Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop, Cardinal

Author: Lives of Saints


Feast: November 4

Among the great reformers of the troubled sixteenth century was Charles Borromeo, who, with St. Francis of Loyola, St. Philip Neri, and others, led the movement to combat the inroads of the Protestant Reformation. His father, Count Gilbert Borromeo, was a man of piety and ability, and his mother was a member of the famous Medici family of Milan, sister of Angelo de Medici, later to become Pope Pius IV. The second of two sons in a family of six children, Charles was born in the castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore, on October 2, 1538. He was so devout that at the age of twelve he received the tonsure. At this time his paternal uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, turned over to him the income from a rich Benedictine abbey, one of the ancient perquisites of this noble family. In spite of his youth, Charles had a sense of responsibility, and he made plain to his father that all revenues from the abbey beyond what was required to prepare him for a career in the Church belonged to the poor and could not be applied to secular use. To take such a scrupulous stand in a period of corruption and decadence was unusual, and most significant as an indication of Charles' integrity of character.

The young man attended the University of Pavia, where he applied himself to the study of civil and canon law. Due to a slight impediment of speech, he was regarded as slow; yet his thoroughness and industry more than compensated for the handicap, and his strict behavior made him a model for his fellow students, who, in this era of the Renaissance, were for the most part pleasure-loving and dissipated. Charles now accepted a sufficient income from the abbey to meet the expenses of the kind of household a young nobleman was expected to maintain. By the time he took his doctor's degree at twenty-two his parents were dead and his elder brother, Frederick, was head of the family. Charles had no sooner returned home than the news came that his uncle, Cardinal Angelo de Medici, had been elected Pope Pius IV. A few months later the new Pope sent for his nephew to come to Rome, and within a very short time Charles was the recipient of such a wealth of honors, offices, and powers that he became a leading figure at the papal court. He was appointed cardinal-deacon and administrator of the see of Milan, although he was not to take up his work there for many years; he was named legate of Bologna, Romagna, and the March of Ancona; protector of Portugal, the Low Countries, and the Catholic cantons of Switzerland; supervisor of the Franciscan and Carmelite Orders, and of the Knights of Malta, and administrator of the papal states. The Pope's confidence in him was not misplaced, for Charles displayed great energy, ability, and diplomacy in fulfilling these various duties. Methodical and diligent, he learned how to despatch business affairs with speed and efficiency.

Yet in spite of his heavy tasks, Charles found time for recreation in music and physical exercise. He had the many-sidedness which we associate with men of the Renaissance, and was deeply interested in the advancement of learning. He set up at the Vatican a literary academy of clergy and laymen, and some of the studies and talks growing out of it were published as <Noctes Vaticanae>, to which Charles himself was a contributor. It was the custom for one in his position to live in magnificent state, but splendid trappings meant nothing to him. He remained modest and humble in spirit, and wholly aloof from the worldly temptations of Rome.

When the Venerable Bartholomew de Martyribus, archbishop of Braga, came to Rome, Charles consulted him as to his future. "You know what it is," he is recorded as saying, "to be the nephew of a pope, and a beloved nephew; nor are you ignorant of what it is to live at the court of Rome. The dangers are infinite. What ought I to do, young as I am, and without experience? God has given me ardor for penance, and an earnest desire to prefer Him to all things; and I have some thought of going into a monastery, to live as if there were only God and myself in the world." The prelate advised Charles to stay on at Rome, where he was so greatly needed. This proved to be excellent counsel, for an even greater opportunity for service to the Church was to come to the young man.

The Pope, soon after his election, announced the reassembling of the Council of Trent, which had been suspended ten years earlier, in 1552. Charles now devoted himself to plans for the resumption of deliberations, and was in attendance during the two years that the Council continued in session at Trent (Italian, Trento), a city of northern Italy. Its purpose was to conclude the work of formulating and codifying Church doctrine and to bring about a genuine reform of abuses. It defined original sin, decreed the perpetuity of the marital tie, pronounced anathema against those who rejected the invocation of saints or the veneration of relics, or who denied the existence of Purgatory or the validity of indulgences. It also dealt with episcopal jurisdiction, the education of seminarists, and discipline for the clergy. Some of the points proved so controversial that several times the Council almost broke up with its labors unfinished. Charles is credited with helping to heal the rifts and spurring the prelates and theologians on to the conclusion of their historic task. He is also conceded to have had a large share in drawing up the Tridentine Catechism. His training in diplomacy at the papal court had served him well.

In this flowering time of all the arts, Church music showed remarkable development. Among Charles' duties was the commissioning of composers to write liturgical music. The renowned Palestrina, later to become Vatican choir master, composed at this time the glorious Mass called "Papae Marcelli," and other choral works that set a new standard for polyphonic music.

