Saint Charles Borromeo, Bishop

St Charles Borromeo, Bishop (Memorial)

Charles Borromeo was born in 1538, the son of Giberto II Borromeo, Count of Arona, and Margherita de Medici, in the castle of Arona on Lago (Lake) Maggiore, in the north of Italy. Through his mother, he was related to the famous Medici family. He was educated at Milan and Pavia. He was both intelligent and religiously devout, with a great capacity for sustained work, but had a speech impediment.

Already at the age of 12, he had received the clerical tonsure together with the revenues of the abbatial see of Arona, a benefice long enjoyed by his family. At the age of 22, he received his doctorate, by which time his uncle, Cardinal Angelo de Medici had become Pope Pius IV. Ecclesiastical honours were now heaped on the nephew, including ambassadorships, protectorates, the administration of the diocese of Milan and an appointment as cardinal, which made Charles in effect Secretary of State for the Papal States. He was responsible for the administration of the Romagna, and the March of Ancona, as well as supervision of the Franciscans, the Carmelites, and the Knights of Malta. Thus, at the age of 22, he was practically the leading statesman of the papal court. In compliance with the pope’s desire, he lived in great splendour.

As all this required his presence in Rome, the government of the Milan diocese was delegated to deputies. Nevertheless, he was anxious to leave the luxury of the papal court and even become a monk. He was persuaded, however, to remain in his present position, and to move back to his diocese as soon as it was feasible.

He strongly supported his uncle, the pope, in re-opening the Council of Trent for its final session. The council’s continuance and conclusion were largely due to Charles’ energy and diplomacy.

Many important doctrinal and disciplinary decrees were passed at this session, and Charles was particularly prominent in the drafting of the official Catechism. He was also responsible for the reform of the liturgical texts, and of church music for which he was a patron of the composer Palestrina.

It was only in 1564, at the age of 26, that he was ordained priest and consecrated bishop. As papal legate for all Italy, he held a provincial council at Milan, which promulgated the Tridentine decrees.

In the following year (1565) he was called to the deathbed of his uncle, the pope, and obtained from his successor, Pius V, permission to live in his diocese of Milan. The next year, he began its reform. He was the first resident bishop there in 80 years.

Charles began by personally adopting a very simple style of life and gave much of his considerable revenue away to the poor. He held councils, synods, reformed the administration, and made regular visits to parishes. In order to deal with the serious question of clergy formation, he founded seminaries, which were copied in many other parts of the Church. He also was concerned with the moral reform of those who were already priests, and set up a confraternity to teach Christian doctrine to children in Sunday schools. He was helped in all of this by religious orders, including the Jesuits (established in 1540) and the Barnabites (founded by St Antony Mary Zacaria).

He was generous in helping the English College at Douai, and his personal confessor was Dr Griffith Roberts, a Welshman. He had a devotion to the English martyred bishop, John Fisher, whose picture he kept by him. He himself was active in visiting even remote areas of his diocese, removing ignorant or unworthy priests, preaching and catechising at every opportunity.

His reforms were vigorously resisted by some. He came into conflict with civil authorities, and there was even an attempt by a disgruntled friar to assassinate him in 1569.

In 1570, and again in 1576, he came to the aid of his city, in one case feeding people during a time of famine and later in providing nursing care for victims of plague. During the plague, he personally went about giving directions for nursing the sick and burying the dead, avoiding no personal danger and sparing no expense. He visited all the parishes where the contagion raged, distributing money, providing accommodation for the sick, and punishing those, especially clergy, who were remiss in carrying out their duties.

In 1580, he was visited at Milan by a group of young English Catholics returning to their country. They included Ralph Sherwin and Edmund Campion, future martyrs. In 1583, Charles was sent by Rome to Switzerland to deal with superstitious practices, and also with the heresies of Calvin and Zwingli.

Constantly on the move, he was already worn out by the age of 46. He died in Milan on the night of 3 November, 1584 and was buried in his cathedral. His sanctity was immediately recognised and he was canonised in 1610, just 26 years after his death.

Through his influence on the Counter-Reformation he is matched with Ignatius of Loyola (founder of the Jesuits) and Philip Neri (founder of the Oratorians). He is best remembered for the reform and education of the clergy, and in the work of catechesis. Above all, in contrast to so many of his peers, he gave an outstanding example of a zealous and reforming pastor in a very important diocese at a time when such renewal was so much needed after the Reformation.

Contrary to his last wishes, a memorial was erected to him in the Milan cathedral, as well as a 20 meter tall statue in his birthplace, Arona, as a tribute to his leadership in the Counter-Reformation. The church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St Charles at the Four Fountains) in Rome is dedicated to his memory.

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