St. Ambrose, who was bishop of Milan in 387 AD, gets credit for the saying. He was responding to a question from St. Augustine. Augustine’s mother Monica, who had travelled from Rome, noticed that Christians in Milan didn’t fast on Saturday, as was the custom in Rome. She was unsure what to do. Augustine asked Ambrose for advice.
Ambrose responded, “When I am in Rome, I fast on Saturday. When I am in Milan, I do not.” He went on to advise Augustine, “observe the custom prevailing in whatever church you come to, if you desire neither to give offence by your conduct, nor to find cause of offence in others.” Over time, Ambrose’s response became abbreviated to the saying with which we’re familiar.
Augustine recalled Ambrose’s advice years later when responding to questions of a similar nature from a man named Januarius. In a letter to Januarius, Augustine wrote that the refusal to follow local customs (barring real harm to one’s soul) conveyed a lack of humility and a sense of superiority. His advice for individuals was to observe the customs of local churches.
I had no idea of the history of the saying when it popped into my head while attending a funeral in a Catholic church. Some of the family members of the deceased, in full view of the congregation, refused, shall we say, to do as the Romans were doing. When the priest said it was customary for the congregation to stand or kneel, they remained steadfastly seated.
At the reception following the funeral, people were warm and caring towards the family. The community’s warmth for the family was an act of love for the deceased, who had been a member of the church community her entire life.
Nevertheless, there was some dismay. The family members who remained sitting had offended some. Their disregard for traditional postures and the refusal to participate in them was an affront to some people’s sense of the sacred. This particular church community was not asking that they share beliefs, only that they demonstrate respect for its customs.
These individuals may not have intended to cause offence or convey a sense of the superiority of their belief system. However, their actions spoke otherwise.
Although Augustine’s context differed from the one to which I refer, the wisdom of ‘when in Rome’ remains good advice for fostering cordial relations in both the religious and secular spheres. Not only does it eliminate cause for offence, it can open eyes to the diversity of belief and practice that informs the lives of others. It can increase tolerance and acceptance for that which is “other,” and which those involved sometimes find threatening.
When it comes to religious celebrations, to do as the Romans is an acknowledgment that there are many ways to seek and encounter the sacred.
Adopting the traditional postures of another group doesn’t detract from one’s own beliefs. It’s a sign of humility and respect for the people and place in which you find yourself.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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