04 November 2007

Feast Day St. Charles Borromeo

Charles Borromeo B Cardinal (RM)
Born Arona, Italy, October 2, 1538; died night of November 3-4, 1584; canonized in 1610; feast day formerly on November 5.
More than saints working great miracles, it is harder to believe that a man born with a silver spoon in his mouth during an age of decadence that defined nepotism should become a saint. Nevertheless, Charles Borromeo was a man of great humility though he had received many worldly benefits very early in life. The patrician with fairy godmothers galore had the spirit of a hardened ascetic. He gives us hope that we, who also live in a corrupt age, can successfully run the race like Saint Paul and reach for the crown of glory God has waiting for each of us.
Charles (Carlo), the second son of Count Gilbert Borromeo, a talented and pious man, and Margaret de Medici, was born in the family castle of Arona on Lake Maggiore. As a boy he was sent to Milan, for his father was determined the his son should receive the education fitting his station in life even though everyone believed that Charles was retarded because he had a speech impediment.
Charles showed signs of a vocation early. He received the tonsure of minor orders at age 12 and was allowed to wear the cassock. He had an unusual gravity of manner and loved to study. One of his masters said of him: "You do not know the young man; one day he will be a reformer of the Church and do wonderful things." This prediction was fulfilled to the letter.
His uncle, Julius Caesar Borromeo, had the young cleric assigned the rich Benedictine Abbey of Saints Gratian and Felinus, at Arona, which had long been enjoyed by his family in commendam. Here he studied for three years. The abbey provided him with some income and his father made him subsist on this limited allowance. Charles, it appears, was always short of money to pay his household expenses for he set a fine table and liked to entertain.
After studying Latin at Milan, at the age of 15, Charles was sent to the University of Pavia to study civil and canon law under Francis Alciati, who was later made a cardinal. By age 22 Charles had earned his doctorate and both his parents were dead.
In 1559 his mother's younger brother, the Cardinal de Medici, was elected pope and took the name Pius IV. In 1560, Pius IV called his nephew Charles to Rome, where the hat of cardinal-deacon awaited him. In his enthusiasm His Holiness appointed Charles in 1561 to administer the vacant see of Milan, but refused to allow him to go there. In his avuncular zeal his also appointed his beloved nephew as the papal legate of Bologna, Romagna, March of Ancona, and Protector of Portugal, the Low Countries, the Catholic cantons of Switzerland, and the Orders of Saint Francis, the Carmelites, Knights of Malta, and others.
Only two years after his arrival in Rome at the age of 22 and still in minor orders, Charles had among his other responsibilities, duties similar to those of the present-day Secretary of State of the Vatican. The pope clearly found it easy to make appointments and had a strong sense of family. Anyone else in this position would have felt that he was one of Saint Peter's seven gold keys. But Borromeo was made of stronger stuff. Perhaps he bowed his head under the weight of so many honors, but he certainly didn't bend his knee. More importantly, he rolled up his sleeves and went to work.
Nevertheless, he led a balanced life. Charles still managed to find the time to play music and engage in sports; to attend to family responsibilities, such as finding husbands for his four sisters.
To the consternation of many, Charles soon was attacking the Roman court. It his eyes it was worthless, with its display of luxury, its low morals, and its stink of treacherous scheming. Loudly he declared his contempt for the practices that defiled it, condemning lechery, praising charity and humility, denouncing abuses and extolling the virtues of a good example. His daring action earned the hostility of many clerics and the reputation as a kill-joy.
As a patron of learning, Charles promoted it among the clergy and laity by instituting a literary academy at the Vatican. The record of its many conferences and studies can be found in Borromeo's Noctes Vaticanae.
In 1562, Pope Pius IV reconvened the Council of Trent, which had opened in 1545 but had been suspended between 1552 and 1562. Charles is credited with keeping the council going for the next two years and hastening it to the completion of its work by reconciling opponents.
During the council Charles's older brother, Count Frederick Borromeo, died, leaving Charles as head of the family. Everyone assumed he would resign his clerical state and marry. But Charles opted to name his uncle Julius as successor, and instead was ordained a priest in 1563 and consecrated archbishop of Milan the following year.
Charles was anxious to travel to Milan and begin implementing the reforms of Trent in his see, but was forced by the growing frailty of his uncle to remain in Rome. He supervised writing of the new catechism, missal, and breviary, and the reform of the liturgy and church music called for by the council. He even commissioned Palestrina's Mass Papae Marcelli.
