Benedictine Liturgical Year – Saint Charles, Bishop and Confessor

detail of a painting of Saint Charles Borromeo by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, c.1768; Cincinnati Art Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsHumilitas. This word already stood, crowned with gold, upon his family escutcheon, when Charles was born at the castle of Arona. It had been said of the Borromeos that they knew nothing of humility, except to bear it on their coat of arms: but the time had now come, when the mysterious device was to be justified by the most illustrious scion of that noble family; and when, at the zenith of his greatness, a Borromeo would learn to void his heart of self, in order that God might fill it. Far, however, from abjuring the high-mindedness of his race, the humble Saint was the most intrepid of them all, while his enterprises were to eclipse the noble exploits of a long line of ancestors. One more proof that humility never debases.

Charles was scarcely twenty-two years of age, when Pius IV, his maternal uncle, called him to the difficult post of Secretary of State, shortly afterwards created him Cardinal and Archbishop of Milan, and seemed to take pleasure in heaping honours and responsibilities on his young shoulders. The late Pontiff, Paul IV, had been ill requited for placing a similar confidence in his nephews the Carafias, who ended their days upon the scaffold. His successor, on the contrary, as the event testified, was actuated by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, not by the dictates of flesh and blood.

Sixty years of that fatal century had already elapsed, while the evils consequent on Luther’s revolt were ever increasing, and the Church was daily threatened with some new danger. The Protestants had just imposed upon the Catholics of Grennany the treaty of Passau, which completed the triumph of the fanatics, and secured to them equality and liberty. The abdication of Charles V in despair, left the empire to his brother Ferdinand; while Spain, with its immense dominions in both hemispheres, fell to his son Philip II. Ferdinand I inaugurated the custom of dispensing with Borne, by crowning himself with the diadem which Saint Leo in, had placed upon the brow of Charlemagne; and Philip, enclosing Italy by taking Naples in the South and Milan in the North, seemed to many to be threatening the independence of Borne herself. England, reconciled for a brief period under Mary Tudor, was replunged by Elizabeth into the schism which continues to the present day. Boy kings succeeded one another on the throne of Saint Louis, and the regency of Catharine de Medici involved France in the wars of religion.

Such was the political situation which the minister of Pius IV had to cope with, and to utilize to the best of his power for the interests of the Holy See and of the Church. Charles did not hesitate. With faith to supply for his w«mt of experience, he understood that to the torrent of errors, which threatened to deluge the world, Rome must first of all oppose, as an embankment, that undivided truth of which she is the guardian.

He saw how, in contest with a heresy, which claimed the name of Reformation while it let loose every passion, the Church might take occasion from the struggle to strengthen her discipline, elevate the morals of her children, and manifest to the eyes of all her indefectible sanctity. This thought had already, under Paul III and Julius III, led to the convocation of the Council of Trent, and inspired its dogmatic definitions and reformatory decrees. But the Council, twice interrupted, had not completed its work, which was still under dispute. It had now been suspended for eight years, and the difficulties in the way of its resumption continued to increase, on account of the quarrelsome pretensions of princes. The Cardinal-nephew bent all his efforts to surmount the obstacles. He devoted day and night to the work, imbuing with his views the Sovereign Pontiff himself, inspiring with his zeal the nuncios at the various courts, vying in skill and firmness with diplomatic ministers in order to overcome the prejudices or the ill-will of monarchs. And when, after two years of these difficult negotiations, the Fathers of Trent gathered together once more, Charles was the providence and the tutelary angel of this august assembly. To him it owed its material organization, its political security, the complete independence of its deliberations and their thenceforward uninterrupted continuity. Himself detained at Borne, he was the intermediary between the Pope and the Council. The presiding legates soon gave their full confidence, as is proved from the pontifical archives; to him, as to the ablest counsellor and most reliable support, they daily had recourse in their solicitudes and anxieties.

For her (wisdom’s) sake, says the Wise Man, I shall have glory among the multitude, and honour with the ancients, though I be young;….and the faces of princes shall wonder at me. They shall wait for me when I hold my peace, and they shall look upon me when I speak, and if I talk much they shall lay their hands on their mouths. (Wisdom 8:10-12) Such was truly the case with Saint Charles, at this critical moment of the world’s history. No wonder that divine Wisdom, to whom he listened with such docility, and who inspired him so copiously, rendered his name immortal in the memory of a grateful posterity.

In his Defense of the too famous Declaration, Bossuet, speaking of the Council of Trent which owed its completion to Saint Charles, says that it brought the Church back to the purity of her origin, as far as the iniquity of the times would permit. And when the oecumenical sessions at the Vatican were opened, the Bishop of Poitiers, the future Cardinal Pie, spoke of “that Council of Trent, which deserved, more truly even than that of Nicaea, to be called the great Council; that Council, concerning which we may confidently assert, that since the creation of the world no assembly of men has succeeded in introducing among mankind such great perfection; that Council whereof it has been said that, as a tree of life, it has for ever restored to the Church the vigour of her youth. More than three centuries have elapsed since its labours were completed, and its healing and strengthening virtue is still felt.

