crime and asked God’s pardon.

Philip Hughes, The World in Which the Church Was Founded, vol. 1 of A History of the Church: An Introductory Study (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 269–70.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 874


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