Ancient and modern

Patriarch Kirill, Archbishop Ambrose and a lesson for Putin

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

26 March 2022

9:00 AM

Patriarch Kirill is Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus’ and Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church; and one of his flock is that committed Orthodox Christian Vladimir Putin. Kirill applauds Putin’s genocidal assault on Ukraine. Has he never heard of Archbishop Ambrose of Milan and his dealings with the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius?

It all began in ad 390, in the important Greek city of Thessalonica, when Butheric, the commanding general of the Roman field army and a friend of Theodosius, imprisoned a popular chariot-racer. The mob, determined to see him racing at the next games, demanded his release. Butheric refused. A major riot ensued, and since much of the army was on duty elsewhere, Butheric and other officers were murdered.

When the news reached Theodosius, he determined to avenge Butheric’s death. So he laid on a special emperor’s race-day, and invited the whole city. When they were inside the stadium, the doors were locked and the soldiers posted inside set about a massacre. Seven thousand were killed.

Alerted to this, Ambrose wrote to Theodosius, saying the enormity of the crime could be commuted only by penance, that he was excommunicated and could not approach the altar to pray or take communion. So when Theodosius came to Milan cathedral to do his normal devotions, Ambrose turned him back, with the words: ‘Your coming is the coming of a tyrant. You are raging against God; you are trampling on his laws.’ Terrified of eternal damnation, the mighty emperor of great Rome did public penance in the middle of the cathedral and, stripped of his diadem and imperial purple, grovelling in the dust, tore at his hair, beat his head and wept.

After eight months of penance, he was restored to communion and, not long after that, outlawed all pagan practices across the empire. Ambrose had won the day.

Such is the famous story. The details of its veracity are much debated. But Patriarch Kirill must know it; and if he is too much of a coward to live up to it, one might wonder who also needs excommunication.

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