An Exemplary Bishop

Saint Charles Borromeo

Feast Day: 4th November

To be born to wealth, rank and privilege may be a mixed blessing. Jesus Himself observed that it is difficult for a rich man to reach Heaven. But Charles Borromeo, who started life with every material advantage, is proof that it is possible to achieve sainthood in all walks of life.

He was the second son of a count, born in the family’s castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore in 1538, a nephew of Cardinal de Medici who became Pope Pius IV. Charles was a devout child and at the age of 12 he received the tonsure. Another uncle handed on to him one of the family privileges, the revenue from the rich Benedictine abbey at Arona, but his father wisely controlled the finances and Charles lived on a small allowance, giving the remainder to the poor. He learned Latin at Milan and then went on to the University of Pavia where he made good progress with his studies in civil and canon law. He gained his doctor’s degree at the age of 22, by which time both his parents had died.

In 1559 Cardinal de Medici was elected Pope and the following year he appointed his nephew Charles as cardinal deacon and administrator of the vacant see of Milan. Charles was not able to go to Milan because the Pope kept him busy in Rome with a great many duties. He was made papal legate of Bologna, Romagna and Ancona, and protector of Portugal and the Low Countries and of several religious orders. Together these represented an enormous responsibility for a young man of 22, still in minor orders. He loved learning and set up study groups of clergy and laymen, taking advantage of his access to Vatican resources.

Pius IV was anxious to reconvene the Council of Trent which had been suspended in 1552. He gave Charles the task of organising and reassembling the members, and in 1562 it reopened. It was Charles' hard work and diplomacy which held the Council together for this final two year session.

During the Council his elder brother died, leaving Charles as head of the family. Many people expected him to give up his clerical vocation, but he resigned his title and position to his uncle and in 1563 was ordained priest. Two months later he became a bishop. Now he began the demanding task of implementing the decisions of the Council, drawing up the Catechism, and reforming liturgical books and church music.

Milan had been neglected, having had no resident bishop for 80 years. When at last the Pope allowed Charles to make a visit he immediately set up a programme of reform and improvement. When the Pope lay dying, Charles was recalled to Rome and his successor, Pius V, wanted him to continue all his former duties, but Charles' heart was in Milan, where there was so much good work to be done, and in 1566 he was given permission to return there.

He began by reforming his own household which he drastically reduced. He sold many of the fine sculptures, paintings and other valuable possessions, and gave the proceeds to poor families. He lived simply and liked to retire to pray in a small bare attic room. Under his robes he wore a garment so ragged that a beggar once refused to accept it!

One of the problems identified by the Council of Trent was the general lack of knowledge about the faith. Charles knew that there was an urgent need for well-trained clergy who could teach and explain the faith to lay people. He was responsible for the opening of several colleges and seminaries, and he established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine to take on the task of teaching the children. Priests were to give public catechism lessons every Sunday and holy day. No opportunity for preaching and teaching was to be lost. Charles himself travelled constantly about his diocese, preaching sometimes three times a day. He had great respect for the liturgy and it is said that he never said a prayer or performed a religious rite carelessly or hurriedly.

Charles' reforms were not always welcomed. When he tried to reorganise the Conventual Franciscans he met with outright rebellion. The greatest threat came from a religious order known as the Humiliati, a wealthy order which resented any interference in its affairs. One of their priests was paid 40 pieces of gold to assassinate Charles and one evening in 1569, while praying in the cathedral, he was shot in the back. Fortunately he was only slightly wounded and quickly recovered.

Throughout his life Charles seems to have had great affection for Britain. His personal confessor was Dr. Griffith Roberts from the diocese of Bangor. He admired St. John Fisher whose picture he always carried around with him. He encouraged the training of English clergy with generous donations to the English College at Douai. In 1580 he entertained a dozen young men who were preparing for the English mission, among them Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion, both of whom within a short time gave their lives for their faith.

In 1576 large crowds came to Milan to receive the jubilee indulgence. But with the crowds came the plague which quickly spread. The city governor and the magistrates fled but Charles refused to abandon his people. He wrote to the governor reproaching him for his cowardice, and managed to shame him into returning to the city. The hospital was overflowing with the sick and dying. When Charles saw their plight he was moved to tears. He spent all he had on helping the starving, and he worked tirelessly with clergy and lay helpers to organise the distribution of food and clothing. He found empty properties around the city which would accommodate the sick and he personally visited plague victims, ministering to them and helping to care for them.

After two years the plague subsided and Charles continued visiting his diocese. He travelled into Switzerland, where he successfully restored discipline to the monasteries. Through the sincerity and simplicity of his preaching he converted many Protestants.

He returned to Milan in 1584, but by now the years of hard work had exhausted him. In October he made his usual retreat at Monte Varallo but was taken ill. He asked to be brought back to his beloved Milan and arrived there on All Souls Day. Having received the sacraments he died peacefully in the early hours of November 4, aged 46.

Saint Charles Borromeo lived amid the splendour of the Italian Renaissance but at heart he was a simple and holy man who wanted to spend his life serving others. He had been given wealth and social position, but the gift he treasured most was his Catholic faith. This he knew thoroughly and loved deeply, and his one desire was to pass it on to all those in his care. Most of us were not born in a castle but we have been given the same spiritual treasure, our faith, and may St Charles help us to learn to love it and pass it on as he did.