Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

St. Charles Borromeo, Bishop († 1584, Feast—November 4)

St. Charles Borromeo

Humilitas. This word already stood, crowned with gold, upon his family shield, when St. Charles was born at the castle of Arona. It had been said of the Borromeos that they knew nothing of humility, except to bear it on their coat of arms; but the time had now come when the mysterious device was to be justified by the most illustrious member of that noble family, and when, at the zenith of his greatness, a Borromeo would learn to void his heart of self, in order that God might fill it.

Charles was scarcely 22 years of age when Pope Pius IV, his maternal uncle, called him to the difficult post of Secretary of State, shortly afterwards created him Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, and seemed to take pleasure in heaping responsibilities on his young shoulders. The late Pontiff, Paul IV, had been ill-requited for placing a similar confidence in his nephews the Caraffas, who ended their days upon the scaffold. His successor, on the contrary, as the event testified, was actuated by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not by the dictates of flesh and blood.

60 years of that fatal century had already elapsed, while the evils consequent on Luther's revolt were ever increasing, and the Church was daily threatened with some new danger. The Protestants had just imposed upon the Catholics of Germany the treaty of Passau, which completed the triumph of the fanatics, and secured to them equality and liberty. The abdication of Charles V in despair left the Empire to his brother Ferdinand, who inaugurated the custom of dispensing with Rome, by crowning himself with the diadem which St. Leo III had placed upon the brow of St. Karl the Great. England, reconciled for a brief period under Mary Tudor, was replunged by Elizabeth into the schism which continues to this day. Boy kings succeeded one another on the throne of St. Louis, and the regency of Catharine de Medici involved France in the wars of religion.

Such was the political situation which the minister of Pius IV had to cope with, and to utilize to the best of his power for the interests of the Holy See and of the Church. St. Charles did not hesitate. With faith to supply for his want of experience, he understood that Rome must, with that undivided truth of which She is the guardian, oppose the torrent of errors which threatened to deluge the world.

He saw how, in battle with a heresy which claimed the name of "reformation" while it let loose every passion, the Church might take occasion from the struggle to strengthen Her discipline, elevate the morals of her children, and manifest to the eyes of all Her indefectible sanctity. This thought had already, under Paul III and Julius III, led to the convocation of the Council of Trent, and inspired its dogmatic definitions and reformatory decrees. But the Council, twice interrupted, had not completed its work, which was still under dispute. It had now been suspended for eight years, and the difficulties in the way of its resumption continued to increase on account of the quarrelsome pretensions of princes. The Cardinal-nephew bent all his efforts to surmount the obstacles. He devoted day and night to the work, imbuing with his views the Sovereign Pontiff himself, inspiring with his zeal the nuncios at the various courts, vying in skill and firmness with diplomatic ministers in order to overcome the prejudices or the ill-will of certain monarchs. And when, after two years of these difficult negotiations, the Fathers of Trent gathered together once more, St. Charles was the instrument of Divine Providence and the tutelary angel of this august assembly. To him it owed its material organization, its political security, the complete independence of its deliberations, and the thenceforward uninterrupted continuity. Himself detained at Rome, he was the intermediary between the Pope and the Council. The presiding legates soon gave him their full confidence, as is proved from the pontifical archives; to him, as to the ablest counselor and most reliable support, they daily had recourse in their solicitudes and anxieties.

St. Charles suggested the measures adopted for the completion and implementation of the Council by Pope Pius IV, and approved and developed by succeeding Pontiffs. He caused the liturgical books to be revised, and the Roman Catechism to be compiled. But first, and in all things, he was himself the living model of the renewed discipline, and thus acquired the right to exercise his zeal for or against others. Rome, initiated by him in the salutary reform of which it was fitting she should set the first example, was in a few months completely transformed. The three churches dedicated to St. Charles within her walls, and the numerous altars which bear his name in other sanctuaries of the holy city, are the testimony of her enduring gratitude.

