Remembering the great efforts of St. Charles Borromeo

Father John A. Kiley

St. Charles Borromeo, honored with all the heavenly elect on this Solemnity of All Saints, could have taken great advantage of his family’s prominent position in society and in the Church. His mother was a deMedici and his uncle was the Pope. Instead, like Ignatius Loyola, he put his lofty status at the service of the Catholic Church, sometimes inaugurating and sometimes encouraging Church renewal in the face of the fracturing events of the Protestant Reformation. Common elements of Catholicism like the confessional, the handy catechism and the formal seminary can be traced back to St. Charles’ influence. Saint Charles Borromeo was born on October 2, 1538 at Lake Maggiore near Milan. Borromeo secured a degree in both civil and canon law at the University of Paiva which he put to good use when his uncle was elected Pope Pius IV in 1559.

Not unusual for the time, the papal nephew was appointed a cardinal while still a lay person assuming the role of papal secretary of state. In November, 1562, his older brother, Federico, died. His family urged Charles to leave Rome to marry and have children so the family name would not die out. But he decided not to leave the ecclesiastic state. His brother’s death, along with his contacts with the Jesuits and the Theatines, were the causes of a conversion of Charles towards a more strict and operative Christian life.

Charles was appointed administrator of the Archdiocese of Milan in 1560 and consequently decided to be ordained a priest and then on 7 December 1563 was consecrated bishop in the Sistine Chapel. Charles was formally appointed archbishop of Milan on 12 May 1564. Borromeo knew that if the people were to be converted to a better life, he had to be the first to give a good example and renew the apostolic spirit. He told his clergy, “Be sure that you first preach by the way you live. If you do not, people will notice that you say one thing, but live otherwise, and your words will bring only cynical laughter and a derisive shake of the head.” Some did not appreciate Borromeo’s rigid dedication. In 1569 a priest, Girolamo Donato Farina, attempted to assassinate Borromeo. The bullet-holed cassock is still in Milan. Borromeo was described by a biographer as “an austere, dedicated, humorless and uncompromising personality”. Before Charles went to Milan, while he was overseeing reform in Rome, a nobleman remarked that the latter city was no longer a place to enjoy oneself or to make a fortune. “Carlo Borromeo has undertaken to remake the city from top to bottom; his enthusiasm will lead him to correct the rest of the world once he has finished with Rome. Apparently St. Charles was all business — all church business.”

Seeking to apply the edicts of the Council of Trent, he devoted himself to the reformation of his own diocese which had deteriorated in practice owing to the 80-year absence of previous archbishops. Milan was the largest archdiocese in Italy at the time, with more than 3,000 clergy and 800,000 people. The selling of indulgences and ecclesiastical positions was prevalent; monasteries were “full of disorder”; many religious were “lazy, ignorant, and debauched”. He regularly visited his more than 1,000 widely scattered parishes, and restored dignity to divine service. He eschewed worldly ornaments in church. He divided the nave of the church into two compartments to separate the sexes at worship.

Charles believed that abuses in the church arose from an ignorant clergy. Borromeo worked diligently to foster clerical education to combat Protestantism, establishing seminaries and colleges near Milan. The new archbishop’s efforts for catechesis and the instruction of youth included a code of rules for the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine, the familiar “CCD” of later years, establishing it in every parish of his diocese. In 1576 there was famine at Milan due to crop failures and later an outbreak of the plague. The city’s trade fell off and with it the people’s source of income. Many members of the nobility fled the city, but the archbishop remained to organize the care of those infected and to minister to the dying. Calling together the religious communities in the diocese, Borromeo fed almost 70,000 people daily. Borromeo successfully suppressed Protestantism in the Swiss valleys that bordered Italy. During his pastoral visits to the region, 150 people were arrested for practicing witchcraft. Astonishingly today but characteristically then, eleven women and a provost were condemned to be burned alive.

In 1584, during his annual retreat, St. Charles fell ill with fever and returning to Milan grew rapidly worse. After receiving the Last Sacraments, he died quietly at the age of 46, four-hundred and thirty four years ago this coming Sunday, November 4, which is now his feast day.