The Liturgical Year – The Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin, by Father Prosper Gueranger

detail of a stained glass window of Santa Maria Immaculata by Penner und Schürer, 1906; church of Maria Schutz am Bründl, Bad Leonfelden, Upper Austria, Austria; photographed on 17 May 2014 by Wolfgang Sauber; swiped from Wikimedia Commons8 December

At length, on the distant horizon, rises, with a soft and radiant light, the aurora of the Sun which has been so long desired. The happy Mother of the Messias was to be born before the Messias himself; and this is the day of the Conception of Mary. The earth already possesses a first pledge of the divine mercy; the Son of Man is near at hand. Two true Israelites, Joachim and Anne, noble branches of the family of David, find their union, after a long barrenness, made fruitful by the divine omnipotence. Glory be to God, who has been mindful of his promises, and who deigns to announce, from the high heavens, the end of the deluge of iniquity, by sending upon the earth the sweet white Dove that bears the tidings of peace!

The Feast of the Blessed Virgin’s Immaculate Conception is the most solemn of all those which the Church celebrates during the holy time of Advent; and if the first part of the Cycle had to offer us the commemoration of some one of the Mysteries of Mary, there was none whose object could better harmonize with the spirit of the Church in this mystic season of expectation. Let us, then, celebrate this solemnity with joy; for the Conception of Mary tells us that the Birth of Jesus is not far off.

The intention of the Church, in this Feast, is not only to celebrate the anniversary of the happy moment in which began, in the womb of the pious Anne, the life of the ever-glorious Virgin Mary; but also to honour the sublime privilege, by which Mary was preserved from the original stain, which, by a sovereign and universal decree, is contracted by all the children of Adam the very moment they are conceived in their mother’s womb. The faith of the Catholic Church on the subject of the Conception of Mary is this: that at the very instant, when God united the Soul of Mary, which he had created, to the Body which it was to animate, this ever-blessed Soul did not only not contract the stain, which, at that same instant, denies every human soul, but was filled with an immeasurable grace which rendered her, from that moment, the mirror Of the sanctity of God himself, as far as this is possible to a creature. The Church, with her infallible authority, declared, by the lips of Pope Pius IX, that this article of her faith had been revealed by God himself. The Definition was received with enthusiasm by the whole of Christendom, and 8 December 1854 was thus made one of the most memorable days of the Church’s history.

It was due to his own infinite sanctity that God should suspend, in this instance, the law which his divine justice had passed upon all the children of Adam. The relations which Mary was to bear to the Divinity, could not be reconciled with her undergoing the humiliation of this punishment. She was not only Daughter of the Eternal Father; she was destined also to become the very Mother of the Son, and the veritable Spouse of the Holy Ghost; nothing defiled could be permitted to enter, even for an atom of time, into the creature that was thus predestined to contract such close relations with the adorable Trinity; not a speck could be permitted to tarnish in Mary that perfect purity which the infinitely holy God requires in those who are one day to be admitted to enjoy even the sight of his divine majesty in heaven; in a word, as the great Doctor Saint Anselm says, “it was just that this Holy Virgin should be adorned with the greatest purity which can be conceived after that of God himself, since God the Father was to give to her, as her Child, that only Begotten Son, whom he loved as himself, as being begotten to him from his own bosom; and this in such a manner, that the self-same Son of God was, by nature, the Son of both God the Father and of this Blessed Virgin. This same Son chose her to be substantially his Mother; and the Holy Ghost willed that in her womb he would operate the conception and birth of Him, from whom he himself proceeded.”

Moreover, the close ties which were to unite the Son of God with Mary, and which would elicit from him the tenderest love and the most filial reverence for her, had been present to the divine thought from all eternity: and the conclusion forces itself upon us, that, therefore, the Divine Word had for this his future Mother a love infinitely greater than that which he bore for all his other creatures. Mary’s honour was infinitely dear to him, because she was to be his Mother, chosen to be so by his eternal and merciful decrees. The Son’s love protected the Mother. She, indeed, in her sublime humility, willingly submitted to whatever the rest of God’s creatures had brought on themselves, and obeyed every tittle of those laws which were never meant for her: but that humiliating barrier, which confronts every child of Adam at the first moment of his existence, and keeps him from light and grace until he shall have been regenerated by a new birth, this could not be permitted to stand in Mary’s way, her Son forbade it.

The Eternal Father would not do less for the Second Eve than he had done for the First; yet she was created, as was also the first Adam, in the state of original justice, which she afterwards forfeited by sin. The Son of God would not permit that the Woman, from whom he was to take the nature of Man, should be deprived of that gift which he had given even to her who was the mother of sin. The Holy Ghost, who was to overshadow Mary and produce Jesus within her by his divine operation, would not permit that foul stain, in which we are all conceived, to rest, even for an instant, on this his Spouse. All men were to contract the sin of Adam; the sentence was universal; but God’s own Mother is not included. God, who is the author of that law; God, who was free to make it as he willed; had power to exclude from it Her whom he had predestined to be his Own in so many ways; he could exempt her, and it was just that he should exempt her; therefore, he did it.

Was it not this grand exemption which God himself foretold, when the guilty pair, whose children we all are, appeared before him in the garden of Eden? In the anathema which fell upon the serpent, there was included a promise of mercy to us. I will put enmities, said the Lord, between thee and the Woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head. (Genesis 3:15) Thus was salvation promised the human race under the form of a victory over Satan; and this victory is to be gained by the Woman, and she will gain it for us also. Even granting, as some read this text, that it is the Son of the Woman that is alone to gain this victory, the enmity between the Woman and the Serpent is clearly expressed, and she, the Woman, with her own foot, is to crush the head of the hated Serpent. The Second Eve is to be worthy of the Second Adam, conquering and not to be conquered. The human race is one day to be avenged, not only by God made Man, but also by the Woman miraculously exempted from every stain of sin, in whom the primaeval creation, which was in justice and holiness (Ephesians 4:24), will thus reappear in her, just as though the original sin had never been committed.

