St. Charles Borromeo: 4 November

Br. Columba Maria

Early life

Gilbert Borromeo, Count of Arone, had his estate on Lake Major outside Milan, and worked in the court of Emperor Charles V. His wife, Margaret, was a Medici, a family steeped in Italian and Church history. They had six children, of whom Charles and Anne would reflect before God the wonderful piety and charity of their parents. As a boy, Charles was very reserved, and preferred prayers to games. In 1550, at twelve, an uncle, Jules-César, left him at the Benedictine Abbey of Saint Gratinien. To his father’s amazement, Charles told him, “The revenues we earn from the abbey, we will give to the Church and the poor, since we don’t need them.”

He first studied humanities in Milan, and went on to study civil and canon law at the university of Pavia. He was not naturally studious or bright, but by his piety, his prudence and regularity, he gave a great example, and overcame his lazy intelligence, weak memory and poor expression. Charles received Holy Communion every week and daily examined himself at the foot of the crucifix.

His father died at the age of only 47 and it fell to Charles to run the house, even though he was not the eldest, which he did with a wisdom beyond his years, arranging especially the education of his sisters.

Early promotion

In 1558, he received his doctorate from Pavia. The following year saw his maternal uncle elected pope: Pius IV. Charles feared for his uncle’s soul amidst his worldly success, and he offered a communion for this intention, a remedy he applied to himself in later life. Recognising the merits of his nephew, Pius IV summoned him immediately to Rome. He was invested as Papal Protonotary, Grand Penitentiary and then Cardinal-Archbishop of Milan among other distinguished titles.

Charles would take no money for these appointments and maintained a poor table. He reasoned that God normally gave a holy hatred of earthly vanities as a reward for sustained mortification. God granted this gift together with an inundation of earthly treasure too! Charles, at 23, though highly capable and distinguished in all his duties, remained a layman.

Busy as the days were at the Vatican, he founded an evening study group for like-minded ecclesiastics to rehearse and broaden their mental equipment. From his own studies of literature, history and philosophy, and being practised herein, he soon lost his reluctance to speak.

Charles had a scruple about being in Rome and not in Milan in his episcopal see. When he asked Msgr. Barthèlemy, a cardinal and one of the experts of Trent, what he should do, the Monseigneur reassured him that, since His Holiness had requested it, it was the will of God for him.

In 1562, Charles was eventually ordained to all the minor, major, and episcopal orders.

Council of Trent

In 1563, after assisting in the work of framing the decrees of the Council of Trent, Charles helped Pius IV to close the Council, for there were many prelates, ecclesiastic and laymen, who wished to keep this truly reforming council open in order to divert it. Once completed, Charles was active in founding a college in Rome under Jesuit rule; he also assisted the wording of an oath that seminary professors would be obliged to swear.

Charles was also a collaborator in the catechism of this council, a work whose necessity none saw clearer than himself. It is particularly to Charles that credit is due for the section of the catechism entitled 'For pastors', which were his fellow bishops.

Pope St. Pius V

In 1565, Pius IV fell ill, and it was again to Charles that the pontiff turned for guidance. Charles, with great solemnity, presented his uncle with a crucifix, and invited him to implore the Divine Mercy. He then asked a favour of the pope: to beg the aged pontiff to forget about temporalities, and concentrate on his own soul and its eternity. St. Philip Neri was the only other person allowed to visit his holiness in these last days, which ended in December with these last words:

Now, Lord, let Thy servant enter Thy peace.

The next consideration was Pius' successor, and Charles was singularly instrumental in bringing about the election of Pope St. Pius V. Charles himself was everyone's favourite but, seeking only the good of the Church, Charles was able to convince all the cardinals that the intelligence, strength, zeal, and love of the Church of Cardinal Alexandrin made him the best candidate.

Reform of Milan

Once elected, Pius V reluctantly allowed Charles to return to his see in Milan. Charles wanted to reform the diocese in accordance with the decrees of the Council of Trent.