At last he received permission to travel to Milan and convene a provincial synod (the first of six during his administration) because his see was in great disorder. But in 1565 he was called to the pope's deathbed, where Saint Philip Neri was also present. The new pope Saint Pius V asked him to continue his duties in Rome for a time, but Charles resisted because he wanted to attend to his diocese.
Finally taking over his see in 1566, the 28-year-old Charles modified the luxurious life style he had in Rome, and set himself to apply the principles of the Council of Trent in the reformation of a large, disordered diocese that had been without a resident archbishop for 80 years. At this time the archdiocese of Milan stretched from Venice to Geneva. It comprised 3,000 clergy and 600,000 lay men and women in over 2,000 churches, 100 communities of men, and 70 of women--about the size of the Roman Church in England today.
Born an aristocrat, Charles Borromeo decided he ought to identify himself with the poor of his diocese. He regulated his household and sold household plate and other treasures to raise 30,000 crowns. The whole sum was used to relief the distress of the poor. His almoner was ordered to give poor families 200 crowns monthly. He confessed himself each morning before celebrating Mass (generally to Griffith (Gruffydd) Roberts, author of the well-known Welsh grammar). Borromeo set his clergy an example of virtuous and selfless living, of caring for the needy and sick, of making Christ a reality to society.
Charles is described as having a robust and dignified carriage. His nose was large and aquiline, his color pale, his hair brown, and his eyes blue. He sported a short, unkempt reddish-brown beard until 1574 when he ordered his clergy to shave and, as in everything, set the example himself.
He travelled the length and breadth of his huge diocese. Eventually, Charles overcame his early speech impediment, but his was never able to preach with ease. Nevertheless, he always spoke convincingly, and constantly preached and catechized on his visitations.
To help remedy the people's religious ignorance he established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) and instituted 'Sunday schools'; seminaries were opened for the training of clergy (he was a great benefactor of the English College at Douai that Cardinal Allen called him its founder); the dignity of public worship was insisted upon. It is said he had 3,000 catechists and 40,000 pupils enrolled in the CCD programs of Milan. He arranged retreats for the clergy and encouraged the Jesuits in their educational work. His influence was felt even outside his own diocese and time.
Charles Borromeo was an outstanding figure among Catholic reformers after the Council of Trent, and has been called a second Saint Ambrose. His rigorism in some directions and his imperiousness have not escaped criticism, but such work of his as the religious education of children has been very widely appreciated.
Charles's uncompromising reforms were not carried out without opposition, not least from highly-placed laity whose disorderly lives he curbed with stringent measures. Efforts were made to get him removed from office. In 1567, he aroused the enmity of the Milan Senate over episcopal jurisdiction when he imprisoned several laypersons for their evil lives; when the episcopal sheriff was driven from the city by civil officials, he excommunicated them and was eventually upheld by King Philip II and the pope.
Again his episcopal rights were challenged. Backed by governor Arburquerque, the canons of Santa Maria della Scala in Milan one day refused to allow Borromeo to enter their church. You might imagine the scene: the clergy all gathered together like commandos opposing a rampart of pot-bellied prebendaries against their sworn enemy, fulminating and raising their hands against this godly man. Borromeo pardoned the offense but the pope and king upheld his rights again.
On October 26, 1569, Archbishop Charles Borromeo of Milan, was at evening prayer. He had been attempting to bring order to a corrupt religious group known as the Humiliati, which had no more than 70 members but which possessed the wealth of 90 monasteries. One of the Humiliati, a priest named Jerome Donati Farina, was hired by three friars with the proceeds from selling church decorations to assassinate Borromeo.
Image of Saint Charles Borromeocourtesy of Saint Charles Borromeo Church
He shot at the archbishop as he knelt before the altar during evening prayer. Farina escaped. Charles, thinking himself mortally wounded, commended himself to God. The bullet, however, only struck his clothes in the back, bruising him. He calmly ordered the service to continue. Not long afterwards he obtained a papal bull which dissolved the congregation permanently. After thanksgiving, Charles retired for a few days to a Carthusian monastery to consecrate his life anew to God. When it turned out that the wound was not mortal, Charles Borromeo rededicated himself to the reform of the Church.