His administration, however, and his sojourn in Rome, lasted only during the six years of Pius IV's pontificate. On the death of the Pope, in spite of the entreaties of St. Pius V, whose election was due chiefly to his exertions, Blessed Charles set out for Milan, which called for the presence of its Archbishop. For nearly a century the great Lombard city had scarcely known its pastors save by name; and this abandonment had delivered it, like so many others at that period, to the wolf that "catcheth and scattereth the sheep." He understood the responsibility of the care of souls to be far otherwise. He gave himself entirely to this duty, without care for himself, without a thought for the judgments of men, without fear of the powerful. His maxim was "To treat of the interests of Jesus Christ in the spirit of Jesus Christ;" his program the ordinances of Trent. St. Charles' episcopate was the carrying out of the great Council; its living form; the model of its practical application in the whole Church; and the proof of its efficiency, demonstrating that it sufficed for every reform, and could, of itself alone, sanctify both pastor and flock.

In Milan he presided over six provincial councils and eleven diocesan synods, issued mandates, instructions, regulations and pastoral letters; yet St. Charles died at the early age of 46. Moreover, all this was in the midst of trials and combats sufficient to have been his sole preoccupation.

But it is time to listen to the Church's account of him:

Charles was born at Milan, of the noble family of Borromeo. His future pre-eminent sanctity was foreshown by a heavenly light shining at night over the room where he was born. He was enrolled in his youth in the ranks of the clergy, and soon provided with an abbey; but he warned his father not to turn its revenues to private use; and as soon as its administration was entrusted to him, he spent all the surplus income on the poor. As a youth he pursued his studies at Pavia. He had the greatest love for holy chastity; and several times put to flight, with the greatest firmness, some shameless women sent to tempt him. In his 23rd year, his uncle Pius IV created him Cardinal; and he adorned that dignity by his great piety and remarkable virtues. Being soon afterwards made Archbishop of Milan, he labored strenuously to carry out, in his whole diocese, the decrees of the Council of Trent, which had just been concluded mainly through his exertions. To reform the evil customs of his people he held many synods, and moreover was ever himself a perfect model of virtue. He also labored much to expel the heretics from Switzerland and the country of the Grisons, and converted many of them to the Christian Faith.

The charity of this holy man was strikingly exhibited, when he sold the principality of Oria, and in one day distributed the price, amounting to about 40,000 gold pieces, among the poor. With no less generosity he, on another occasion, distributed 20,000 gold pieces left him as a legacy. He resigned the many ecclesiastical benefices which his uncle had bestowed upon him, except for a few which he retained for his own necessities and for relieving the poor. When the plague was raging in Milan, he gave up the furniture of his house, even his bed, for the support of the poor, and thenceforward always slept on a bare board. He visited the plague-stricken with unwearied zeal, assisted them with fatherly affection, and, administering to them with his own hands the Sacraments of the Church, singularly consoled them. Meanwhile he approached God in humble prayer as a mediator for his people; he ordered public supplications to be made, and himself walked in the processions with a rope around his neck, his feet bare and bleeding from the stones, and carrying a cross; and thus offering himself as a victim for the sins of the people, he endeavored to turn away the anger of God. He strenuously defended the liberty of the Church, and was most zealous in restoring discipline. For this reason some seditious persons fired upon him while he was engaged in prayer, but by the divine power he was preserved unharmed.

His abstinence was wonderful. He subdued his body by night-watchings, a rough hair shirt, and frequent disciplines. He was a great lover of humility and meekness. Even when occupied by weighty business, he never omitted his prayer or preaching. He built many churches, monasteries and colleges. He wrote many works of great value especially for the instruction of bishops; and it was through his care that the Catechism for parish priests was issued. At length he retired to a solitary place on Mount Varallo, where the mysteries of Our Lord's Passion are sculptured in a lifelike manner, and there, after spending some days in severe bodily mortifications, sweetened by meditation on Christ's sufferings, he was seized by a fever. He returned to Milan; but the illness growing much worse, he was covered with sackcloth and ashes, and with his eyes fixed on the crucifix he passed to Heaven, within the 47th year of his age, on November 4 in the year of Our Lord 1584. He was illustrious for many miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Pope Paul V.

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