St. Charles

(1538-1584)

In the 16th century there were many abuses in the way the Catholic Church was run. The Protestant Reformation did not correct them. (You can never correct an institution by leaving it.) But credit must still be given to the Protestant reformers for arousing Catholic leaders out of their lethargy. The result was the great ecumenical council of Trent, which brought about true reform.

St. Charles Borromeo is an ideal representative of the Catholic-Church-unreformed and the Catholic-Church-reformed.

One of the pre-reformation abuses in papal practice, for instance, was that of a pope’s naming his own relatives to high positions. As late as 1559, when Cardinal John Medici was elected pope (Paul IV), he named Charles Borromeo, his nephew, a Cardinal, although Charles was only 22 years old and still not ordained a priest! The pope brought him to Rome and gave him all sorts of important jobs. Time proved, however, that Paul IV had selected the right man. Charles was embarrassed by his position, but a holy archbishop assured him that he should take advantage of it so as to help the Church to correct bad habits.

Cardinal Charles forged ahead on that basis. He became the leader in reconvening the reformist Council of Trent and guiding it on to its splendid conclusion. Among his special contributions was the great handbook of Catholic teaching, the Catechism of the Council of Trent.

Once the council’s work was done, of course, it had to be put into effect. (Our own experience since 1965 reminds us how difficult it can be to put a lot of new Church laws into effect – even very good laws.) Charles had been officially archbishop of Milan since 1560. Now he left Rome and went to his diocese, intent on enforcing the reform laws that he had played so great a part in framing.

Prayerfully and with great diligence, he worked to make better Catholics out of his own archdiocesans and the rest of the Catholics under his jurisdiction in northern Italy and Switzerland. He enacted laws in local councils. He established the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, which instructed 40,000 children at Sunday schools. He encouraged new religious orders. He established seminars for training better priests. (Once he said, “Ah, you do not realize the worth of the life of one good priest!”) From 1575 to 1578 the bubonic plague hit Milan and its vicinity. Most of the city fathers fled, but the Cardinal Archbishop stayed in the city and took care of the plague-ridden with his own hands. Reforming people is more difficult, it seems, than bringing them to first conversion. St. Charles had to face not only stubborn non-cooperation, but violent rejection on the part of those who needed to be reformed.

Thus the “chapter of canons” of the Church of Santa Maria della Scala declared that they would not allow the archbishop to make an official visitation of inquiry there, as he was supposed to do in all his churches. When he came to call, these priests slammed the door in his face. They appealed to the governor, who at first sided with the rebels and threatened to banish the Cardinal.

Then there was the religious order of the Humiliati. In its earlier years, these had done much good work. Now, however, the members were so unwilling to accept the new regulations that one of their priests named Farina shot the Cardinal point-blank as he knelt in prayer. Oddly, indeed miraculously, the bullet, though it penetrated his clothing, only raised a bruise on the victim’s skin.

In the 1920s, the then archbishop of Milan gave to the Church of St. Borromeo in Rochester, New York a part of a vestment that St. Charles was wearing when he was “assassinated”. It is a precious reminder of the great work that St. Charles did to infuse new life into Christianity.

It is also a reminder of the problems that any pope and any bishop will have, even today, when they do their duty to renew those of us who object because we think more of what we want than of what God wants!

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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