Raise up your heads, then, you children of Adam, and shake off your chains! This day, the humiliation, which weighed you down, is annihilated. Behold! Mary, she who is of the same flesh and blood as yourselves, has seen the torrent of sin, which swept along all the generations of mankind, she has seen it flow back at her presence and not touch her; the infernal dragon has turned away his head, daring not to breathe his venom upon her; the dignity of your origin is given to her in all its primitive grandeur. This happy day, then, on which the original purity of your race is renewed, must be a Feast to you. The Second Eve is created, and from her own blood, (which, with the exception of the element of sin, is the same as that which makes you to be the children of Adam,) she is shortly to give you the God-Man, who proceeds from her according to the flesh, as he proceeds from the Father according to the eternal generation.

And how can we do less than admire and love the incomparable purity of Mary in her Immaculate Conception, when we hear even that God, who thus prepared her to become his Mother, saying to her, in the divine Canticle, these words of complacent love: Thou art all fair, my Love, and there is not a spot in thee? (Canticle 4:7) It is the God of all-holiness that here speaks; that eye, which sees all things, finds not a vestige, not a shadow of sin; therefore does he delight in her, and admire in her that gift of his own condescending munificence. We cannot be surprised after this, that Gabriel, when he came down from heaven to announce the Incarnation to her, is full of admiration at the sight of that purity, whose beginning was so glorious and whose progress was immeasurable; and that this blessed Spirit should bow down profoundly before this young Maid of Nazareth, and salute her with, “Hail, O Full of Grace!” (Luke 1:28) And who is this Gabriel? An Archangel that lives amidst the grandest magnificences of God’s creation, amidst all the gorgeous riches of heaven; who is Brother to the Cherubim and Seraphim, to the Thrones and Dominations; whose eye is accustomed to gaze on those nine angelic choirs with their dazzling brightness of countless degrees of light and grace; he has found on earth, in a creature of a nature below that of Angels, the fullness of grace, of that grace which had been given to the Angels measuredly. This fullness of grace was in Mary from the very first instant of her existence. She is the future Mother of God, and she was ever holy, ever pure, ever Immaculate.

This truth of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which was revealed to the Apostles by the divine Son of Mary, inherited by the Church, taught by the Holy Fathers, believed by each generation of the Christian people with an ever increasing explicitness, this truth, we say, was implied in the very notion of a Mother of God. To believe that Mary was Mother of God, was an implicitly believing that she, on whom this sublime dignity was conferred, had never been defiled with the slightest stain of sin, and that God had bestowed upon her an absolute exemption from sin. But now, the Immaculate Conception of Mary rests on an explicit Definition dictated by the Holy Ghost. Peter has spoken by the mouth of Pope Pius; and when Peter has spoken, every Christian should believe; for the Son of God has said: I have prayed for thee, Peter, that thy faith fail not. (Luke 22:32) And again: The Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you. (John 16:26)

The Symbol of our faith has therefore received not a new truth, but a new light on a truth which was previously the object of the universal belief. On that great day of the Definition, the infernal serpent was again crushed beneath the victorious foot of the Virgin-Mother, and the Lord graciously gave us the strongest pledge of his mercy. He still loves this guilty earth, since he has deigned to enlighten it with one of the brightest rays of his Mother’s glory. How this earth of ours exulted! The present generation will never forget the enthusiasm with which the entire universe received the tidings of the Definition. It was an event of mysterious importance which thus marked this second half of our century; and we shall look forward to the future with renewed confidence; for if the Holy Ghost bids us tremble for the days when Truths are diminished among the children of men, (Psalm 11:2) he would, consequently, have us look on those times as blessed by God in which we receive an increase of truth; an increase both in light and in authority.

The Church, even before the solemn proclamation of the grand dogma, kept the Feast of this 8th day of December; which was, in reality, a profession of her faith. It is true, that the Feast was not called the Immaculate Conception, but simply the Conception of Mary. But the fact of such a Feast being instituted and kept, was an unmistakable expression of the faith of Christendom in that truth. Saint Bernard and the Angelical Doctor, Saint Thomas, both teach that the Church cannot celebrate the Feast of what is not holy; the Conception of Mary, therefore, was holy and immaculate, since the Church has, for ages past, honoured it with a special Feast. The Nativity of the same holy Virgin is kept as a solemnity in the Church, because Mary was born full of grace; therefore, had the first moment of Mary’s existence been one of sin, as is that of all the other children of Adam, it never could have been made the subject of the reverence of the Church. Now, there are few Feasts so generally and so firmly established in the Church as this which we are keeping today.

The Greek Church, which, more easily than the Latin, could learn what were the pious traditions of the East, kept this feast even in the sixth century, as is evident from the ceremonial or, as it was called, the Type, of Saint Sabas. In the West, we find it established in the Gothic Church of Spain as far back as the eighth century. A celebrated calendar which was engraved on marble, in the ninth century, for the use of the Church of Naples, attests that it had already been introduced there. Paul, the Deacon, Secretary to the Emperor Charlemagne, and afterwards Monk at Monte-Cassino, composed a celebrated Hymn on the mystery of the Immaculate Conception, given in manuscript copies of Monte-Cassino and Benevento. In 1066 the Feast was first established in England, in consequence of the pious Abbot Helsyn’s being miraculously preserved from shipwreck; and shortly after that, was made general through the whole Island by the zeal of the great Saint Anselm, Monk of the Order of Saint Benedict, and Archbishop of Canterbury. From England it passed into Normandy, and took root in France. We find it sanctioned in Germany, in a council held in 1049, at which Pope Saint Leo IX was present; in Navarre, 1090, at the Abbey of Irach; in Belgium, at Liege, in 1142. Thus did the Churches of the West testify their faith in this mystery, by accepting its Feast, which is the expression of faith.

