Today is the feast day of Saint Charles Borromeo. Ora pro nobis.
We beseech Thee, O Lord, keep Thy Church under the continual protection of Saint Charles Thy Confessor and Bishop; and as his pastoral care made him glorious, so may we through his intercession every grow in fervor of love for Thee. Amen.
Saint Charles Borromeo
Charles was born in the Castle of Arona, a town on the southern shore of the Lago Maggiore in northern Italy on 2 October, 1538. His father was Count Giberto Borromeo, who, about 1530, married Margherita de Medici. Her younger brother was Giovanni Angelo, Cardinal de’ Medici, who became pope in 1559 under the title of Pius IV. Charles was the second son, and the third of six children, of Giberto and Margherita. Charles’ mother died about the year 1547, and his father married again.
The family of Borromeo is one of the most ancient in Lombardy, and has been famous for several great men, both in the church and state. The saint’s parents were remarkable for their discretion and piety. Their family consisted of six children—Count Frederic, who afterwards married the sister of the Duke of Urbino, and our saint, and four daughters; Isabel, who became a nun in the monastery called of the Virgins in Milan; Camilla, married to Caesar Gonzaga, Prince of Malfetto; Jeronima, married to Fabricio Gesualdi, eldest son to the Prince of Venosa; and Anne, married to Fabricio, eldest son of Mark-Antony Colonna, a Roman prince and Viceroy of Sicily. All these children were very virtuous. Anne, though engaged in the world, imitated all the religious exercises and austerities of her brother Charles, prayed many hours together with a recollection that astonished everyone; and, in order to increase the fund of her excessive charities, retrenched every superfluous expense in her table, clothes, and housekeeping. By her virtue and the saintly education of her children, she was the admiration of all Italy and Sicily, and died at Palermo in 1582.
His early years were passed partly in the Castle of Arona, and partly in the Palazzo Borromeo at Milan. At the age of twelve his father allowed him to receive the tonsure, and, upon the resignation of his uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, he became titular Abbot of Sts. Gratinian and Felinus at Arona.
St. Charles learned Latin and humanity at Milan, and was afterwards sent by his father to the university of Pavia, where he studied the civil and canon law under Francis Alciat, the eminent civilian. St. Charles, though on account of an impediment in his speech, and his love of silence, was by some esteemed slow, yet, by the soundness of his judgment and a diligent application, made good progress in it.
And the prudence, piety, and strictness of his conduct rendered him a model of the youth in the university, and proof against evil company and all other dangers, which he watchfully shunned. Such was the corruption of that place that several snares were laid for his virtue; but prayer and retirement were his arms against all assaults, and the grace of God carried him through difficulties which seemed almost insurmountable. He communicated every eight days, after the example of his father, and shunned all connections or visits which could interrupt his regular exercises or hours of retirement; yet was he very obliging to all who desired to speak to him. His father’s death brought him to Milan in 1558; but when he had settled the affairs of his family with surprising prudence and address, he went back to Pavia, and after completing his studies, took the degree of doctor in the laws towards the end of the year 1559.
Saint Charles Borromeo
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
The great and holy Charles Borromeo is justly accounted one of the most celebrated Saints that lived in the sixteenth century, and who, by their virtues and the miracles they performed, made the Catholic Church glorious in the very face of her enemies. Charles was born of very illustrious parents, in 1538, at the castle of Arona, fourteen miles from Milan. A bright light which shone above the castle at the time of Charles’ birth, and which, sending its rays afar off, continued for over two hours, was doubtless a sign of the great virtue and holiness with which this new-born child would ornament and illuminate the Church of Christ.
Charles, even in childhood, evinced great inclination for the religious state, as he imitated at home everything he saw the priests do at Church. In later years, when he began his studies, he served as a model of virtue to every one. His purity he kept inviolate amidst the greatest dangers; no one ever heard him speak an unchaste word, and if others said anything that in the least offended his ear, he immediately withdrew, and carefully avoided all frivolous, idle or disobedient youths.
