Stories of the Saints for Children – Saint Charles Borromeo

detail of a painting of Saint Charles Borromeo by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c.1768; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsThe life of Saint Charles appears to be made known to us to show, that although solitude and poverty have been necessary for the sanctification of many holy men and women, it is still possible in the very midst of the honours and riches of this world, to keep a heart quite free from attachment to these things; a heart which is humble, simple, and fixed upon God only. This great Saint was born upon the 2nd of October, 1538, about fourteen miles from Milan, and he began so early to show such pleasure in prayer, in building little chapels and attending to the altar, that his parents believed God designed him for the priesthood.

Charles, even as a very little boy, wished this most earnestly himself, and the desire caused him to be very careful that in his dress and his conduct there should not be the slightest thing unbecoming in one who hoped to consecrate himself to the special service of God.

During the time of his studies at the University of Pavia, his piety was an example to all his companions, and by prayer and watchfulness he obtained God’s grace to resist all the temptations which beset him during his boyhood: When he was but twelve years of age, one of his uncles gave up to Saint Charles a rich Benedictine abbey, and from another relative a second abbey and priory became his own property a few years later; yet he did not expend any more money upon himself, but increased his alms to the poor.

Before he was twenty-three years of age the Saint was made Cardinal, and then Archbishop of Milan, but in these and other dignities which came to him, he only thought of the work he could do for God and the Church, remaining as humble and free from human considerations as if he had been poor and unknown.

So little did he trust his own judgment that he always had several persons about him whose advice he could ask in all that he undertook, and to these he listened with great submission. A life like his was full of occupation, yet, though he got through so much business, he never seemed to be in a hurry, and by giving up needless amusements and being very punctual and orderly, he found time for all that was necessary for him to do, and yet had many hours given to his sacred studies and prayers. Saint Charles was very severe in his treatment of himself, but he had great discretion in his practice of penance, so that, instead of loading himself with austerities to which he was unused, he began moderately, increasing his fasts and mortifications every week, so that he was able to continue them to the end of his life.

He aimed at making himself indifferent as to his food, so that he eat black bread or white, and drank either clean or dirty water, just such as he met with where he might happen to be, and for many years before his death he fasted upon bread and water every day excepting on Sundays and holidays, and then he took some herbs or apples, but never any meat, fish, wine, or eggs. Whilst he was studying at Pavia, Saint Charles was often in ill-health, but his moderation in his food quite cured him, so that it became a proverb to call strict abstinence “The remedy of Cardinal Borromeo.”

He was in the habit of sleeping on a rough bed without removing his clothes, or else sitting up in his chair, until, at the request of the bishops of his province, he gave up doing so, and used a bed of straw, with a sack filled with straw for a pillow and only two coarse sheets and a counterpane to cover him. Though he had so much property at his command, Saint Charles never expended any of it for his own use, excepting sufficient to buy a little straw for his bed or bread and water for his food. Once a bishop found him studying during a severe night in a tattered, thin black habit, and begged him to put on something which would better protect him from the cold. Saint Charles smilingly answered, “Suppose I have nothing better? The robes I wear during the day belong to the dignity of Cardinal, but this garment is mine, and I will not have any other for summer or winter.” In his palace at Milan there were some beautiful sculptures and paintings, which he had all removed, and also the arms of his family, which had been placed there by some pne else; he laid aside the name of Borrorneo and used instead his title of Saint Praxedes, and in place of his coat of aims he took the motto, “Humilitas.” The very least flattery gave him great pain, and to avoid it he carefully concealed even the graces God gave him, and never spoke of himself unless it was to tell something which he considered a fault Perhaps there is nothing harder than to be willing to bear reproof, but to Saint Charles this was not difficult; he was glad to be reminded of any failing, and had two very holy priests in his household who were specially commissioned to tell him everything they could see amiss in his actions. There was one priest who delighted to find fault with him, and for this reason Saint Charles kept him in his family, and at his death left him a pension as long as he should live.

Although the Saint never spent any time in his own amusement, his kindness of heart made him ready to join others in anything which was not unsuited to his character as God’s priest. One Sunday afternoon he had joined several others in a game ofbilliards, when one of the company asked what each would do supposing an angel came and told him he had only an hour more to live. “I should go to confession,” said one. “And I should finish saying Office,” said another, and so each in turn said how he should employ the time if he had been told to be ready to appear before God; but when it came to Saint Charles he exclaimed, “Well, I should go on with the game, for I began it for the love of God, and I do not know anything He would rather have me do at this minute, or I should not continue it.” It is a lesson to us, that the very least action, even an innocent amusement which does not put aside any duty, may be begun and ended for God’s glory if our intention is simply to please Him.

Saint Charles was so desirous to be free from all imperfections that he went daily to confession before saying his Mass, and he had a wonderful light to see the least failing of which he could accuse himself, and for which his sorrow was deep and abiding. Once, in giving the Holy Communion, through the fault of the server, Saint Charles let the Sacred Host fall, and his compunction was so great that as a penance he fasted for eight days, and was four days without saying Mass, which was the only time he ever omitted offering up the Holy Sacrifice unless in some serious illness.

