November 3, 2017

Saint Charles Borromeo, Bishop and Reformer

Saint Charles Borromeo

Memorial - November 4th  

Charles Borromeo, the bishop of Milan, came from a wealthy, aristocratic Italian family. He was born in the family castle, and lived a rather lavish life, entertaining sumptuously as befit a Renaissance court. He personally enjoyed athletics, music, art, and the fine dining that went along with lifestyles of the rich and famous of the 16th century. His maternal uncle, from the powerful Medici family, was pope. As was typical of the times, his uncle-pope made him a cardinal-deacon at age twenty-three and bestowed on him numerous offices. He was appointed papal legate to Bologna, the Low Countries, and the cantons of Switzerland, and to the religious orders of St. Francis, the Carmelites, the Knights of Malta, and others.

When Count Frederick Borromeo passed away, many people thought Charles would give up the clerical life and marry upon become head of the Borromeo family. Rather than submit to the worldly trappings of wealth and status, he deferred to another uncle and became a priest. Shortly thereafter he was named bishop of Milan, a city that had not had a resident bishop for over eighty years.

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, he advocated reconvening the Council of Trent at a time when the Church was in desperate need of reform and renewal. Borromeo's words to his fellow bishops at the convocation of the council bespeaks the solemn nature and import of their deliberations: "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 savor. Light of the world, they who have sat in darkness and the shadow of death have never seen you shine."

Although raised to the grand life, Borromeo spent much of his time dealing with hardship and suffering. The famine of 1570 required him to bring in food to feed three thousand people a day for three months. Six years later a two-year plague swept through the region. Borromeo mobilized priests, religious, and the laity to feed and care for the nearly seventy thousand people living in the Alpine villages of his district. He personally cared for the many sick and dying. In the process, Borromeo ran up huge debts, depleting his resources in order to feed, clothe, administer medical care, and help shelter thousands of plague-stricken people.

As if the natural disasters facing Borromeo were not enough, a disgruntled priest from a religious order falling out of favor with Church authorities attempted to assassinate him. As Charles prayed before the altar, the would-be assassin pulled a gun and shot him. At first, Charles thought he was dying, but the bullet never passed through the thick vestments he was wearing. It only bruised him.

St. Charles Borromeo combined the love of the good life with the self-sacrificing zeal one would expect of a Renaissance churchman. Once when he was playing billiards, someone asked what he would do if he knew he only had fifteen more minutes to live. "Keep playing billiards," he replied. He died at age forty-six, not at the billiard table but quietly in bed. O Lord, the spirit with which you filled the Bishop St. Charles Borromeo, that your Church may be constantly renewed and that by conforming herself to Christ's own will, she may show the world his face.

Adapted excerpt The Way of the Saints: Prayers, Practices and... Tom Cowan.

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