Lastly, it was adopted by Rome herself, and her doing so rendered the united testimony of her children, the other Churches, more imposing than ever. It was Pope Sixtus IV who, in the year 1476, published the decree of the feast of Our Lady’s Conception for the City of Saint Peter. In the next century, 1568, Pope Saint Pius V published the universal edition of the Roman Breviary, and in its Calendar was inserted this feast as one of those Christian solemnities, which the faithful are every year bound to observe. It was not from Rome that the devotion of the Catholic world to this mystery received its first impulse; she sanctioned it by her liturgical authority, just as she confirmed it by her doctrinal authority, in these our own days.

The three great Catholic Nations of Europe – Germany, France, and Spain – vied with each other in their devotion to this mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. France, by her King Louis XIV, obtained from Pope Clement IX that this feast should be kept with an Octave throughout the kingdom; which favour was afterwards extended to the universal Church by Pope Innocent XII. For centuries previous to this the Theological Faculty of Paris had always exacted from its Professors the oath that they would defend this privilege of Mary, a pious practice which continued as long as the University itself.

As regards Germany, the Emperor Ferdinand III, in 1647, ordered a splendid monument to be erected in the great square of Vienna. It is covered with emblems and figures symbolical of Mary’s victory over sin, and on the top is the statue of the Immaculate Queen, with this solemn and truly Catholic inscription in Latin:


But the zeal of Spain for the privilege of the holy Mother of God surpassed that of all other nations. In the year 1398, John I, King of Arragon, issued a Chart in which he solemnly places his person and kingdom under the protection of Mary Immaculate. Later, Kings Philip III and Philip IV sent ambassadors to Rome, soliciting, in their names, the solemn definition, which heaven reserved, in its mercy, for our days. King Charles III in the last century, obtained permission from Pope Clement XIII that the Immaculate Conception should be the patronal feast of Spain. The people of Spain, so justly called the Catholic Kingdom, put over the door, or on the front of their houses, a tablet with the words of Mary’s privilege written on it; and when they meet, they greet each other with an expression in honour of the same dear mystery. It was a Spanish Nun, Mary of Jesus, Abbess of the Convent of the Immaculate Conception of Agreda, who wrote God’s Mystic City, which inspired Murillo with his Immaculate Conception, the master-piece of the Spanish School.

But, while thus mentioning the different nations which have been foremost in their zeal for this article of our holy faith, the Immaculate Conception, it were unjust to pass over the immense share which the Seraphic Order, the Order of Saint Francis of Assisi, has had in the earthly triumph of our Blessed Mother, the Queen of heaven and earth. As often as this feast comes round, is it not just that we should think with reverence and gratitude on him, who was the first theologian that showed how closely connected with the divine mystery of the Incarnation is this dogma of the Immaculate Conception? First, then, all honour to the name of the pious and learned John Duns Scotus! And when at length the great day of the Definition of the Immaculate Conception came, how justly merited was that grand audience, which the Vicar of Christ granted to the Franciscan Order, and with which closed the pageant of the glorious solemnity! Pope Pius IX received from the hands of the children of Saint Francis a tribute of homage and thankfulness, which the Scotist School, after having fought four hundred years in defense of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, now presented to the Pontiff.

In the presence of the 54 Cardinals, 52 Archbishops, and 92 Bishops; before an immense concourse of people that filled Saint Peter’s, and had united in prayer, begging the assistance of the Spirit of Truth; the Vicar of Christ had just pronounced the decision which so many ages had hoped to hear. The Pontiff had offered the Holy Sacrifice on the Confession of Saint Peter. He had crowned the Statue of the Immaculate Queen with a splendid diadem. Carried on his lofty throne, and wearing his triple crown, he had reached the portico of the basilica; there he is met by the two representatives of Saint Francis: they prostrate before the throne: the triumphal procession halts: and first, there advances the General of the Friars Minor Observantines; he presents to the Holy Father a branch of silver Lilies: he was followed by the General of the Conventual Friars, holding in his hand a branch of silver Roses. The Pope graciously accepted both. The Lilies and the Roses were symbolical of Mary’s purity and love; the whiteness of the silver was the emblem of the lovely brightness of that orb, on which is reflected the light of the Sun; for, as the Canticle says of Mary, “she is beautiful as the Moon.” (Canticle 6:9) The Pontiff was overcome with emotion at these gifts of the family of the Seraphic Patriarch, to which we might justly apply what was said of the Banner of the Maid of Orleans: “It had stood the brunt of the battle; it deserved to share in the glory of the victory.” And thus ended the glories of that grand morning of 8 December 1854.

It is thus, O humblest of creatures, that the Immaculate Conception has been glorified on earth! And how could it be else than a great joy to men, that you are honoured by them, you the aurora of the Sun of Justice? Do you not bring them the tidings of their salvation? Are not you, O Mary, that bright ray of hope, which suddenly bursts forth in the deep abyss of the world’s misery? What should we have been without Jesus? and you are his dearest Mother, the holiest of God’s creatures, the purest of virgins, and our own most loving Mother!