He then travelled to the next three valleys of the diocese in the Alps, visiting each of the Catholic cantons, removing ignorant and unworthy clergy, and converting a number of Zwinglians. It is said the Charles possessed the extraordinary gift of being able to instantaneously recognize the gifts and capabilities of those around him. He wished to have an efficient body of priests as auxiliaries to help him in his many works, so gathered together men of exemplary lives known for the sanctity and learning. Anyone showing ambition for place or office would not be tolerated by him.
During the famine of 1570 he managed to find food for 3,000 people a day for three months.
Lombardy was under the civil authority of Philip II of Spain at this time. Tired of the jurisdictional struggles and the political games being played, in 1573 Charles excommunicated the governor Luis de Requesens, who was then removed by Philip. The last two governors learned from this not to mess with the cardinal- archbishop.
In 1575 he went to Rome to gain a jubilee indulgence, and the following year it was published in Milan. Huge crowds of penitents came to Milan. Unfortunately, they brought the plague with them. The governor and other officials fled the city; Charles Borromeo refused, remaining to care for the stricken.
He assembled the superiors of the religious communities and begged them for their help. Many religious lodged in his house. The hospital of Saint Gregory was inadequate and overflowed with the sick and dead, with too few to care for them. He sent for help from priests and lay helpers in the Alpine valleys, because the Milanese clergy would not go near the sick.
As plague choked off commerce, want began. Daily food had to be found for 60,000 to 70,000 people. Borromeo first sold off his large estate at Oria, Naples, to raise money to relieve suffering. Having exhausted his own resources and he began piling up debt to get supplies. Clothes were made from the flags that had been hung from his house to the cathedral during processions. Empty houses were used, and shelters were built for the sick. Altars were set up in the streets so that the sick could attend public worship from their windows. He himself ministered to the sick, in addition to supervising care in the city. The plague lasted from 1576-78.
Even during this period, resentful magistrates tried to make trouble between Charles and the pope. When the plague was over, Charles wanted to establish anew his cathedral chapter on the basis of a common life, but the canons refused. This led him to originate his Oblates of Ambrose (who was also bishop of Milan) (now the Oblates of Saint Charles).
In addition to his connection to the English College at Douai and his Welsh confessor Fr. Roberts, Borromeo appointed another Welshman , Dr. Owen Lewis (later bishop of Calabria), to be his vicar general, and he always had with him a little picture of Saint John Fisher. In 1580, he met, aided, and entertained for a week twelve young priests going on a mission to England. Two preached before him--Saint Ralph Sherwin and Saint Edmund Campion, English martyrs.
A little later the same year, Charles met the 12-year-old Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, to whom he gave his first Communion.
Charles was a martyr in his own way. He travelled under much strain and without enough sleep. In 1584, his health declined. After arranging for the establishment of a convalescents' home in Milan, he went to Monte Varallo to make his annual retreat, accompanied by the Jesuit Father Adorno. He told several people that he was not long for this world, took ill on October 24, and arrived back in Milan on All Souls' Day (November 2), having celebrated Mass for the last time the day before in his hometowm of Arona.
He went to bed, requested the last rites, received them, and died quietly during the early hours of November 4 in the arms of his Welsh confessor, Fr. Roberts, in 1584, aged only 46, with the words, "Behold, I come. Your will be done."
He was buried in Milan Cathedral. A spontaneous cultus arose immediately. Soon after his death the people agreed to build a monument to him--a 28-meter statue set upon a 14-meter pedestal. The statue was called "Carlone" or "Big Charles."
Among Walter Savage Landor's poems is one addressed to Saint Charles, invoking his pity on Milan at the time of the troubles in 1848.
Another of Charles's confessors, Saint Alexander Sauli, a Barnabite clerk regular, followed Charles's example and carried out similar necessary, but unwelcome, religious reforms in Corsica (Attwater, Bentley, Delaney, Encyclopedia, Guissiano, Murray, Orsenigo, Walsh, White, Yeo).
In art his emblem is a cardinal's hat and crozier. Normally he is shown as a cardinal praying before a crucifix, generally barefoot and often with a rope around his neck. Sometimes he is shown (1) kissing the hand of the Blessed Virgin and blessed by the Christ Child; (2) weeping over a book with untouched bread and water nearby; or (3) bringing the Blessed Sacrament to plague victims (Roeder, White).
He is the patron of Roman clergy, seminaries, spiritual directors, catechists, catechumens, and starch makers. Invoked against the plague (Roeder, White).

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