National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Moments in Time
Issue Date:  March 12, 2004

The irreverence of St. Ambrose of Milan

By Gary Macy

In recent documents on liturgical practice, the hierarchy is quick to point out the reverence due to all facets of church ritual. In 1980, for instance, the magisterium insisted “Particular respect and care are due to the sacred vessels, both the chalice and paten for the celebration of the Eucharist, and the ciboria for the Communion of the faithful.” They might be surprised to find out that St. Ambrose of Milan was once accused of precisely the irreverence suggested here. What did he do? He melted down the patens and chalices, turning them into coins. He explains his action in his treatise, On the Duties of the Clergy, “So I once brought hatred on myself because I broke up the sacred vessels to redeem captives.”

You see his offense was that he used the gold from the altar to rescue people taken prisoner after the battle of Adrianople where the barbarian tribes defeated the Roman army. Ambrose goes on to describe what he understands as true reverence for the altar vessels: “Would not the Lord himself say, ‘Why did you allow so many needy to die of hunger? Surely you have gold. You should have given them food and sustenance. Why are so many captives brought to the slave market and why are so many unredeemed left to be killed by the enemy? It would be better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.’ ”

Maybe the laity touching the chalice is not the worst form of sacrilege after all.

Gary Macy is a professor of theology at the University of San Diego. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2004

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