The Saint had naturally a very great timidity in preaching, but believing that it was a way of attracting many souls to God, he set himself to conquer his reluctance, and became entirely the master of these feelings, so that God gave him great power over the hearts of those who heard him. He was also very anxious that children should be taught Christian Doctrine, and for this purpose established a great many schools, where he collected a number of teachers and scholars on Sundays and holidays, so that the Catechism should be well known and understood everywhere.

The great work of Saint Charles was to arouse the priesthood to a more perfect life of humility and self-sacrifice; it cost him great trouble to visit all the churches and monasteries under his authority, but he persevered through all discouragements and difficulties, and succeeded in getting the services of the Church performed «with more solemnity and devotion, putting Tight a great many things which had grown disordered for want of thought and care.

Into the valleys far away from Milan and yet belonging to it, he went through snow and torrents, crossing rugged rocks which were almost impassable, bearing hunger and thirst, cold and weariness, joyfully, because he was about the work of his Master. If he saw a priest incapable of fulfilling his duties, he placed there another more zealous; in every parish he found out each person’s state of soul, and their bodily wants were not forgotten; many who had gone astray through heresy were brought back to the Church, and he sent before him priests to prepare the people to receive the Holy Eucharist, which he gave himself.

The false accusations and persecutions which are the portion of every follower of Jesus Christ, came upon Saint Charles Borromeo, but he only prayed earnestly for those who made themselves his enemies, and begged God to keep all anger and resentment from entering his heart.

The dislike to the saintly archbishop was so bitter in those who did not love the cause of God’s truth that three persons conspired together to murder him, and one evening, whilst Saint Charles with his household were engaged in the usual devotions, one of these posted himself at the chapel door, and at a convenient opportunity, fired. The music ceased, and every one arose in great alarm, but Saint Charles, without stirring, made a sign for all to kneel down again, and finished his prayer as quietly as if no interruption had taken place. This allowed the murderer time to escape; but the Saint believed himself to have received a deadly wound, and, lifting his hands, made an offering of his life to God; however, on rising, he found that the ball with which the blunderbuss had been loaded, had only struck his rochet and fallen at his feet, and some small shot had pierced his cassock. After retiring to his room, a slight bruise and swelling were found on the place which had been struck, which never disappeared during the rest of his life. The danger to which he had been exposed made many desire to find out the persons who had been concerned in the plot, but Saint Charles forbade this, and gave himself only to thoughts of God’s goodness, making a solemn thanksgiving in public, and then offering his life anew to the divine service in the solitude of a retreat of several days.

The rochet worn by the Saint that evening is still preserved, as well as the ball which struck him. Afterwards, suspicions arose as to the murderers,and theywere examined, upon which they confessed their guilt. Saint Charles tried hard to get their lives spared, but all save one were executed, and he took care of their relations afterwards. However, these dangers and troubles proved how deep was the love with which the Saint was regarded by his people, and the reverence which the whole Church felt for him,

Saint Charles had succeeded in putting down the many disorders of the Carnival, but with all his energy, he could not hinder many profane exhibitions and amusements, for which he foretold that God would send the plague as a punishment. His words were true, for it soon broke out, and during the Saint’s absence, news was brought to him of this calamity which had overtaken Milan. He hastened to the town, though the governor and nobility had left it in terror; he visited the place to which the infected persons were removed, and increased his prayers and penances to obtain God’s mercy. In three processions the Saint walked barefoot, dressed in violet, with a halter round his neck and a crucifix in his hands, offering himself to bear the punishment which his people had brought upon themselves. He also melted down all his plate, and gave his furniture for the relief of those who were destitute, and by his example, induced a number of priests to risk their lives in attending on the sick. After raging for some months, this terrible disease began to abate, and Saint Charles fixed a day for a public thanksgiving, and three days’ prayer for the souls of those who had died from it.

In the year 1584, the Saint seemed to have a strong belief that his death was not far off, and during his yearly retreat, he was more than ever absorbed in God, more than ever free from all attachment to earth, ready to live or die according to the divine Will. During the last week of October, he was taken ill with ague, but concealed it as far as he could, and only slightly shortened the times of his prayer, and allowed his usual dry bread to be toasted; no other care would he give to his body,but continued his work, going to Arona to finish the foundation of a college, and journeying on towards Milan. He reached there on All Souls’ day upon a litter, and then the physicians were sent for, who said his illness was dangerous. He received the last Sacraments with great peace and happiness, and died calmly in the night between the 3rd and 4th of November, murmuring “Ecce venio” as he drew his last breath.

The forty-six years of his life had been years of labour for the good of souls, but there was no weariness in his work, because it was all for God; difficulties came often, but to his brave and generous heart they were but part of the cross of Christ, and false accusation became sweet, for it has been the portion of his Master, which he rejoiced to share.

And though Saint Charles has long since been in the company of the blessed in heaven, he has left a remembrance of his name in the congregation which it was one of his works to form. He called them “Oblates,” that they might never forget that they had offered themselves as an oblation to God; he desired from them detachment from the world, although in that world they must work for souls; he asked of them a devotion which would keep them ready to undertake any labour for God’s glory that their bishop might command; and, doubtless, many of his prayers were offered that souls might be led by their means to aim at the spirit of charity, humility, and contempt of the world which he taught and preached, as he journeyed about and round Milan, in the earnest words which sprang from the earnestness of his heart, and by the still more beautiful teaching of a saintly life and example.

– from Stories of the Saints for Children, by Mary F Seymour