How your gentle light gladdens our wearied eyes, sweet Mother! Generation had followed generation on this earth of ours. Men looked up to heaven through their tears, hoping to see appear on the horizon the Star, which they had been told should disperse the gloomy horrors of the world’s darkness; but death came, and they sank into the tomb, without seeing even the dawn of the Light, for which alone they cared to live. It was for us that God had reserved the blessing of seeing thy lovely rising, O fair Morning Star which sheds your blessed rays on the sea, and brings calm after the long stormy night! Prepare our eyes that they may behold the divine Sun which will soon follow in your path, and give to the world his reign of light and day. Prepare our hearts, for it is to our hearts that this Jesus of yours wishes to show himself. To see him, our hearts must be pure; purify them, O Immaculate Mother! The divine wisdom has willed that of the feasts which the Church dedicates to you, this of your Immaculate Conception should be celebrated during Advent; that thus the children of the Church, reflecting on the jealous care wherewith God preserved you from every stain of sin, because you were to be the Mother of his divine Son, might prepare to receive this same Jesus by the most perfect renouncing of every sin and every attachment to sin. This great change must be made; and your prayers, O Mary, will help us to make it. Pray, we ask it of thee by the grace God gave you in your Immaculate Conception, that our covetousness may be destroyed, our concupiscence extinguished, and our pride turned into humility. Despise not our prayers, dear Mother of that Jesus who chose you for his dwelling-place, that he might afterwards find one in each of us.

O Mary, Ark of the Covenant, built of an incorruptible wood, and covered over with the purest gold, help us to correspond with those wonderful designs of our God, who, after having found his glory in your incomparable purity, wills now to seek his glory in our unworthiness, by making us, from being slaves of the devil, his temples and his abode, where he may find his delight. Help us to this, O you who by the mercy of your Son has never known sin; and receive this day our devoutest praise. You are the Ark of Salvation; the one creature unwrecked in the universal deluge; the white Fleece filled with the dew of heaven, while the earth around is parched; the Flame which the many waters could not quench; the Lily blooming amid thorns; the Garden shut against the infernal serpent; the Fountain sealed, whose limpid water was never ruffled; the House of the Lord, whereon his eyes were ever fixed, and into which nothing defiled could ever enter; the mystic City, of which such glorious things are said. (Psalm 86:3) We delight in telling all your glorious titles, O Mary, for you are our Mother, and we love you, and the Mother’s glory is the glory of her children. Cease not to bless and protect all them that honour your immense privilege, you who were conceived on this day! May this feast fit us for that mystery, for which your Conception, your Birth, and your Annunciation, are all preparations, the Birth of your Jesus in Bethlehem: yea, dear Mother, we desire your Jesus, give him to us and satisfy the longings of our love.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Advent, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870

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The Liturgical Year: Saint Ambrose, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

Saint Ambrose of Milan7 December

This illustrious Pontiff was deservedly placed in the Calendar of the Church side by side with the glorious Bishop of Myra. Nicholas confessed, at Nicaea, the divinity of the Redeemer; Ambrose, in his city of Milan, was the object of the hatred of the Arians, and, by his invincible courage, triumphed over the enemies of Christ. Let Ambrose, then, unite his voice, as Doctor of the Church, with that of Saint Peter Chrysologus, and preach to the world the glories and the humiliations of the Messias. But, as Doctor of the Church, he has a special claim to our veneration: it is, that among the bright luminaries of the Latin Church, four great Masters head the list of sacred Interpreters of the Faith; Gregory, Augustine, Jerome; and then our glorious Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, makes up the mystic number.

Ambrose owes his noble position in the Calendar to the ancient custom of the Church, whereby, in the early ages, no Saint’s feast was allowed to be kept in Lent. The day of his departure from this world and of his entrance into heaven was the fourth of April, which, more frequently than not, comes during Lent: so that it was requisite that the memory of his sacred death should be solemnised on some other day, and the seventh of December naturally presented itself for such a feast, inasmuch as it was the anniversary day of Ambrose’s being consecrated Bishop.

But, independently of these considerations, the road which leads us to Bethlehem could be perfumed by nothing so fragrant as by this feast of Saint Ambrose. Does not the thought of this saintly and amiable Bishop impress us with the image of dignity and sweetness combined? of the strength of the lion united with the gentleness of the dove? Time removes the deepest human impressions; but the memory of Ambrose is as vivid and dear in men’s minds as though he was still among us. Who can ever forget the young, yet staid and learned governor of Liguria and Emilia, who comes to Milan as a simple catechumen, and finds himself forced, by the acclamations of the people, to ascend the episcopal throne of this great city? And how indelibly impressed upon us are certain touching incidents of his early life! For instance, that beautiful presage of his irresistible eloquence, the swarm of bees coming round him as he was sleeping one day in his father’s garden, and entering into his mouth, as though they would tell us how sweet that babe’s words would be? and the prophetic gravity with which Ambrose, when quite a boy, would hold out his hand to his mother and sister, bidding them kiss it, for that one day it would be the hand of a Bishop!

But what hard work awaited the neophyte of Milan, who was no sooner regenerated in the waters of baptism, than he was consecrated Priest and Bishop! He had to apply himself, there and then, to a close study of the sacred Scriptures, that so he might prepare himself to become the defender of the Church, which was attacked, in the fundamental dogma of the Incarnation, by the false science of the Arians. In a short time he attained such proficiency in the sacred sciences, as to become, like the Prophet, a wall of brass, which checked the further progress of Arianism: not only so, but the works written by Ambrose possessed that plenitude and surety of doctrine, as to be numbered by the Church among the most faithful and authoritative interpretations of her teaching.

But Ambrose had other and fiercer contests than those of religious controversy to encounter in his very life was more than once threatened by the heretics whom he had silenced. What a sublime spectacle that of a Bishop blockaded in his church by the troops of the Empress Justina, and defended within by his people, day and night! Pastor and flock, both are admirable. How had Ambrose merited such fidelity and confidence on the part of this people? By a whole life spent for the welfare of his city and his country. He had never ceased to preach Jesus to all men; and now, the people see their Bishop become, by his zeal, his devotedness, and his selfsacrificing conduct, a living image of Jesus.

