Saint Charles Borromeo
Apr 30, 2015 / Written by: America Needs Fatima
Feast November 4
Charles was born into a family both noble and devout and divided his early years between the family’s Castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore and their palace in Milan. At twelve he was admitted to minor clerical orders and received the revenues from a wealthy abbey nearby, but he showed his upright character by assigning the money to the poor except for those funds needed for his education. His college career paralleled that of St. Peter Canisius in that he avoided all circumstances and friendships that would compromise his purity of life. It differed, however, by receiving his doctorate in canon law at the University of Pavia.
Due to his extraordinary talent and seriousness, Charles took charge of all family business at the request of his father and older brother despite his youth. He even found time to restore the ancient monastic discipline in the abbey of which he was titular abbot. One week into his pontificate, Pius IV summoned him to Rome. Promotions and responsibilities soon followed, all leading to his appointment as Papal Secretary of State and Archbishop of Milan, although he was not permitted to reside in Milan during his uncle’s lifetime.
His thoroughness, modesty, and zeal for work had the effect of concealing his capacity for superior judgment in handling the affairs of both the Church and the State, especially when he refused to enrich himself in the manner of the Renaissance era prelates. Virtually all diplomatic correspondence passed through his hands, to the point that historians cannot determine which instructions originated with the Pope and which came from his young administrator. William T. Walsh believes the reform of the Church during Pius IV’s pontificate was chiefly accomplished through the effort of his nephew, whose body is incorrupt to this day.
Despite the uprightness of his life and self-sacrificing devotion to Church affairs, Charles did not practice the strict austerities and self-denial of his later years. He was exceptionally fond of hunting and paid much attention to the magnificence of his own household, which consisted of 150 servants. The improvement of his family’s circumstances also occupied much of his attention. His brother had married the daughter of the Duke of Urbina, a member of the illustrious della Rovere family, and his sisters made wealthy marriages with the Gonzaga and Colonna. Then with the family rising to the heights of the Farnese and de Medici, his brother died after a short illness at the age of twenty-seven.
Although a Cardinal and administrator of the vacant diocesan see of Milan, Papal Secretary of State, and entrusted with the government of the Papal States, as well as supervisor of the Franciscans, the Carmelites and the Order of Malta, Charles was still only a sub-deacon at the time, which nevertheless precluded marriage. Many of his more worldly-minded relatives thought that he would certainly seek a dispensation and pursue fame and fortune to maintain his family’s position. But his brother’s sudden death opened his eyes to the vanity of such ambitions and Charles resolved instead to embrace his ecclesiastical state entirely.
Becoming a Bishop
He was ordained a priest on September 4, 1563 and consecrated a bishop on December 7 the same year. He adopted a strict, ascetic life of prayer and fasting after making the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, now intent upon fulfilling the duties of his ecclesiastical office with dignity and without reserve.
Pope Pius IV had reopened the third and last period of the Council of Trent at the beginning of 1562 against strong opposition from numerous prelates who saw that their unwarranted privileges and incomes would be curtailed and many sovereigns who saw that their authority over Church matters would be contested. Yet the bark of Saint Peter steered through all the obstacles to bring the Council to a successful conclusion two years later.
Retained in Rome by the Pope and the heavy duties incumbent upon him by the work of the Council, Charles governed his diocese my means of personal representatives through whom he convoked a diocesan synod for the promulgation of the decrees of the Council. He began the much-needed reform of the clergy by fulfilling all things required in himself first, thus leading by example.
Reforming the Clergy
The widespread clerical abuses required skilful and tactful treatment. Ecclesiastical discipline and the education of youth were foremost in his thoughts but his pastoral solicitude encompassed every detail involved in the monumental work: repression of avaricious priests, the founding and staffing of seminaries for the proper formation of the clergy, liturgical ceremony and church music, the manner of preaching, the renewal of strict observance of rule in the convents, etc. This last mentioned brought down upon him the wrath and displeasure of some of his own relatives, two Dominican aunts, sisters of Pope Pius IV.
Notwithstanding the opposition and difficulties, Charles persevered, sparing himself in nothing. The apostolic zeal and charity with which he reformed his own household bore fruit in the remarkable number of its members who became distinguished bishops and prelates. The austerities which he practiced amidst the incredible fatigues of his apostolic life seem almost excessive.
Doctrinal and disciplinary controversies and heated disputes of every kind, both ecclesiastical and temporal; complicated questions of spiritual and civil jurisdictions; fierce attacks upon the rights of the Church and life-threatening physical attacks upon himself; heresy, witchcraft, sorcery and wickedness of every sort, libelous personal accusations and epidemic plagues – he faced them all with a moral courage and equanimity that won the grudging admiration of even his most bitter enemies.
Ravaged by relentless attacks from every side, the Church weathered the fierce storm of the pseudo-Reformation. From the bosom of the Church, God called forth great saints in that era and they rallied to Her defense like ardent lions – souls of grandeur, on fire with the love of God and zeal for souls. The Church and Faith under attack brought forth unparalleled sanctity. Among these great saints of the sixteenth century is St. Charles Borromeo.
Physically worn out by the crushing weight of his many duties and responsibilities, he seemed to know when death was at hand and yet was determined to work as long as he had strength left. Towards the end of 1584, his health took a definite turn. In October he began his annual retreat and began his preparation for death with a general confession. Plagued with recurrent bouts of high fever, he carried on: visitations, correspondence, consultations. Indefatigable to the end, his ardent soul wore out his frail body.