“The Council of Trent is perpetuated in the Church by means of the Roman Congregations charged with its continual application, and with ensuring obedience to the pontifical constitutions which have followed and completed it.” Charles suggested the measures adopted for this end by Pius IV, and approved and developed by succeeding Pontiffs. He caused the Liturgical Books to be revised, and the Roman Catechism to be compiled. But first, and in all things, he was himself the living model of the renewed discipline, and thus acquired the right to exercise his zeal for or against others. Rome, initiated by him in the salutary reform, of which it was fitting she should set the first example, was in a few months completely transformed. The three churches now dedicated to Saint Charles within her walls, and the numerous altars which bear his name in other sanctuaries of the holy City, are the testimony of her enduring gratitude.

His administration, however, and his sojourn in Rome lasted only during the six years of Pius IV’s pontificate. On the death of that Pope, in spite of the entreaties of Pius V, whose election was due chiefly to his exertions, Charles set out for Milan, which called for the presence of its Archbishop. For nigh a century, the great Lombard city had scarcely known its pastors save by name; and this abandonment had delivered it, like so many others at that period, to the wolf that catcheth and scattereth the sheep. Our Saint understood far otherwise the responsibility of the cure of souls. He gave himself entirely to this duty, without care for himself, without a thought for the judgments of men, without fear of the powerful. His maxim was: to treat of the interests of Jesus Christ in the spirit of Jesus Christ; his programme, the ordinances of Trent. Charles’s episcopate was the carrying out of the great Council; its living form; the model of its practical application in the whole Church; and the proof of its efficiency, demonstrating that it sufficed for every reform, and could, of itself alone, sanctify both pastor and flock.

We would gladly have given more than a passing notice of these Acts of the church of Milan, which have been lovingly collected by faithful hands, and which show our Saint in so grand a light. Herein, after the six provincial councils and eleven diocesan synods over which he presided, follows the inexhaustible series of general or special mandates dictated by his zeal; pastoral letters, the most remarkable of which is the sublime Memorial written after the plague in Milan; instructions upon the holy Liturgy, upon the tenure of churches, upon preaching, upon the administration of the Sacraments, and notably the celebrated instruction to Confessors; ordinances oonoerning the archiepiscopal court, the chancellorship, canonical visitations; regulations for the archbishop’s domestic family, and his vicars and officials of all ranks, for the parish priests and their meetings in conference (a custom introduced by him), for the Oblates he had founded, the seminaries, schools, and confraternities; edicts and decrees; and lastly various tables, and complete forms of administrative acts, so drawn up that nothing remains but to insert names and dates. It is a true pastoral encyclopedia, which, in its magnificent amplitude, would appear to be the work of a long life; yet Saint Charles died at the early age of forty-six; and moreover all this was written in the midst of trials and combats sufficient to have been his sole pre-occupation.

But it is time to listen to the Church’s account of him.

Charles was born at Milan, of the noble family of Borromeo. His future pre-eminent sanctity was foreshown by a heavenly light shining at night over the room where he was born. He was enrolled in his boyhood in the ranks of the clergy, and soon provided with an Abbey; but he warned his father not to turn its revenues to private use; and as soon as its administration was entrusted to him, he spent all the surplus income on the poor. As a youth he pursued his liberal studies at Payia. He had the greatest love for holy chastity; and several times put to flight, with the greatest firmness, some shameless women sent to tempt him. In the twenty-third year of his age, his uncle Pius IV created him Cardinal; and he adorned that dignity by his great piety and remarkable virtues. Being soon afterwards made Archbishop of Milan, he laboured strenuously to carry out, in his whole diocese, the decrees of the Council of Trent, which had just been concluded mainly through his exertions. To reform the evil customs of his people he held many synods, and moreover was ever himself a perfect model of virtue. He also laboured much to expel the heretics from Switzerland and the country of the Grisons, and converted many of them to the true faith.