In the midst of these dangers which threatened his person, his great soul was calm and seemingly unconscious of the fury of his enemies. It was on that very occasion that he instituted, at Milan, the choral singing of the Psalms. Up to that time, the holy Canticles had been given from the Ambo by the single voice of a Lector; but Ambrose, shut up in his Basilica with his people, takes the opportunity, and forms two choirs, bidding them respond to each other the verses of the Psalms. The people forgot their trouble in the delight of this heavenly music; nay, the very howling of the tempest, and the fierceness of the siege they were sustaining, added enthusiasm to this first exercise of their new privilege. Such was the chivalrous origin of Alternate Psalmody in the Western Church. Rome adopted the practice, which Ambrose was the first to introduce, and which will continue to be observed to the end of time. During these hours of struggle with his enemies, the glorious Bishop has another gift wherewith to enrich the faithful people who are defending him at the risk of their own lives.

Ambrose is a poet, and he has frequently sung, in verses full of sweetness and sublimity, the greatness of the God of the Christians, and the mysteries of man’s salvation. He now gives to his devoted people these hymns, which he had only composed for his own private devotion. The Basilicas of Milan soon echoed these accents of the sublime soul which first uttered them. Later on, the whole Latin Church adopted them; and in honour of the holy Bishop who had thus opened one of the richest sources of the sacred Liturgy, a Hymn was, for a long time, called after his name, an Ambrosian. The Divine Office thus received a new mode of celebrating the divine praise, and the Church, the Spouse of Christ, possessed one means more of giving expression to the sentiments which animate her.

Thus our Hymns, and the alternate singing of the Psalms, are trophies of Ambrose’s victory. He had been raised up by God not for his own age only, but also for those which were to follow. Hence, the Holy Ghost infused into him the knowledge of Christian jurisprudence, that he might be the defender of the rights of the Church at a period when paganism still lived, though defeated; and imperialism, or cesarism, had still the instinct, though not the uncontrolled power, to exercise its tyranny. Ambrose’s law was the Gospel, and he would acknowledge no law which was in opposition to that. He could not understand such imperial policy as that of ordering a Basilica to be given up to the Arians, for quietness’ sake! He would defend the inheritance of the Church; and in that defence, would shed the last drop of his blood. Certain courtiers dared to accuse him of tyranny: “No,” answered the Saint, “Bishops are not tyrants, but have often to suffer from tyranny.” The eunuch Calligonus, high chamberlain of the Emperor Valentinian the Second had said to Ambrose: “What! you dare, in my presence, to care so little for Valentinian! I will cut off your head.” “I would it might be so,” answered Ambrose, “I should then die as a Bishop, and you would do what eunuchs do.”

This noble courage in the defence of the rights of the Church, showed itself even more clearly on another occasion. The Roman Senate, or rather that portion of the Senate, which, though a minority, was still Pagan, was instigated by Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, to ask the Emperor for the re-erection of the altar of Victory in the Capitol, under the pretext of averting the misfortunes which threatened the empire. Ambrose, who had said to these politicians, “I hate the Religion of the Neros,” vehemently opposed this last effort of idolatry. He presented most eloquent petitions toValentinian, in which he protested against an attempt, whose object was to bring a Christian Prince to recognise that false doctrines have rights, and which would, if permitted to be tried, rob Him, who is the one only Master of nations, of the victories which he had won. Valentinian yielded to these earnest remonstrances, which taught him “that a Christian Emperor can only honour one Altar, the Altar of Christ.” And when the Senators had to receive their answer, the prince told them that Rome was his mother, and he loved her; but that God was his Saviour, and he would obey Him.

If the Empire of Rome had not been irrevocably condemned by God to destruction, the influence which Saint Ambrose had over such well-intentioned princes as Valentinian would probably have saved it. The Saint’s maxim to the Rulers of the world was this, though it was not to be realised in any of them until new kingdoms should spring up out of the ruins of the Roman Empire, and those new kingdoms and peoples organised by the Christian Church: but Saint Ambrose could have no other, and he therefore taught the Emperors of those times, that “an Emperor’s grandest title is to be a Son of the Church. An Emperor is in the Church, he is not over her.”

It is beautiful to see the affectionate solicitude of Saint Ambrose for the young Emperor Gratian, at whose death he shed floods of tears. How tenderly, too, did he not love Theodosius, that model Christian prince, for whose sake God retarded the fall of the Empire, by the uninterrupted victory over all its enemies! On one occasion, indeed, this Son of the Church showed in himself the Pagan Caesar; but his holy father Ambrose, by a severity, which was inflexible because his affection for the culprit was great, brought him back to his duty and his God. “I loved,” says the holy Bishop, in the funeral oration which he preached over Theodosius, “I loved this Prince, who preferred correction to flattery. He stripped himself of his royal robes, and publicly wept in the Church for the sin he had committed, and into which he had been led by evil counsel. In sighs and tears he sought to be forgiven. He, an Emperor, did what common men would be ashamed to do, he did public penance; and for the rest of his life, he passed not a day without bewail- ing his sin.”

But we should have a very false idea of Saint Ambrose, if we thought that he only turned his attention to affairs of importance like these, which brought him before the notice of the world. No pastor could be more solicitous than he about the slightest details which affected the interests of his flock. We have his life written by his deacon, Paulinus, who knew secrets which intimacy alone can know, and these fortunately he has revealed to us. Among other things, he tells us that when Ambrose heard confessions, he shed so many tears that the sinner was forced to weep: “You would have thought,” says Paulinus, “that they were his own sins that he was listening to.” We all know the tender paternal interest he felt for Augustine, when he was a slave to error and his passions; and if we would have a faithful portrait of Ambrose, we must read in the Confessions of the Bishop of Hippo the fine passage where he expresses his admiration and gratitude for his spiritual father. Ambrose had told Monica, that her son Augustine, who gave her so much anxiety, would be converted. That happy day at last came; it was Ambrose’s hand which immersed into the cleansing waters of Baptism him who was to be the prince of the Doctors of the Church.