As soon as he had arrived at the proper age, Pope Pius IV. called him to Rome, and bestowed upon him the Cardinal’s hat, with the Archbishopric of Milan. When afterwards his brother died without issue, the friends of the family urged Charles to abandon the clerical state in order to perpetuate his lineage; but he remained constant in his resolution to serve the Lord in celibacy. He had assisted at the Council of Trent; and was the first who endeavored to reform his See in perfect accordance with its decrees. He made the beginning at his own court, which he composed of priests to whom he prescribed certain regulations, by the observance of which, they might become perfect laborers for the vineyard of the Lord.
His resolve, on becoming a prelate of the Church, had been: “I will either be no Cardinal and Archbishop, or I will endeavor to gain such virtues as are in accordance with my dignity.” And it may be truly said that the Saint possessed, in an eminent degree, all those virtues which a prelate of such high standing ought to possess. He held many councils, and made the most wholesome regulations to exterminate abuses and to restore Christian morals. Of his revenues as bishop nothing went to his relatives, but all to promote the honor of God and to assist the poor.
The number of churches he built and restored, as well in his own diocese as elsewhere, is almost incredible. All these he most liberally endowed. Above the door of each church, he placed an image of the Blessed Virgin, not only to admonish all to honor her, but also to teach them to seek through her, admittance to Christ, our Mediator and Redeemer. He erected many religious houses for both sexes, that God Almighty might be praised by their inmates, and His blessing drawn down by their prayers. He also built many hospitals for the sick, and several for houseless strangers, for orphans, and for women who desired to lead a better life. He also instituted schools for children, and seminaries for students of theology, so that his parishes might be filled with pious, learned and zealous priests.
Besides this, he instituted a society of priests, whom he named Oblates, to be employed in preaching and other spiritual functions. To secure to his Episcopal city the benefits of a truly Christian education of the highest order, he introduced the priests of the Society of Jesus at Milan, and gave them a college and a magnificent church. Those who knew all the rich foundations he made, deemed it impossible that one Cardinal could collect so much money as he spent, especially as he had resigned all other benefices which he had received from the Pope, desiring to live only upon the income of his Archbishopric. Still more wonderful and miraculous was the fact, that, besides supporting the above-mentioned foundations, he had yet so much left him to comfort the poor.
His palace was always open to all the poor and to strangers, especially to religious; and all received not only food, but also alms, devout books, rosaries, etc. He had two servants whose only duty was to distribute alms. One of them had the care of the poor who came to the palace; the other carried the alms to the houses of the indigent. After the death of his brother, Saint Charles had been declared, by Philip II., of Spain, heir to the principality of Oria, the annual income of which was nearly 10,000 ducats. Of this he used not one farthing for himself or his relatives, but gave one part of it to the poor, the other to churches and hospitals. From the great care he took of the temporal welfare of the poor, we can easily conclude how great must have been his solicitude for the souls of those under him.
He was a perfect model of a watchful shepherd. Inexpressibly great were the pains he took to drive away’ from his flock the heretics who, at that period, wandered about like ravenous wolves; and to keep his own in the fold of Christ, the true Church. He preached in several churches, not only on Sundays and Feast-days, but also during the week. He admonished and instructed the people in their own houses, visited the sick and comforted the dying. He strove to uproot the bad customs which prevailed at the carnival. He visited his entire diocese, accompanied by several priests. There was not a town or village to which he did not go. Everywhere he renewed the churches, preached, gave instructions, administered the holy Sacraments, and exhorted all to lead a Christian life.
None could understand how the holy Cardinal, whose health was delicate, could bear so much fatigue in traveling, without permitting heat or cold, snow or rain to prevent him. His apostolic zeal and untiring care for his beloved flock made all labor and hardship easy to him. The most splendid proof of this solicitude he gave in 1575, when the pestilence ravaged Milan for several months. To save his life from the terrible disease, he was begged to leave the city; but he could not be persuaded. ” A good shepherd,” said he, ” gives his life for his sheep.” Hence he remained, and he assigned priests for every street, that no one might die without the holy Sacraments. He himself went into the houses of those stricken down, especially into those of the poor, heard their confession, administered the holy Sacraments to them and attended to their bodily comfort.
The number of poor, who came to him from other places for aid, was so great, that for want of money, he divided among them the provisions which had been stored away for his own use. He also sold his plate and the furniture of his house, and gave the money to the needy. The hangings of the walls, the curtains of the windows, and even his own clothes were not spared : everything was given away to assist the poor. His own bed was carried into the hospital, and he took his short rest on some hard boards. These were surely proofs of his great love for his neighbor.
