Our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation has its curia or headquarters at what was the ancestral property of the great Bishop and Doctor of the Church, Saint Ambrose of Milan, as he is usually called, who lived from 340 -397. His officially name was “Ambrosius Aurelianus,” indicating the connection of his family with the great Aurelia family of the Roman Empire. Ambrose’s father’s name was Aurelius and he was the Roman Prefect of Gaul, modern-day France.
While Aurelius was stationed in Trier, modern Germany, his third and last child, Ambrose, was born. After the death of Aurelius, the mother and three children, a daughter and two sons, returned to Rome and to their family property. There Ambrose’s mother died and the eldest child, Marcellina, was entrusted with raising her two younger brothers, Satyrus and Ambrose.
Where we now live is the site where Ambrose, Marcellina and Satyrus grew up and where Marcellina had a community of like-minded sisters, beginning at Christmas in the year 353. That date constitutes the property as the earliest place in Rome specifically dedicated to what eventually came to be called religious or monastic life.
While his sister Marcellina lived in Rome as a consecrated religious, Ambrose moved on to become a priest and later bishop of Milan and the one who baptized another great Doctor of the Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo. The site where the baptism took place in Milan can be seen from a Metro (subway) station below the streets of Milan. As for Satyrus, brother of Ambrose and Marcellina, we really know next to nothing and can only speculate.
I mention all of this to introduce the feast day of Saint Ambrose, observed by Catholics each year on December 7th. In the liturgical calendar of the Church the day is kept as a memorial; that is, Saint Ambrose is remembered at Mass and white vestments are worn. For the people of the Church in Milan and for the monks who live at Sant’Ambrogio is Rome, December 7th is kept as a Solemnity, a day of greater festivity, with the Gloria and Creed recited or sung at Mass, incense often used, a special Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) and a day of rejoicing in recounting the memory of Saint Ambrose.
Celebrating the solemnity of Saint Ambrose on December 7th each year, the monks at Sant’Ambrogio in Rome normally begin with First Vespers being prayed on the evening of December 6th. Some weeks before, we sent out invitations to various friends, monks, other clergy and laity in the city of Rome to join us for the celebration of First Vespers in our church dedicated to Saint Ambrose.
I hope all these liturgical details are not too complicated to follow. For those of us who closely keep the Church’s liturgical calendar throughout the year, it is all pretty straight forward, but to those less familiar with the process, it may be downright difficult to grasp the whole picture.
In any case, at 6:15 pm, or as Romans would call it, 18.15, of December 6th last year, we monks chanted Vespers in the small church of Saint Ambrose next to our curia. It was the church of the nuns who lived here for many centuries, until the early 1800s, when Napoleon drove out religious from Rome. Monks of our Congregation have been here since 1861.
Joining us for the praying of Vespers on December 6th were eighty or so friends, including monks of many different Benedictine Congregations, some coming from Sant’Anselmo here in Rome, as well as several Generalates or curias, like our own, who have headquarters in the Eternal City.
Nearly all the monks who came were seated in the choir we had arranged from the pews that are normally in the church. The singing went very well, I am happy to report. The strong voices of the young monks who joined us really helped! Some of the Office of Vespers was in Latin, some in Italian, but all of it sung, accompanied with the organ played by a monk of Montecassino. Our Abbot President Guillermo Arboleda Tamayo presided at First Vespers in a cope and I, as the newly appointed Rector of the Church of Sant’Ambrogio here, a Vatican appointment, sat next to the Abbot President.
Along with the monks present, we were also joined by Benedictine nuns, sisters of various Orders, also seminarians of the Greek Catholic Church in Rome, and several dozen laity. After Vespers, which lasted about forty minutes, we had a buffet supper for all in our refectory, just a few steps away from the church of Sant’Ambrogio.
As a newspaper in a tiny rural town in Oregon near where I grew up always liked to describe such events, “a good time was had by all.” The food for our buffet was prepared by our cook and some of it came from a catering service. We are not used to serving a hundred people at Sant’Ambrogio, so the added help was much appreciated. We served pasta salads, sandwiches, meat, chips, and various drinks and desserts.
The buffet was arranged on tables in the middle of our large refectory, which was once the chapter room of the Benedictine nuns who once occupied Sant’Ambrogio, and there were chairs against the walls. Italians like to eat at buffets standing up. This is somewhat odd, perhaps, to Americans and others, but it can it be done, though I confess to having sought a chair and ate sitting down.
All the guests seem to have been gone by about 7:30, which was a nice and early ending for us and we prayed Compline in private that night.
The next morning, December 7th, the actual Solemnity of Saint Ambrose, our auxiliary bishop, Gianrico Ruzza, along with our local pastor, Father David Carbonara, OMD, came to celebrate Holy Mass with us at 7:20 am in our little house chapel on the second floor, at Sant’Ambrogio. It was a memorable event and Bishop Gianrico preached about our somewhat “place apart” in the city of Rome, but an important presence nonetheless of prayer and work for our Subiaco Cassinese Congregation and for the wider church as well.
I should mention that, because the city of Rome is so immense, there are several auxiliary bishops who work in the Archdiocese of Rome, responsible for the faithful in different parts of the city. Bishop Gianrico Ruzzo has the “centro storico” as it is called, the historic center of Rome, of which we are part. Bishop Ruzzo is fairly young (54 years old) and a very dynamic shepherd for promoting the life of the Church in this somewhat hectic, tourist-driven quarter of Rome.
Undoubtedly the city of Rome has changed much since the days of Saint Ambrose and his family who lived here so many centuries ago. On the other hand, people today, as then, carry out their daily lives under God’s watchful care and presumably will go on doing so for the foreseeable future. Saints Ambrose, Marcellina and Satyrus, pray for us!