A heart thus loyal in its friendship, could not but be affectionate to those who were related by ties of blood. He tenderly loved his brother Satyrus, as we may see from the two funeral orations which he has left us upon this brother, wherein he speaks his praises with all the warmth of enthusiastic admiration. He had a sister, too, named Marcellina, who was equally dear to her saintly brother. From her earliest years, she had spurned the world and its pomps, and the position which she might expect to enjoy in it as being a Patrician’s daughter. She had received the veil of virginity from the hands of Pope Liberius, but lived in her father’s house at Rome. Her brother Ambrose was separated from her, but he seemed to love her the more for that; and he communicated with her in her holy retirement by frequent letters, several of which are still extant. She deserved all the esteem which Ambrose had for her; she had a great love for the Church of God, and she was heart and soul in all the great undertakings of her brother the Bishop. The very heading of these letters shows the affection of the Saint: “The Brother to the Sister;” or, “To my sister Marcellina, dearer to me than mine own eyes and life.” Then follows the letter, in a style of nerve and animation, well suited to the soul- stirring communications he had to make to her about his struggles. One of them was written in the midst of the storm, when the courageous Pontiff was besieged in his Basilica by Justina’s soldiers. His discourses to the people of Milan, his consolations and his trials, the heroic sentiments of his great soul, all is told in these despatches to his sister, and where every line shows how strong and holy was the attachment between Ambrose and Marcellina. The great Basilica of Milan still contains the tomb of the brother and sister: and over them both is daily offered the divine sacrifice.

Such was Ambrose, of whom Theodosius was one day heard to say: “There is but one Bishop in the world.” Let us glorify the Holy Spirit, who has vouchsafed to produce this sublime model in the Church, and let us beg of the holy Pontiff to obtain for us, by his prayers, a share in that lively faith and ardent love which he himself had, and which he evinces in those delicious and eloquent writings, which he has left us on the mystery of the Incarnation. During these days, which are preparing us for the Birth of our Incarnate Lord, Ambrose is one of our most powerful patrons.

His love towards the Blessed Mother of God teaches us what admiration and devotion we ought to have for Mary. Saint Ephrem and Saint Ambrose are the two Fathers of the fourth century, who are the most explicit upon the glories of the office and the person of the Mother of Jesus. To confine ourselves to Saint Ambrose, he has completely mastered this mystery, which he understood, and appreciated, and defined in his writings. Mary’s exemption from every stain of sin; Mary’s uniting herself, at the foot of the Cross, with her Divine Son for the salvation of the world; Jesus’ appearing, after his resurrection, to Mary first of all; on these and so many other points Saint Ambrose has spoken so clearly as to deserve to be considered as one of the most prominent witnesses of the primitive traditions respecting the privileges and dignity of the holy Mother of God.

This his devotion to Mary explains Saint Ambrose’s enthusiastic admiration for the holy state of Christian Virginity, of which he might justly be called the Doctor. He surpasses all the Fathers in the beautiful and eloquent manner in which he speaks of the dignity and happiness of Virginity. Four of his writings are devoted to the praises of this sublime state. The Pagans would fain have an imitation of it, by instituting seven Vestal Virgins, whom they loaded with honours and riches, and to whom they in due time restored liberty. Saint Ambrose shows how contemptible these were, compared with the innumerable Virgins of the Christian Church, who filled the whole world with the fragrance of their humility, constancy, and disinterestedness. But on this magnificent subject, his words were even more telling than his writings; and we learn from his contemporaries, that when he went to preach in any town, mothers would not allow their daughters to be present at his sermon, lest this irresistible panegyrist of the eternal nuptials with the Lamb, should convince them that that was the better part, and persuade them to make it the object of their desires.

But our partiality and devotion to the great Saint of Milan has made us exceed our usual limits: it is time to read the account of his virtues given lis by the Church.

Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, was the son of a Roman citizen, whose name was also Ambrose, and who held the office of Prefect of Cisalpine Gaul. It is related that when the saint was an infant, a swarm of bees rested on his lips; it was a presage of his future extraordinary eloquence. He received a liberal education at Rome, and not long after was appointed by the Prefect Probus to be Governor of Liguria and Emilia, whence, later on, he was sent, by order of the same Probus, to Milan, with power of Judge; for the people of that city were quarrelling among themselves about the successor of the Arian Bishop, Auxentius, who had died. Wherefore, Ambrose, having entered the Church that he might fulfill the duty that had been imposed on him, and quell the disturbance that had arisen, delivered an eloquent discourse on the advantages of peace and tranquillity in a State. Scarcely had he finished speaking than a boy exclaimed: Ambrose, Bishop! The whole multitude shouted: Ambrose, Bishop!

On his refusing to accede to their entreaties, the earnest request of the people was presented to the Emperor Valentinian, who was gratified that they whom he selected as Judges were thus sought after to be made Priests. It was also pleasing to the Prefect Probus, who, as though he foresaw the event, said to Ambrose on his setting out: Go, act not as Judge, but as Bishop. The desire of the people being thus seconded by the will of the Emperor, Ambrose was baptised (for he was only a catechumen), and was admitted to sacred Orders, ascending by all the degrees of Orders as prescribed by the Church; and on the eighth day, which was the seventh of the Ides of December (December 7th), he received the burden of the Episcopacy. Being made Bishop, he most strenuously defended the Catholic faith, and ecclesiastical discipline. He converted to the true faith many Arians, and other heretics, among whom was that brightest luminary of the Church, Saint Augustine, the spiritual child of Ambrose in Christ Jesus.