The charity of this holy man was strikingly exhibited, when he sold the principality of Oria, and in one day distributed the price, amounting to about forty thousand gold pieces, among the poor. With no less generosity he, on another occasion, distributed twenty thousand gold pieces left him as a legacy. He resigned the many ecclesiastical benefices which his uncle had bestowed upon him, except a few which lie retained for his own necessities and for relieving the poor. When the plague was raging in Milan, he gave up the furniture of his house, even his bed, for the support of the poor, and thenceforward always slept on a bare board. He visited the plague-stricken with unwearied zeal, assisted them with fatherly affection, and, ad- ministering to them with his own hands the Sacraments of th« Church, singularly consoled them. Meanwhile he approached to God in humble prayer as a mediator for his people; he ordered public supplications to be made, and himself walked in the processions, with a rope round his neck, his feet bare and bleeding from the stones, and carrying a cross; and thus offering himself as a votive for the sins of the people, he endeavoured to turn away the anger of God. He strenuously defended the liberty of the Church, and was most zealous in restoring discipline. For this reason some seditious per- sons fired upon him while he was engaged in prayer, but by the divine power he was preserved unharmed.

His abstinence was wonderful: he very often fasted on bread and water, and sometimes took only a little pulse. He subdued his body by night-watchings, a rough hair-shirt and frequent disciplines. He was a great lover of humility and meekness. Even when occupied by weighty business, he never omitted his prayer or preaching. He built many churches, monasteries and colleges. He wrote many works of great value especially for the instruction of bishops; and it was through his care that the catechism for parish-priests was drawn up. At length he retired to a solitary place on Mount Yarallo, where the mysteries of our Lord*s Passion are sculptured in a life-like manner, and there after spending some days in severe bodily mortifications sweetened by meditation on Christ’s, sufferings, he was seized by a fever. He returned to Milan; but the illness growing much worse, he was covered with sackcloth and ashes, and with his eyes fixed on the crucifix he passed to heaven, in the forty-seyenth year of his age, on the third of the Nones of Noyember, in the year of our Lord 1584. He was illustrated by miracles, and was enrolled among the Saints by Pope Paul V.

Successor of Ambrose, you did inherit his zeal for the house of God; your action also was powerful in the Church; and though separated in time by a thousand years, your names are now united in one common glory. May your prayers also mingle before the throne of God for us in these times of decadence; and may your power in heaven obtain for us pastors worthy to continue, or if need be to renew, your work on earth. How obviously applicable to both of you were those words of Holy Writ: What manner of man the ruler of the city isy such also are they that dwell therein. And again: I will fill the soul of the priests with fatness; and my people shall he filled with my good things, saith the Lord.

Rightly did you say, Charles: “Never did Israel hear a more awful threat than this: Lex peribit a sacerdote. Priests are divine instruments, upon whom depends the welfare of the world; their abundance is the riches of all, their default is the ruin of nations.”

And when, from the midst of your priests convoked in synod, you did pass to the venerable assembly of seventeen bishops thy suffragans, thy language became, if possible, still more vehement: “Let us fear lest the angered Judge say to us: If you were the enlighteners of my Church, why have you closed your eyes? If you pretended to be shepherds of the flock, why have you suffered it to stray? Salt of the earth, you have lost your savour. Light of the world, they that sat in darkness and the shadow of death have never seen you shine. You were Apostles; who, then, put your apostolic firmness to the test, since you have done nothing but seek to please men? xou were the mouth of the Lord, and you have made that mouth dumb. If you allege in excuse that the burden was beyond your strength, why did you make it the object of your ambitious intrigues?”

But, by the grace of God blessing thy zeal for the amendment of both sheep and lambs, you could add, Charles: “Province of Milan, take heart again. Behold, thy fathers have come to thee, and are assembled once more for the purpose of remedying thy ills. They have no other care, than to see thee bring forth the fruits of salvation; and for this end they multiply their united efforts.”

My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ be formed in you. Such is the aspiration of the Bride, which will cease only in heaven: and synods, visitations, reformation, decrees concerning preaching and government and ministry, were, in thy eyes, but the manifestation of this one desire of the Church, the expression of the mother’s cry as she brings forth her children.

Deign, blessed Pontiff, to restore in all places the love of holy discipline, wherein the pastoral solicitude that rendered thee so glorious, found the secret of its marvellous fecundity. It may be sufficient for the simple faithful merely to know that among the treasures of the Church there exists, side by side with her doctrine and Sacraments, an incomparable code, the work of ages, an object of legitimate pride to all her sons, whose divine privileges it protects. But the priest, entirely devoted to the Church, cannot serve her usefully without that profound and persevering study, which will give him the understanding of her laws in detail. But clergy and laity alike must beseech God, that the miseries of the times may not impede the meeting of our venerated superiors in the councils and synods prescribed at Trent, and so grandly carried out by thee, Charles, who didst prove by experience their value for the salvation of the world. May heaven, for thy sake, hear our prayer; and then we shall be able to say with thee to the Church: O tender mother, let thy voice cease from weeping, . . . for there is a reward for thy work, saith the Lord; and thy sons shall return out of the land of the enemy. And I will fill the soul of the priests with fatness: and my people shall be filed with my good things.”

– text taken from The Liturgal Year, volume 6, by Prosper Guéranger, 1903