While the Council of Trent was in session, Charles' elder brother died, and as head of the family Charles became proprietor of extensive land holdings. Since he was only in minor orders, people thought that he would now marry, but Charles remained true to the course he had marked out for himself. Yielding his family position to his Uncle Julius, he entered the priesthood in September, 1563. Three months later he became bishop of Milan, as well as cardinal-priest, with the title of St. Prassede. For a long time Charles had been concerned over the see of Milan, to which, years before, he had been appointed administrator. Catholics were falling away from the Church, chiefly because there had been no resident bishop at Milan for eighty years. The new bishop was welcomed with joy and he set to work vigorously to reform this important diocese. Soon he was called back to Rome to assist the Pope on his deathbed, at which Philip Neri, another future saint, was also present. The new Pope, Pius V, who was to follow in the noble tradition of his predecessor, urged Charles to remain with him for a time. Soon, however, with the Pope's blessing, he returned to Milan.

Charles now concentrated his great abilities on the establishment of schools, seminaries, and convents. But more important than the improvement of the physical structures through which the Church must carry on its work was the need for reform of the priestly function itself. Throughout the region religious practices were profaned by grave abuses; the Sacrament was neglected, for many priests were both lazy and ignorant; the monasteries were relaxed in discipline and full of disorders. These widespread faults had been engendered in part by the decay of medieval society and in part by the revival of the ideas of pagan antiquity. By remonstrance and exhortation Charles worked to raise the level of spiritual life, and to put into effect the ecclesiastical changes indicated by the Council of Trent. He founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, with its Sunday Schools for the teaching of the Catechism to children. Historically these were the first Sunday Schools, and are. said to have numbered 740. He instituted a secular fraternity whose members, called the Oblates of St. Ambrose, pledged obedience to their bishop and were used by him in religious work in any manner he thought wise. The bishop's income from his family estates was considerable, and nearly all of it was turned over to an almoner for the relief of the poor; plate and other valuables were sold for the same purpose. In conformity with the decrees of the Council of Trent, the cathedral of Milan was cleared of its gorgeous tombs, banners, and arms. In his zeal for reform Charles came into conflict with the governor of the province and the senate, who feared the Church was encroaching upon the civil jurisdiction. The opposition to Charles and the complaints against him were carried to King Philip II of Spain, who had sovereignty over this part of Italy, and to the Pope; in the end Charles was completely exonerated. His days were filled with duties and cares; at night he would take off his bishop's robes, don a tattered old cassock, and pass the evening in study and prayer. He lived as simply as it was possible to do. One cold night when someone wanted to have his bed warmed, he said, "The best way not to find a bed cold is to go to bed colder than the bed is." However, he did not allow his rigorous self-discipline to weaken him for the work he had to do.

The almost inaccessible Alpine valleys lying in the northern part of his diocese had been virtually abandoned by the clergy. The bishop did not hesitate to undertake journeys to these remote valleys and mountain tops. He discussed theology with peasants and taught the Catechism to herdboys. Everywhere he preached and effected reforms, replacing unworthy priests by those who were zealous to restore the faith. In 1576 he successfully met another challenge. There was famine at Milan due to crop failures, and later came an outbreak of the plague. The city's trade fell off, and along with it the people's source of income. The governor and many members of the nobility fled the city, but the bishop remained, to organize the care of those who were stricken and to minister to the dying. He called together the superiors of all the religious communities in the diocese, and won their cooperation. He used up his own funds and went into debt to provide food for the hungry. Finally he wrote to the governor, and shamed him into coming back to his post.

The bishop's reforms were opposed by the Humiliati (Brothers of Humility), a decayed penitential order which, although reduced to about 170 members, owned some ninety monasteries. Three of its priors hatched a plot to assassinate Charles, and he was actually fired upon while at evening prayers with his household. Charles refused to have the would-be assassin sought out and punished. The Humiliati at length submitted to the reform of their order.

Many English Catholics had fled to Italy at this time because of the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth. The bishop had a Welshman, Dr. Griffith Roberts, as canon theologian, and an Englishman, Thomas Goldwell, as vicar-general. He carried about on his person a little picture of St. John Fisher, who, with St. Thomas More, had been martyred for the faith during the reign of Henry VIII.

Travels in his diocese, especially in the difficult Alpine country, had weakened the bishop's constitution. In 1584, during his annual retreat at Monte Varallo, he was stricken with ague, and on returning to Milan grew rapidly worse. After receiving the Last Sacraments, the beloved bishop died quietly on November 4, at the age of forty-six. Canonization followed in 1610. St. Charles Borromeo's sermons were published at Milan in the eighteenth century and have been widely translated. Two years after his death the Borromean League was formed in the Catholic cantons of Switzerland, for the expulsion of heretics. Contrary to his wishes, a memorial was erected in the Milan cathedral, where his body now rests, and at Arona, his birthplace, stands an impressive statue in his honor. For his piety, energy, and effectiveness this eminent churchman soon became known as a "second Ambrose." He is the patron of Lombardy; his emblems are the Holy Communion and a coat of arms bearing the word Humilitas.

Saint Charles Borromeo, Archbishop, Cardinal. Celebration of Feast Day is November 4.

Taken from "Lives of Saints", Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.