When the Emperor Gratian was killed by Maximus, he was twice deputed to go to this murderer, and insist on his doing penance for his crime; which he refusing to do, Ambrose refused to hold communion with him. The Emperor Theodosius having made himself guilty of the massacre at Thessalonica, was forbidden by the Saint to enter the church. On the Emperor’s excusing himself by saying that King David had also committed murder and adultery, Ambrose replied: You have imitated his sin, now imitate his repentance. Upon which, Theodosius humbly performed the public penance which the Bishop imposed upon him. The holy Bishop having thus gone through the greatest labours and solicitudes for God’s Church, and having written several admirable books, foretold the day of his death, before even he was taken with his last sickness. Honoratus, the Bishop of Vercelli, was thrice admonished by the voice of God to go to the dying Saint: he went, and administered to him the Sacred Body of our Lord. Ambrose having received it, and placing his hands in the form of the cross, prayed, and yielded his soul up to God, on the vigil of the Nones of April (April 4th), in the year of our Lord 397.

Let us salute this great Doctor in the words which the holy Church addresses to him in the Office of Vespers:

O most admirable Doctor, Light of the holy Church, Blessed Ambrose, lover of the divine law, pray for us to the Son of God.

The Ambrosian Liturgy is not so rich in its praises of Saint Ambrose as we might naturally expect it to be. Even the Preface of the Mass is so short and so wanting in any especial allusion to the Saint that we think it useless to insert it. We will content ourselves with giving two of the Responsaries of the Night Office, the Hymn, and the Collect, which strikes us as being the finest. With regard to the Hymn, it is well to mention that almost the whole of it is a modern composition, having been, like a great many other Hymns of the Ambrosian Breviary, subjected to very considerable corrections. The ancient Hymn began with the verse Miraculum laudabile; but is extremely poor both in sentiment and expression.


R: Upon whom shall I rest, says the Lord, but upon him that is humble and meek,
   Who trembles at my words?

V: I have found David my servant, and with my holy oil have I anointed him.
   Who trembles at my words?

R: This illustrious man was sent that he might destroy Arius: he was the glory of the Church, the ornament of Pontiffs;
   While wearing an earthly mitre, he gained that of heaven.

V: It was said to him as he set out: Go, act not as Judge, but as Bishop.
   While wearing an earthly mitre, he gained that of heaven.


• Let us all sing the praise of our august Father, who drove from the land the turbid storms of a tempestuous age.
• A babe, he sleeps; when lo! a swarm of bees light on his flowery lips; these honey makers thus telling us that here was one would captivate men by the sweetness of his eloquence.
• Prescient of the future, he must have his infant hand honoured with kisses; and he who had scarce been freed from swathing bands, plays with the fillets of a mitre.
• A boy cries out, and Milan would have Ambrose receive the mitre: Ambrose flees from it, but honours ever pursue them that run from them.
• At last, the sacred mitre crowns this head where wisdom sits: the helmet once on, our warrior gives Arius battle.
• Unflinching, he fears neither sceptres, nor a haughty empress; and when a blood stained Csesar attempts to enter the church, he closes the doors against him and repels him from the holy spot.
• He washes away the sins of Augustine in the heavenly laver of baptism: companion to the martyrs by his faith, he discovers the relics of Martyrs.
• Holy Pontiff, now with your scourge drive away far from us the furious wolf of hell: that flock which you once didst govern, let it for ever enjoy your protection.
• To God the Father, and to his Only Son, and to the Holy Paraclete, be glory now and for all ages.
• Amen.


O Almighty and everlasting God, who has given the Blessed Ambrose, the Confessor of your holy name, to be a Doctor of heavenly truth, not to this Church (of Milan) alone, but to all the Churches throughout the world: grant, that the doctrine he taught by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, may be ever firmly fixed in our hearts, and that he whom we tenderly love as the Patron you have given to us, may be to us a defender, powerful to obtain us your mercy. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Mozarabic Liturgy has nothing proper on Saint Ambrose. The Greeks, on the contrary, honour the memory of the great Bishop of Milan by Hymns replete with the most magnificent praises. We give a few of the most striking passages.

