What makes a priest fruitful? Some may say, “Great preaching” or “advanced degrees” or “hard work.” Even among priests, the answer varies from generation to generation.
While some of this variation is healthy and good, often what is identified and praised as fruitful ministry revolves around unique gifts or certain charisms particular to an individual. And while each priest has his own gifts and talents that may contribute to his fruitfulness, in the end, the vitality of his vocation rests on something much less flashy, something much deeper, and, some might say, on something much more boring: Faithfulness. Fidelity is the wellspring of fruitfulness. Like a husband and father, the priest’s choice to daily fulfill his responsibilities bears greater fruit than any “schtick.”
Fidelity marked the life of St. Ambrose, whose feast day we consider today. In The Confessions, St. Augustine reflects upon his encounters with St. Ambrose. Not once does Augustine describe Ambrose doing anything more than what all priests are called upon to do in their vocation. In other words, Ambrose was simply living out his call to be a Father. The influence of Ambrose on Augustine comes down to his faithfulness in his vocation.
Augustine often spoke of St. Ambrose’s sermons. While it is true that, at first, Augustine was not interested in the truth of the sermons, Ambrose’s reasonable and prepared style did keep his attention. It is worth noting that Augustine himself comments that Ambrose’s sermons were both “less lively and entertaining” than others; they were not the best, but good nonetheless. This is good news for us priests. The effectiveness of St. Ambrose’s homilies were not found in the art of telling a story, using props, or any other oratory skill. Instead, the prayerful preparation of thought and clarity of reasoning helped the Scriptures come to life and make sense to Augustine. This is something within the reach of every priest. After all, the Second Vatican Council describes the priest’s tasks in this order: preaching and teaching, celebrating sacraments and pastoring.
The second important experience of Augustine was seeing Ambrose study. On one occasion he recalls watching Ambrose read in his chair, first out loud, and then in silence, contemplating the meaning of the texts he had just read. The description of this scene is so vivid that any reader of The Confessions can tell the lasting impression this left on the young Augustine. And yet, once again, this is not a supernatural scene of levitation from some saint’s biography. He’s not casting out demons or reading souls—all of which is real and powerful. But here, instead, Augustine saw an ordained man spending his free time working through and absorbing the wisdom of the Scriptures and the thinkers of his day. Ambrose was simply faithful to the task entrusted to every cleric: ongoing formation.
Finally, the third quality of St. Ambrose was his kindness. St. Augustine notes that he had affection for Ambrose not because of his brilliance or holiness, but because “he was kindly disposed towards me.” My pastor likes to say, “Kindness goes a long way, kid.” When one is looked upon and regarded in kindness, he or she knows, if only inchoately, “I matter. I am seen. I am valued.” Again, there’s nothing extraordinary or supernatural about kindness, and yet, this is what, above all else, drew Augustine into the intimacy of Jesus. For St. John Paul II, every priest’s personality should be “a bridge and not an obstacle” to others encountering Christ. St. Ambrose certainly embodied John Paul’s dream and was precisely the vehicle of Christ in Augustine’s life.
In the age of New Evangelization, where creativity and new methods are persistently sought, I find the effectiveness of St. Ambrose’s fidelity to the demands of his vocation – simple and clear preaching, study, and kindness – to be surprising, refreshing and encouraging. But then again, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that it was the faithfulness of Ambrose that made him so fruitful. After all, it is on the Cross that Jesus reveals the heart of every vocation as a love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful.
To download a PDF version of this homily, click here: St. Ambrose
Fr. Ryan Mann was ordained in 2014 for the Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio. He currently serves at St. Charles Borromeo parish as a parochial vicar. He has attended several TOBI courses, has been the chaplain for a few, as well, and has been a part of the creation of curriculum for the Clergy Enrichment Program.