Saint Charles Borromeo
by Catherine Fournier
Father of the Clergy
Feast Day: November 4
Patron of: bishops, catechists, catechumens, seminarians
Symbol: portrayed distributing communion, or as a bishop or cardinal wearing a rope noose around his neck, often in public
Your parish priest is a very special and important man in your parish. Imagine what it would be like if you had no parish priest. Who would say Mass, or baptise the babies, or visit the schools to teach children about the Catholic faith? With so much to do, and so many people depending on them, parish priests have a very important and demanding vocation. We should pray everyday for our priests.
Saint Charles Borromeo knew how important being a priest was to all the people, and he loved his vocation very much. He worked very hard to teach the people, teach catechists (people learning about the Catholic faith) and seminarians (men learning to become priests) and take care of the sick, and poor.
He began this work at a very young age. He became a civil and canon lawyer at the age of 21, was made a cardinal of the Church when he was 22 by Pope Pius, and was named the archbishop of Milan when he was 24. Milan had been without a bishop for 80 years, and Charles set to work right away.
He built hospitals and served the sick. He gave away everything he had, keeping only an old patched cloak for himself. He tried to feed all the poor and hungry he could everyday. He often took part in public processions with a rope around his neck as a sign of penance. Charles Borromeo also wrote letters and books defending the Catholic faith and pointing out the errors and dangers of the teachings of Protestants such as Martin Luther. When he died at the age of 46 in 1584, he was mourned by all who knew and were helped by him.
At the age of twenty-two, Charles Borromeo, the second of two sons in a family of six children, was made a cardinal and appointed administrator of the diocese of Milan by his uncle, Pope Pius IV. He was not yet a priest.
This young man, who had studied both civil and canon law and felt called to give his life in service to God, was troubled both by the needs of the Church at that time, and by the duties and responsibilities of his family position. Called to Rome by his uncle, Charles soon found many uses for his talents in diplomacy, business, and administration. When his older brother died, leaving him heir to his family's lands and other possessions, the dilemma was made still more pressing. But at the advice of a trusted friend, he renounced his title to his uncle Julius and remained in Rome to pursue studies for the priesthood. He was instrumental in the organization of the council of Trent.
At the age of 28, he was made priest and bishop and named to the archdiocese of Milan. He gave up the luxurious way of living of both his home estates and Rome, and set himself the task of reforming this large diocese so badly in need of attention.
To help remedy the people's religious ignorance he established 'Sunday schools' Seminaries were opened to train the clergy, and the dignity of public worship was first restored to Milan's churches and then maintained. This was the time of the Reformation, when new ideas and new theologies were sweeping the continent. Charles Borromeo worked tirelessly to defend the faith, and restore peace and unity to the Church.
His years of work and travel, his hours of penance and caring for the sick, finally took their toll. In 1584, during his annual retreat at Monte Varallo, he fell ill, and 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.
Among the great reformers of the troubled sixteenth century was Charles Borromeo, who, with Saint Francis of Loyola, Saint Philip Neri, and others, combated the inroads of the Protestant Reformation. Charles was so devout that at the age of twelve he received the tonsure.
The young man attended the University of Pavia, where he studied 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. 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.
A few months later the new Pope, his uncle, Cardinal Angelo de Medici, 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. The papal court at this time was as much a political sphere as a religious or spiritual one, the church influenced and tried to influence more than the state of men's souls. Abbeys, monasteries, convents and other religious houses were exempt from taxes, and as a result had amassed great wealth over the years. This affluence was one of the causes of the dissatisfaction that lead to the Reformation and Protestantism.
The Pope, soon after his election, announced the reassembling of the Council of Trent, which had been suspended ten years earlier, in 1552. Charles was active in the 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.
The purpose of this council was to finish the work of formulating and codifying Church doctrine and to bring about a genuine reform of abuses. It defined Original Sin, decreed the indissolvability of marriage, 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.
Some of the issues discussed at this council proved so controversial that several times the Council almost broke up with its labors unfinished. Charles helped to heal the rifts and brought the prelates and theologians to the conclusion of their historic task. He also had a large part in drawing up the Tridentine Catechism. His training in diplomacy at the papal court had served him well.
While the Council of Trent was in session, Charles' elder brother died, and as head of the family Charles inherited extensive land holdings. But Charles remained convinced the God's place for him was within the Church. He renounced his family position in favour of his Uncle Julius, and entered the priesthood in September, 1563. Three months later he became bishop of Milan
With the turmoil of the Council of Trent still fresh in his mind and the storms of controversy of the Reformation sweeping Europe, Charles concentrated on the establishment of schools, seminaries, and convents. He also saw the need for reform of the priestly function itself.
He founded the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, with Sunday Schools for the teaching of the Catechism to children. He instituted a secular fraternity whose members, called the Oblates of Saint Ambrose, pledged obedience to their bishop and were used by him in religious work in any manner he thought wise. He built hospitals, seminaries, and schools, all to bring the love of Christ and the help of the Church to the people.
His days were filled with duties and cares; at night he would take off his bishop's robes, put on 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." During a great plague in 1576, not only did Charles remain in Milan to nurse the sick and feed the poor, he called upon and then shamed the local nobles and the mayor to return to Milan and help.
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.
Finally in 1584, during his annual retreat at Monte Varallo, he fell ill, 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. Saint 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. He is the patron of Lombardy; his emblems are the Holy Communion and a coat of arms bearing the word Humilitas.