St. Charles Borromeo: Heroic Reformer and Leader
Today is the memorial of St. Charles Borromeo (1538 – 15840), Bishop of Milan and one of the great reformers of the sixteenth century. He is is the patron of catechists, catechumens, spiritual directors, and spiritual leaders.
Charles was born at the Castle of Arona in northern Italy to wealthy and powerful parents. His father, Count Gilbert Borromeo, was a man of virtue and skill, and his mother was a member of the famous Medici family of Milan, sister of Angelo de Medici, who was to become Pope Pius IV.
Raised in a pious family, Charles was deeply devoted to the Passion of Christ and to the Blessed Mother. He received the clerical tonsure at age twelve and was educated at the Benedict Abbey of Saints Gratian and Felinus. He earned a doctorate in civil and canon law at the University of Pavia.
When his uncle, Cardinal de Medici, was elected pope in 1559, as Pius IV, Charles was made cardinal-deacon and administrator to the archdiocese of Milan while still a lay person and a student. Next, he was made the pope’s secretary of state, papal legate to Bologna, the Low Countries, and the regions of Switzerland, and cardinal – protector of the Franciscans, the Carmelites, the Knights of Malta, and others. In spite of his youth, he demonstrated great energy, skill, and tact in accomplishing these various responsibilities.
Charles played a major role in the diplomatic efforts that led to the reopening of the Council of Trent in 1562, which had been suspended since 1552. He helped draft the catechism, missal, and breviary it produced. He was the mastermind in shaping most of the council’s decrees — and he was only twenty-six years old when it closed. An energetic reformer, who consistently took the strict understanding of the dictates of the Council of Trent, Charles Borromeo was instrumental in helping revive the church during the Counter-Reformation. It is said that his work “gave new confidence to a shaken church.”
When his older brother died, Charles became head of the family, but refused to pursue the life this entailed (including marriage). Instead, he was ordained a priest in 1563, and was made Bishop of Milan the same year. He immediately set about reforming the diocese with great respect for those involved. He started seminaries for the education of clergy, founded a Confraternity of Christian Doctrine for the religious instruction of children, and encouraged the Jesuits in his diocese. He survived an assassination attempt in 1569, fed 3,000 people from storms during a famine, and set an example of personal heroism during the outbreak of the plague in 1576, organizing care of the sick, burial of the dead, and feeding of the population. His simplicity, piety, generosity, and self-sacrifice during this time, made him beloved by his flock. Exhausted, he died at the age of 46. His last words were, “See, Lord, I am coming, I am coming soon.”
“If we wish to make any progress in the service of God we must begin every day of our life with new eagerness. We must keep ourselves in the presence of God as much as possible and have no other view or end in all our actions but the divine honor.”
~ Saint Charles Borromeo
Prayer of St. Charles Borromeo
Almighty God, you have generously made known to human beings the mysteries of your life through Jesus Christ your son, in the Holy Spirit.
Enlighten my mind to know these mysteries which your Church treasures and teaches.
Move my heart to love them and my will to live in accord with them.
Give me the ability to teach this faith to others without pride, without ostentation, and without personal gain.
Let me realize that I am simply your instrument for bringing others to the knowledge of the wonderful things you have done for all your creatures.
Help me to be faithful to this task that you have entrusted to me.