Further, the holy Cardinal ordered several penitential processions to avert the anger of God. He himself appeared in them, barefoot, with a rope around his neck and a heavy cross on his shoulders. He offered to the Almighty his own life, ready and willing to die for his sheep. After the pestilence had disappeared, he gave due thanks to the Almighty, and enjoined upon all to do the same. When some one justly praised his zeal, he said: ” I have only fulfilled the duties of a true shepherd towards his sheep.” We should fill many pages were we to attempt to describe the devotion and virtues of this holy man.
He possessed in an eminent degree the spirit of prayer, and employed several hours of the day and of the night in contemplation. At the time of the ” Forty hours’ devotion,” he more than once remained in church from early morning until evening. He fasted almost daily, and in the last years of his life, on water and bread. During the 40 days’ fast, he even abstained from bread, and ate only a few figs. He always wore a rough hair-shirt, and scourged himself mercilessly. He never warmed himself at the fire during the winter, and allowed himself very little time to sleep, constantly mortifying his body. But above all, how admirable were his heroic patience and fortitude under vicissitudes, his winning gentleness, his deep humility, and his perfection in other virtues! He, however, closed early a life so fruitful in good and great deeds.
Although the Cardinal was still in his best years, he resigned himself to the will of the Almighty, when an inner voice told him that his death was near. He made a pilgrimage to Mount Varallo, where he spent 15 days in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, under the direction of a priest of the Society of Jesus, whom he had chosen as his confessor. He cleansed his soul, which had never been stained by a mortal sin, by a general confession. Feeling that he was attacked by the disease which he knew would release him from earth, he returned to Milan where he arrived on the second day of November. On the third, he received the holy Sacraments with great devotion, and desiring to die like a penitent, he had himself laid upon haircloth strewed with ashes. Continually praying, he remained in this penitential position until the third hour after sundown, when, raising his eyes to the image of the Savior, he gave his soul to his Maker, in the 47th year of his life.
It would require a whole volume to relate all the miracles which the Almighty wrought to honor this untiring servant, as well during his life as after his death. The splendid example of his virtues is sufficient to merit our highest esteem. I will only add that the holy Cardinal, after his death, appeared to one of his friends, radiant with heavenly glory, and said : “I am happy.” (1)
Devotion to him as a saint was at once shown and gradually grew, and the Milanese kept his anniversary as though he were canonized. This veneration, at first private, became universal, and after 1601 Cardinal Baronius wrote that it was no loger necessary to keep his anniversary by a requiem Mass, and that the solemn Mass of thedau should be sung. Then materials were collected for his canonization, and processes were begun at Milan, Pavia, Bologna, and other places. In 1604 the cause was sent to the Congregation of Rites. Finally, 1 November, 1610, Paul V solemnly canonized Charles Borromeo, and fixed his feast for the 4th day of November.
The position which Charles held in Europe was indeed a very remarkable one. The mass of correspondence both to and by him testifies to the way in which his opinion was sought. The popes under whom he lived — as has been shown above — sought his advice. The sovereigns of Europe, Henry III of France, Philip II, Mary Queen of Scots, and others showed how they valued his influence. His brother cardinals have written in praise of his virtues. Cardinal Valerio of Verona said of him that he was to the well-born a pattern of virtue, to his brother cardinals an example of true nobility. Cardinal Baronius styled him “a second Ambrose, whose early death, lamented by all good men, inflicted great loss on the Church”.
It is a matter of interest to know that Catholics in England late in the sixteenth or at the beginning of the seventeenth century had circulated some life of St. Charles in England. Doubtless some knowledge of him had been brought to England by Blessed Edmund Campion, S.J., who visited him at Milan in 1580, on his way to England, stopped with him some eight days, and conversed with him every day after dinner. Charles had much to do with England in the days of his assistance to Pius IV, and he had a great veneration for the portrait of Bishop Fisher. Charles also had much to do with Francis Borgia, General of the Jesuits, and with Andrew of Avellino of the Theatines, who gave great help to his work in Milan. (1)
Image: Intercession of Charles Borromeo supported by the Virgin Mary, Artist: Johann Rottmayr Fresco (14)
Research by REGINA Staff