Today is the Feast of St. Charles Borromeo. I have fond personal feelings for this saint, not necessarily because of his life (which was significant) but because of a wonderful prayer experience I had at St. Charles Borromeo parish in Harlem, New York this past Spring. It was only after this experience did I learn of the tragedies that the parish suffered over the past decade. It many ways it was a microcosm of both the corruption of the Church and how it can be transformed by a committed group of faithful parishioners. The life of St. Charles Borromeo and his efforts to reform the Church is an excellent model for the Church.
Chalres Borromeo was the cardinal archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584. Borromeo was among the great reformers of the Church in the troubled sixteenth century. He was responsible for establishing many seminaries and increasing the level of education for priests. He was also a key figure at the Council of Trent.
Charles Borromeo was born in 1538 the son of Giberto II Borromeo, Count of Arona, and Margherita de Medici, in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, in the north of Italy. Through his mother he was related to the famous Medici family. He was educated at Milan and Pavia. He had a speech impediment but was able to overcome it through his was both intelligence, work ethic and religious devotion.
At the age of 22 he received a doctorate by which time his uncle, Cardinal Angelo de Medici had become Pope Pius IV. Ecclesiastical honours were now heaped on the nephew, including ambassadorships, protectorates, the administration of the diocese of Milan and an appointment as cardinal, which made Charles in effect Secretary of State for the Papal States. He was responsible for the administration of the Romagna and the March of Ancona as well as supervision of the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Knights of Malta. He was thus at the age of 22, practically the leading statesman of the papal court. In compliance with the pope’s desire, he lived in great splendour.
As all this required his presence in Rome, the government of the Milan diocese was delegated to deputies. Nevertheless, he was anxious to leave the luxury of the papal court and even become a monk. He was persuaded, however, to remain in his present position and to move back to his diocese as soon as it was feasible.
He strongly supported his uncle, the pope, in re-opening the Council of Trent for its final session. The council’s continuance and conclusion were largely due to Charles’ energy and diplomacy. Many important doctrinal and disciplinary decrees were passed at this session; Charles was particularly prominent in the drafting of the official Catechism. He was also responsible for the reform of the liturgical texts and church music, in which he was a patron of the composer Palestrina.
It was only in 1564, at the age of 26, that he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop. As papal legate for all Italy, he held a provincial council at Milan, which promulgated the Tridentine decrees.
In the following year, 1565, he was called to the deathbed of his uncle, the pope, and obtained from his successor, Pius V, permission to live in his diocese of Milan. In the following year, he began its reform. He was the first resident bishop there for 80 years.
Charles began by personally adopting a very simple style of life and gave much of his considerable revenue away to the poor. He held councils, synods, reformed the administration and made regular visits to parishes. In order to deal with the serious question of clergy formation, he founded seminaries, which were copied in many other parts of the Church. He also was concerned with the moral reform of those already priests and set up a confraternity to teach Christian doctrine to children in Sunday schools. He was helped in all of this by religious orders, including the Jesuits (established in 1540) and the Barnabites (founded by St Antony Mary Zacaria).
He was generous in helping the English College at Douai and his personal confessor was Dr Griffith Roberts, a Welshman. He had a devotion to the English martyred bishop, John Fisher, whose picture he kept by him. He himself was active in visiting even remote areas of his diocese, removing ignorant or unworthy priests, preaching and catechising at every opportunity.
His reforms were vigorously resisted by some. He came into conflict with civil authorities and there was even an attempt by a disgruntled friar to assassinate him in 1569.
In 1570 and again in 1576 he came to the aid of his city, in one case feeding people during a time of famine and later in providing nursing care for victims of plague. During the plague, he personally went about giving directions for nursing the sick and burying the dead, avoiding no personal danger and sparing no expense. He visited all the parishes where the contagion raged, distributing money, providing accommodation for the sick, and punishing those, especially clergy, who were remiss in carrying out their duties.
In 1580 he was visited at Milan by a group of young English Catholics returning to their country. They included Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion, future martyrs. In 1583 Charles was sent by Rome to Switzerland to deal with superstitious practices and also with the heresies of Calvin and Zwingli.
Constantly on the move, he was already worn out by the age of 46. He died in Milan on the night of November 3, 1584 and was buried in his cathedral. His sanctity was immediately recognized and he was canonized in 1610, just 26 years after his death.
He is best remembered for the reform and education of the clergy and in the work of catechesis. Above all, in contrast to so many of his peers, he gave an outstanding example of a zealous and reforming pastor in a very important diocese at a time when such renewal was much needed.
St. Charles Borromeo is the patron saint of catechists, catechumens and seminarians.