Bishop Barron Muses on the Teeth of St. Ambrose

Bishop Barron Muses on the Teeth of St. Ambrose August 4, 2017

Sez he:

I write these words from Milan, Italy, where I am with my Word on Fire team filming new episodes for our Pivotal Players series. I’ve seen lots of marvelous things on this trip, including the ruins of the ancient baptistery under the Milan Cathedral where, in the spring of 387, St. Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose. But the most fascinating sight I’ve taken in is the vested and mitered skeleton of that same Ambrose, which rests in the basilica that bears his name, not far from the Cathedral.

Behind a grille, just under the main altar, lie the skeletal remains of Ambrose and two martyr saints, Gervasius and Protasius, whose bodies were recovered during his lifetime. With the aid of some pretty high-powered camera lenses, I was able to see the skull of the great bishop of Milan in extraordinary detail. What struck me especially was the size and solidity of his teeth, still formidable after 1,600 years. I’ll confess that when I examined those ancient teeth, I couldn’t help but think of the lips that once covered them, for Augustine, in his Confessions, famously reported his amazement at seeing Ambrose read without moving his lips—something quite unusual at the time.

However, after I posted detailed photos of Ambrose’s skull on our Facebook page, the reaction has been rather…interesting. Many, many people expressed their pleasure and excitement at seeing the pictures, but many others, I must say, were a bit put off. From a number of strongly Protestant and evangelical commentators came the charge that I was encouraging the worship of dead bodies! Well, that’s just silly. This has, of course, nothing to do with worshipping Ambrose but rather honoring him. But most of those, both Protestant and Catholic, who had objections to the pictures said something along these lines: “Well, it’s just kind of creepy, isn’t it?” and “Why don’t they just bury the poor man?” or “Isn’t this frightening to children?”

I gotta say as a convert, nothing makes clearer the idea of conversion to the Faith as moving to another country like the veneration of relics.  Nowhere does the sheer squeamishness of Protestantism over the physicality and sacramentality of the faith gain a more sympathetic hearing than here.

I remember being down at EWTN some 20 years ago and sitting in the chapel before Mass.  A young woman I had met the night before at dinner came in and sat down next to me, all excited.  “Look what I got!” she said with verve and handed me a little box.  I didn’t know what I was looking at until the label on it make clear: I was holding a piece of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.

It made me feel things I am not accustomed to feeling, none of them good.

Yes, I get the theology and yes, I realize the defect is in me, not in the theology or practice of venerating relics.  But that doesn’t mean there is anything easy about getting used to it.  So bear with your non-Catholic neighbor if he responds to it with the definite sense of ookiness.

Being Catholic is weird.

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