Hymn to Saint Ambrose

• You who did adorn with two-fold virtue the throne of the Prefecture, did meritoriously fill the throne of the hierarchy on which divine inspiration placed you: faithful steward, therefore, in both dignities, you have inherited a double crown.
• You did purify your soul and body by continency, and labours, and much watching, and intense prayer, O divinely wise one, O vessel of election of our God! you were like to the Apostles, you did receive, like them, the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
• As heretofore Nathan reproved David, so did you boldly chide the good Emperor after his sin, O most blessed Ambrose! You did wisely subject him to excommunication. and taught him to do contrite penance, restoring him to your fold.
• Holy Father, most saintly Ambrose, sweet sounding lute, refreshing melody of true dogmas, attracting the souls of believers, sweet harp of the Holy Spirit, organ of God, incomparable trumpet of the Church, most limpid fountain which cleanses the turbid passions! offer your prayers to Christ, and beseech him to bestow on his Church unanimity and peace and plentiful mercy.
• Following the examples of the Prophet Elias and of the Baptist, you did fearlessly reprove Kings for their evil doings; you did admirably adorn the throne of the hierarchy; you did enrich the world with the multitude of your miracles; and therefore you did strengthen the faithful and convert the unbelievers, by the nourishment of the divine Scriptures. O Ambrose! O holy Priest! pray to Christ our Lord that he grant the forgiveness of their sins to them that celebrate with love your holy memory.
• You, O Blessed Pastor, did defend your flock from all their enemies; and by the splendour of your teachings, did dissipate every error of Arius.
• The assembly of the priests rejoices in celebrating your holy memory, and the choirs of the faithful, united with the Angelic spirits, exult and are glad; the Church today is spiritually nourished by your words, O Father Ambrose!
• You are the husbandman who tills the field, which is open to all men of faith and doctrine; you there sow the dogmas of truth, for you are filled with heavenly wisdom; and the grain being multiplied, you distribute to the Church the heavenly bread of the Holy Spirit.
• Rome celebrates your glorious deeds, for, bright as a star, you shoot forth everywhere the great blaze of your miracles. O truly admirable Pontiff!
• From the earliest dawn you did approach to Christ, richly bright with his rays upon you: therefore, having reached the divine light, you enlighten them that, through the world, honour you with faith.
• You did consecrate your body and soul to God; and your heart, O Father, which was made for great gifts, you did fasten to his sweet love, and there it clung intensely.
• Intrusted with the talent of the Word, you did, as a wise and prudent servant, put it out to usury and multiply it and bring it and its interest to your Lord, O Ambrose!
• The holy robe of the pontiff you adorned with your labours; you were the wise shepherd on intellectual flock, and with your pastoral staff you led them before you into the pastures of doctrines.

– from the Menoea of the Greeks, 7 December

And we, too, O Immortal Ambrose, unworthy though we be to take a part in such a choir, we, too, will praise thee! We will praise the magnificent gifts which our Lord bestowed upon you. You are the Light of the Church and the Salt of the earth by your heavenly teachings; you are the vigilant Pastor, the affectionate Father, the unyielding Pontiff; oh! how must your heart have loved that Jesus, for whom we are now preparing! With what undaunted courage you did, at the risk of your life, resist them that blasphemed this Divine Word! Well indeed have you thereby merited to be made one of the Patrons of the faithful, to lead them, each year, to Him who is their Saviour and their King! Let, then, a ray of the truth, which filled your sublime soul while here on earth, penetrate even into our hearts; give us a relish of your sweet and eloquent writings; get us a sentiment of devoted love for the Jesus who is so soon to be wuth us. Obtain for us, after your example, to take up his cause with energy, against the enemies of our holy faith, against the spirits of darkness, and against ourselves. Let everything yield, let everything be annihilated, let every knee bow, let every heart confess itself conquered, in the presence of Jesus, the eternal Word of the Father, the Son of God, and the Son of Mary, our Redeemer, our Judge, our All.

Glorious Saint! humble us, as you did Theodosius; raise us up again contrite and converted, as you did lovingly raise up this your strayed sheep and carry him back to your fold. Pray, too, for the Catholic Hierarchy, of which you were one of the brightest ornaments. Ask of God, for the Priests and Bishops of his Church, that humble yet inflexible courage, wherewith they should resist the Powers of the world, as often as they abuse the authority which God has put into their hands. Let their face, as our Lord himself speaks, become hard as adamant against the enemies of the Church, and may they set themselves as a wall for the house of Israel; may they consider it as the highest privilege, and the greatest happiness, to be permitted to expose their property, and peace, and life, for the liberty of this holy Spouse of Christ.

Valiant champion of the Truth! arm yourself with your scourge, which the Church has given you as your emblem; and drive far from the flock of Christ the wolves of the Arian tribe, which, under various names, are even now prowling round the fold. Let our ears be no longer shocked with the blasphemies of these proud teachers, who presume to scan, judge, approve, and blame, by the measure of their vain conceits, the great God who has given them everything they are and have, and who, out of infinite love for his creatures, has deigned to humble himself and become one of ourselves, although knowing that men would make this very condescension an argument for denying that he is God.

Remove our prejudices, O you great lover of truth! and crush within us those time-serving and unwise theories, which tend to make us Christians forget that Jesus is the King of this world, and look on the law, which equally protects error and truth, as the perfection of modern systems. May we understand that the rights of the Son of God and his Church do not cease to exist, because the world ceases to acknowledge them; that to give the same protection to the true religion and to those false doctrines, which men have set up in opposition to the teaching of the Church, is to deny that all power has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth; that those scourges which periodically come upon the world are the lessons which Jesus gives to those who trample on the Rights of his Church, Rights which he so justly acquired by dying on the Cross for all mankind; that, finally, though it be out of our power to restore those Rights to people that have had the misfortune to resign them, yet it is our duty, under pain of being accomplices with those who would not have Jesus reign over them, to acknowledge that they are the Rights of the Church.

And lastly, dear Saint, in the midst of the dark clouds which lower over the world, console our holy Mother the Church, who is now but a stranger and pilgrim amid those nations which were her children, but have now denied her; may she cull the flowers of holy Virginity among the faithful, and may that holy state be the attraction of those fortunate souls who understand how grand is the dignity of being a Spouse of Christ. If, at the very commencement of her ministry, during the ages of persecution, the holy Church could lead countless Virgins to Jesus, may it be so even now in our own age of crime and sensuality; may those pure and generous hearts, formed and consecrated to the Lamb by this holy Mother, become more and more numerous; and so give to her enemies this irresistible proof that she is not barren, as they pretend, and that it is she that alone preserves the world from universal corruption, by leavening it with this angelic purity.

– from the book The Liturgical Year: Advent, by the Very Reverend Dom Prosper Gueranger, Abbot of Solesmes, translated from the French by the Revered Dom Laurence Shepherd, Monk of the English-Benedictine Congregation, 2nd edition; published in Dublin Ireland by James Duffy, 15 Wellington-Quay, 1870

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