He found his diocese to be in a decrepit state and his first act was to convoke a council to which eleven bishops, two coadjutors, and two foreign cardinals presented themselves. Five more councils followed in an attempt to reform the bishops, who would reform the priests, who would reform the faithful. Eleven synods took place also where the Archbishop would gently, but firmly, rebuke the clergy for their neglect.

During his pastoral visits he would sometimes preach three times in the day, and he preached regularly in his own cathedral. His style was simple, yet unctuous and it moved the most hardened of hearts. He sought to aid the reform particularly by the formation of pious groups as helpers in the Lord's vineyard, by the reformation of existing Orders and by opening new religious houses, such as for the Poor Clares. All of these efforts, and more, combined to arrest the decline, and bring his flock back on their knees to the sacraments.

Charles, however, as foreseen by Our Lord, living godly in Christ Jesus, suffered persecution. Amongst the religious Orders widespread in Milan were the Humiliati who had been founded some centuries before. At this point in time, they numbered 174 members in 94 convents! Their Rule was abandoned, and iniquity prevailed in their houses. Charles set about reforming them, mildly but firmly, and met with stiff opposition. More than one conspiracy was hatched to silence this interfering archbishop until, one fateful day in church, Charles was shot at with a blunderbuss. Miraculously, the ball rolled harmlessly down his rochet (capa), leaving only a black mark, while the lead fragments, ripping through a solid table, and tearing his vestments, did not harm his person.

The people recognised the finger of God in Charles' escape. To describe anything impenetrable to metal, the Milanese coined the phrase “it's the rochet of Saint Charles”. Notwithstanding, Charles was left with a small tumour for the rest of his days marking the place where the bullet had hit him. Charles did not wish the perpetrators punished, but neither Pius V nor the avenues of justice were so forgiving: the Order was suppressed and the perpetrators executed.

In 1572, Pope Pius V died. Despite his own ill-health, and against medical advice, the cardinal insisted on going to Rome and was once again instrumental in the election of Gregory XIII, who more than any other had the ability to implement the decrees of Trent. Gregory himself pressed Charles to remain in Rome for four months to assist him.

Upon his return to Milan later that year, he completed the erection of a seminary run by the Jesuits on the property of his own abbey at Arone. This did not endear him to his family whose patrimony this abbey had been. The Jesuits ran it especially for poor young men, and charged them no fees. It was a great success. The following year Charles had built, and furnished himself, another seminary, this time for the nobility. "A pastor must occupy himself with the direction of young hearts, on which lies the future of the christian and civil republic." (Pius IX)

The plague in Milan

In 1576, pestilence struck Milan, ultimately carrying off 60,000 victims. Charles inquired of his counsellors if it was permitted for him to risk losing his life to aid his flock. They replied that, "Grave reasons seem to permit your exemption. And yet, your presence is required by a counsel of perfection." With that Charles launched himself at the scourge. For eight months he was indefatigable, visiting all the shacks and cabins and palaces and convents, encouraging the sick and the healthy to greater patience or charity respectively. He produced a booklet with writings of the Fathers to sustain the effort of his co-workers. On one occasion, he heard a plaintiff cry from an upper room of a locked house. Scaling a ladder he emerged with a toddler, dying on the infected corpse of its mother.

A house for girls orphaned by the epidemic and another for the support of beggars were also funded and opened by our saint. Street shrines, spontaneously assembled by the people during the plague were embellished with a crucifix above and an iron rail around to preserve them. The popularity of the Forty Hours devotion is commonly attributed to our saint.

Holy death

In April 1584, the Archbishop conducted his last diocesan synod from his sick-bed, where all was meticulously arranged. In August, Charles paid a last visit to the Shroud of Turin.

In October he visited a Franciscan house in the countryside for his last retreat. Before its end, Charles was suffering from a fever, and had, on advice, to curtail his austerities. Returning to Milan, he was obliged to take to his bed, and during the night of 3–4 August, with all the religious houses in the diocese praying for him, he gave up his soul to God.

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