The True Reformation of Charles Borromeo

Today is the feast of Saint Charles Borromeo (1538-1584), who, in his relatively brief life, filled more than most men in three lives. He was one of the rather rare good fruits of nepotism, being none other than the Pope’s nephew, from a noble family lineage.  Said Pontiff, Pius IV, recognizing the qualities in the young Charles, then but 22 years old, appointed him a cardinal in 1560, and this back in the days when that office went along with much political power, riches, largesse, and, if one so desired, a life of ease and luxury.

Charles chose the precise opposite, dedicating himself to his vocation with an extraordinary zeal, promoting what is curiously and erroneously termed the ‘Counter Reformation’, but which was in fact the true Reformation of the Church of Christ.  He promoted austerity and discipline amongst the clergy, as well as piety and learning, leading always by example.  And it was Cardinal Borromeo who, almost by sheer force of his own will, intellect and holiness, brought the third session of the Council of Trent to an admirable and glorious conclusion, which clarified and solidified the Church’s doctrine in the face of the Protestant, well, what shall we call it in the spirit of ecumenism, the Protestant questioning?

Charles was ordained a priest in 1563 (cardinals up until quite recently could be, and sometime were, laymen), and was appointed Archbishop of Milan a year later, in 1564.  His reforms there met with much resistance, even an attempt on his life, but he again led by his own saintly example, putting into practical effect the reforms called for by the recently completed Tridentine Council.  By his diplomacy and numerous writings, he influenced the Church in this tumultuous time, as well as world affairs, including the troubling state of the Church in England. Edmund Campion, the great Jesuit and future martyr, stayed with Bishop Charles for eight days of prayer and conversation, before his fateful return to England.

His advice to his priests stands in good stead for us all:

Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue and how, if you are already recollected at prayer, you can be even more attentive next time, and so give God more pleasing worship? Listen, and I will tell you. If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God. Do not spend your time in useless chatter.

‘Stay quiet with God‘ is invaluable advice in our technological era of constant noise and distraction, counsel reiterated powerfully and providentially for our own day by another saintly cardinal, Robert Sarah, whose book on the Power of Silence comes highly recommended.

Charles Borromeo was the patron and intercessor of a future bishop who carried his name, Karol Wojtyla (who often invoked the prayers of his predecessor, and himself celebrated this day). Their lives in many ways were parallel, both reformers of the Church in the heady days after a great Council. They lived in different eras, and their outlooks coloured by this (Charles is now criticized for his treatment of ‘heretics’, but Church-State relations were quite different in the 16th century than they are now).

Bishops Wojtyla and Borromeo were both great saints, pillars of the Church, who sought the lowest place (young Karol at first desired to be a Carthusian, and we may be thankful that his spiritual director convinced him otherwise).  Both were brought up to the highest, by the grace and providence of God, and we should pray that all of our pastors, bishops and priests imbibe some large share of their spirit of dedication, magnanimity and holiness.

Saint Charles Borromeo, ora pro nobis!